Hey there partner!
So, you want to write a Weird West story? Part of capturing that atmosphere is making sure your characters sound like they’re in the Old West. Like any time period, people back then had a language all their own – and a special way of slinging their sentences.
If you want your characters to fit in and your story to feel authentic, you’ll have to learn how to do the same.
While you probably don’t want your characters talking like they’re in a Spaghetti Western, you also want to convey a sense of place and time to your reader. Read on for tips on how to strike a good balance between readability and style.
Quick Tips on Old West Talk
First up, some quick tips on how to start to get into the mindset of Old West dialog. Follow these simple rules and your characters will be speaking like a regular Old West resident in no time!
- For a classic “stoic cowboy” approach or character, use short sentences with no frills. For this archetype, make sure words are meaningful—they should speak only when they have something to say and don’t have them waste the words they have.
- Don’t be afraid to convey slowness or pauses between sentences.
- Use analogies relevant to the times (“slow as molasses”). See more on that below.
- Liberally use “sir/ma’am” at the ends of sentences (“It’s a fine day out there, sir.”) Even in the Old West, some sense of formality remained.
- Gunslingers, cowhands and lawmakers more often than not say “howdy” as their greeting for everyone. If they’re feeling especially friendly, use “howdy pardner!”
- Use apostrophes sparingly to convey dialect: ‘fore instead of before, ‘gain
- Read archival newspaper clippings from the time to help get into the mindset of the way people thought back then.
How To Curse In the Old West
Interesting enough, cursing was pretty different back then than most people realize. Of note, the “F word” was probably used less than depicted in popular culture (details in this essay: www.notesfromthefrontier.com/amp/frontier-cussing). It is hard to know exactly the extent of profanity in the Old West, since stronger curse words were unlikely to be captured in print records.
There were mildly naughty swear words, some of which we recognize today: damn, crap, bitch, bastard, and shit in its many variants. But, “Dad” was usually used in place of God, as in “dad-blame it.” Dratted was used for damned, “Dickens” for devil, and “tarnation” for hell. —Frontier Cussing
For some colorful examples of cursing, check out this list from Buddies in the Saddle (I especially like “gosh all fish hooks!”).
Note Of Caution: Striking The Right Balance
This is a personal preference, but also reflects feedback I’ve heard from editors: be careful to not get too immersed in stylistic dialect. It can be distracting and slow down the reader. You only need a few artful embellishes to convey the sense of history. See the difference in these two examples:
“I hafta git to muh lil’ lady ‘fore she runs off with ol’ Billie Jones.”
“I’ve gotta get to my little lady ‘fore she runs off with that old Billie Jones.”
The second does just as good a job of conveying dialog of the time, but see how much easier it is to read? Again, this is a personal preference, but I’ve found going lighter on dialect tends to make for a better reading experience.
Resources for Old West Dialog
Here are some of my favorite resources for Old West slang to make your characters’ dialog more colorful, including common analogies of the time.
- Article: Old West Insults & Sayings – https://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-insults/
- Article: Western Slang, Lingo and Phases – https://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-slang/13/
- Article: Top 100 Cowboy Expressions and Phrases – https://coloradotrails.com/blog/top-100-cowboy-expressions-and-phrases
- Book: Frontier Slang, Lingo & Phrases
- Bonus reference! Lingo Generator is a fun site in the spirit of Google Translator: https://lingojam.com/OldWestSpeakGenerator