Friday, August 20, 2021

What do Murder, Jokes, and Air Have to Do with it? (Wild West Sayings We Use Today)

Diving into the history of words is not only entertaining. It can teach you something. Researching for this blog series always turns discoveries for me. Words and their histories teaches us about the past but also our present reality. So, what do murder, jokes, and air have to do with Wild West sayings we use today? Read on, my friend.

Wild West Sayings We Use Today, Part 26


Sometimes idioms surprise you. Take, p’shaw, for example. Would you guess that this way of expressing contempt, disdain, impatience, and/or a sense of absurdity dates from 1670 or earlier? Websters Dictionary lists p’shaw as ‘of imitative origin.’ P'shaw appears to be an example of onomatopoeia, the practice of naming words (like hiss or buzz) to imitate the sounds they make. P’shaw is thought to replicate the sound of air released in disgust through closed lips. We've all been there, right?

Historical Reference:

‘"Pshaw! Why do ye bother yourself wid texts, man, about so small a matter?" interrupted the landlady’ (James Fenimore Cooper; The Pioneers; 1823).

Example: “Pshaw! I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Pulling My| Your| His| Her| Our Leg

In the Wild West, people used ‘pulling my leg’ in the same way we do today—to be teasingly deceived by another person. It’s nice to know that folks have enjoyed a good joke for centuries.

Historical Reference: This expression is of unknown origin, but it is first recorded in Always Ready, or, Every One His Pride, a Novel by an unknown author (1859):

“I intend leaving as soon as possible; for I know, if I remain here, you will both spoil me by your kindness.”

“Not a bit of it,” said Ned, giving one of his hearty laughs. “I know you are pulling my leg,” continued he, “but I’ll tell you candidly what it is, Harry—we shall both miss you.”

Example: “I know you are pulling my leg when you say are too busy to go shopping!”

Raise Cain

This slang term for making a ruckus goes all the way back to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve’s sons. In the book of Genesis, Abel sacrificed to God the first fruits of his labor, whereas his brother offered God “the fruit of the ground.” Abel’s gift was one of faith, because he trusted that more of a harvest would follow. Hebrews 11:4 confirms this: “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he received approval as righteous, God bearing witness by accepting his gifts.”

When God favored Abel’s sacrifice over his own, Cain became jealous and killed his brother. God banished Cain from farming, thus removing the source of supply he’d hoarded away from God. Cain was forced to wander the Earth in a fruitless existence the rest of his days.

Someone who raises Cain engages in actions that are violent and disturbing, just as Cain did. To fully understand the expression, we must go back to an earlier (14th-century) sense of ‘raise,’ which meant to summon a spirit. However, ‘raise Cain’ refers not to a spirit but to the sinful nature of mankind.

Historical Reference:

By the time this saying made it into print, it was common enough to inspire a joke. That is the form its first recorded use takes. “Why have we every reason to believe that Adam and Eve were both rowdies? Because … they both raised Cain” (The Daily Pennant newspaper, May 2, 1840 edition).

Example: They went out last night and raised Cain.

I’m curious. Did the background of any of the sayings surprise you? Leave a comment and let me know.

What's New with Janalyn Voigt

Janalyn Voigt
I'm currently on deadline for The Whispering Wind, the second installment in the Montana Treasure western historical romance series. For those following the series, this is Phoebe's story. This tough-but-sweet complex gal is one of my favorites, but I almost killed her off. That's right. In order to prove my theme in Cheyenne Sunrise (Montana Gold, book 2), an innocent character had to die. Phoebe was an enchanting three-year-old elf and the most likely victim. In fact, I'd created her for that purpose. 

Stories don't always go as you plan, and Phoebe grew into such a charming lass that my editor and publisher, Miralee Ferrell, proclaimed herself traumatized by Phoebe's untimely passing. I took the matter under consideration and determined that a minor character could die in Phoebe's place. Miralee thanked me profusely. We still pass comments about the matter while working back-and-forth on the books. Both of us are very glad that Phoebe survived.

For the curious, here's a bit about me:

Janalyn Voigt fell in love with literature at an early age when her father read chapters from classics as bedtime stories. When Janalyn grew older, she put herself to sleep with tales "written" in her head. Today Janalyn is a storyteller who writes in several genres. Romance, mystery, adventure, history, and whimsy appear in all her novels in proportions dictated by their genre. Janalyn Voigt is represented by Wordserve Literary.

Learn more about Janalyn and visit the bookstore at

The Promise Tree (Montana Treasure, book 1)

A preacher’s daughter shouldn’t encourage a troublemaker—no matter what her wayward heart desires.

Liberty has always believed she should marry a man of God, but Jake doesn’t qualify. The promises they’d made at age twelve can’t change that. If only Jake would stop pursuing her, she might keep from falling in love with him.

Jake fears he’ll lose Liberty to Beau, the new man in town. He doesn’t trust the smooth-talker—and certainly not with Liberty. Expressing his opinion sounds jealous and pushes Liberty further away. Jake’s efforts to forget the woman he loves lands him in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.

A bounty hunter on the trail of a notorious outlaw gallops into town, and Liberty finds herself in unexpected peril. When Jake rides after her, he faces a test of faith. Jake and Liberty must each overcome their own false beliefs. Only then can they experience the truth of God’s redeeming love.

Set during a troubled time in America, the Montana Treasure series explores faith, courage, and love in the Wild West. Read this heartwarming story to affirm your faith in love.


  1. Thanks for the post, as always I loved reading it! I guess I was surprised the most by the fact that "raising Cain" is a more serious term than the way I hear it used, or use it myself. I always considered it rough-housing or just being mischievous but clearly that's not the case.

    1. Hi, Connie. 'Raising Cain' has a serious background story but it is used mildly nowadays, just as you suggest.

  2. I grew up in a tiny town in the Pacific Northwest. These are sayings that were used all the time by my grandpa and uncles!

  3. Hello, Cindi. I'm in the Pacific Northwest, too. I believe that all these terms received more use in the past. Also, in some areas of the country they are called upon more frequently than others.