Looking Forward to San Antonio: Playing Cowboys and Idioms, By Lydia Stone

Since our next ATA Conference will be in San Antonio, the heart of cowboy country (witness the boot motif in the conference announcements), I thought I might discuss some of the English idioms and phrases based on cowboy life.  What would a city girl raised in New York, who never rode a horse in her life, know about cowboys?  You might well ask.  It is true that I spent 13 glorious years in Colorado.  However, life in Boulder during the late 60’s and 70’s, while wild enough in its way, was not quite in the wild West mode of the cowboys.  Very well, I will stick to phrases filtered through (or even originated by) popular media (films, TV, songs, etc.).  Surely their cultural influence reached everyone, no matter how Eastern or urban.  Even my quintessentially New York mother, who developed a fear of animals when her father lifted her up to pat a policeman’s horse and who never willingly watched even a highbrow horse opera,  in her 90’s under heavy pain medication in the hospital, told me that she had shot 5 buffalo the previous day.

Back in the saddle again. Meaning: back at work (much less negative than back in harness); may even mean back home, back where one is meant to be. Origin: 1939 popular song by iconic cowboy actor/singer Gene Autry. The first lines are: I`m back in the saddle again./ Out where a friend is a friend/Where the longhorn cattle feed/On the lowly gypsum weed.  Obviously, whatever one may now think about longhorns and gypsum weed, the original connotation of the phrase was positive. Usage example: From the web: Back in the saddle again: How to Overcome Fear of Riding after a Motorcycle Accident

Beat (someone) to the draw. Meaning: react more quickly than someone else, especially in a competitive situation.  Origin: not documented, but most likely, from innumerable showdowns in cowboy movies where the one who is quickest on the draw (is the first to snatch his gun from its holster at his belt and shoots it) is the one who wins and, incidentally survives. (There are few flesh wounds or misses in these movies.)  No longer need have a negative connotation. Usage example: I had been meaning to invite our new neighbors to dinner, but they beat me to the draw.

Bet the ranch. Meaning: be so certain that something will happen that you risk everything on the possibility. Frequently used in the negative: don’t bet the ranch on it = don’t be so certain.  Origin: not documented per se, but ranch is a word that only came into English with the old West’s cattle culture. One pictures the numerous movie bar scenes of cowboys and ranchers, who have come into town after long periods on the range, sitting around a table drinking and gambling. Usage example: So you think you can beat me at tennis? Don’t bet the ranch on it. (Note: you bet your boots, which is almost always used in the positive sense of “you can be sure of it,” certainly also seems to hark back to cowboys, though I can find no documentation.)

Bite the dust. Meaning: down (literally, fallen from a horse), dead (only used ironically), defeated, ruled out. Origin: Used so often that it is considered a cowboy movie cliché, but the phrase lick the dust appears in the Bible (Psalms 72) and was first used in exact form in English in 1750. Usage example: It costs that much money?? Well, another good idea bites the dust?

Cowboys and Indians: Meaning: refers to a children’s game of chase or mock combat in which some children assume the role of “cowboys” and others “Indians.” May be used generally to refer to any similar noisy play especially by small boys.( PC Alert: may not be considered an acceptable phrase by some.) Origin: clearly comes not from a phrase used by actual cowboys but from results of frequent exposure to movies targeted at this age group.  Usage example: The wedding reception was a disaster. No one had the nerve to tell the bride’s nephews to take their game of cowboys and Indians outside.

Get (the Hell) out of Dodge. Meaning: Original: We do not want “your kind” here, with the implication of if you do not leave you will be in big trouble.  Adopted by the 1960’s and 1970’s youth culture to mean simply let’s get out of here or, more colloquially, let’s blow this joint. Origin: Dodge City, Kansas, starting in the 1870s was publicized in the media as the quintessential lawless frontier town, the “Sodom of the West,” associated with the largely fictional exploits of the real Marshal Wyatt Earp trying to maintain order, in many Western films and dime novels.  The radio and later television series “Gunsmoke” ran from 1952-61 and 1955-75, respectively and featured the efforts of the fictional Marshal Matt Dylan (a much more respectable character than Earp) to maintain order in Dodge. Whether or not Dylan actually repeatedly told bad guys to get out of Dodge (as an alternative to being shot) is open to debate.  The word Hell was certainly not permitted in the media of that time.  Equally certain is the fact that this is the origin of the double life of this phrase.  Usage Example: We have rules in this place; either follow them or get the Hell outta Dodge.

(Heading for) the last roundup. Meaning approaching death, or at least the end of useful life.  Virtually always used ironically or jocularly.  May be used of a piece of equipment as well as a living thing. Source: From a ludicrous song originally recorded by Gene Autry in 1933, purportedly sung by a dying cowboy.  Here is the second verse: I’m heading for the last roundup/To the far away ranch of the Boss in the sky/Where the strays are counted and branded there go I/I’m headed for the last roundup.  Usage Example: Just because I have white hair, doesn’t mean people should treat me as if I’m headed for the last roundup.

Meanwhile back at the ranch: Phrase used jocularly to introduce a change of subject or return to an earlier topic.  Origin: Used as a caption in silent movies and radio dramas to signal a change in the scene of the action.  The word ranch indicates the cowboy drama context. Usage example: After a digression to some other topic: Meanwhile back at the ranch, what are we going to do about the leak in the ceiling?

Ride off into the sunset: Meaning: may mean either to have finished a chapter in one’s life and moved on into another, unspecified, one or to disappear from someone’s life, especially after having solved a problem for them. Origin: from a Western movie cliché, in which the good guy who has arrived in a troubled town and solved whatever grave problem it was experiencing with bad guys, gets on his horse and rides west in the direction of the picturesque setting sun.  (As someone points out on the Internet, it is fairly foolish to ride off into the wilderness at sunset, when you will only have to camp when as soon as it gets dark.) Much better to spend the night in town and leave at dawn. ) Usage example: George Washington would have been content to ride off into the sunset after a first term, but he could not withstand the pressure to serve another one.

Shoot from the hip: Meaning: to speak or act without taking time to think first, recklessly or impulsively.  Origin: Both real and movie cowboys kept their guns in holsters on their hips. In close-up showdown duels with another “gunslinger,” such as occurred regularly in movies and perhaps even in real life, survival depended on being the first to draw and shoot, so that guns were fired the instant they were free from the holster, i.e., at the level of the hip.  It goes without saying that aim from this position could only have been reliable at very close range. Usage example: That is a very good question and I do not want to answer it by shooting from the hip.

White hats: Meaning: heroes or good guys, especially in a certain context, as distinguished from villains or bad guys (black hats). (In the computer world a “white hat hacker” is one who finds security weaknesses and reports them to the owner so they can be fixed.) Origin: a primitive costuming device in many early unsophisticated Westerns to allow the audience to readily distinguish good guys from bad. (Note: there is no evidence that there was any actual correlation between hat color and character in the West, and given the deplorable lack of dry-cleaners and similarly unfortunate amount of dust in frontier towns, any white hat would not have remained so for long. Usage example: From the web: do not expect a simple black-hat/white-hat duality in this cop and gangster movie.

Hope to see y’all in San Antonio!