Friday, May 20, 2022

Wild West Sayings We Use Today, Part 34

Bannack, Montana Jail
Bannack, Montana Jail

Wild West Sayings We Use Today, Part 34

It's time for another deep-dive into Wild West idioms and their histories. But first, let's discuss the image, above. This is a picture of the original jail in Bannack, Montana. When Sheriff Henry Plummer erected this building, he oriented the windows to offer his prisoners a sobering view of the gallows. Little did the sheriff realize that one day he would gaze through these barred windows himself. Sheriff Plummer and the dramatic events in Bannack comprise the historical background of Hills of Nevermore (Montana Gold, book 1).


They called a tight-fisted person a skinflint in the Wild West, just as we do today. We don't know the genesis of this slang term, but several theories provide clues.

Lexicographer Craig M. Carver suggests that 'skinflint' came from a thrifty practice of certain riflemen. Flintlock rifles contained a small piece of flint. A flint, if you don't know, is a fragment of hard rock that sparks easily. Modern cigarette lighters use flints to generate sparks. When someone pulled the trigger of a flintlock rifle, the spring-loaded cock struck the flint against a steel plate. This sent a shower of sparks into a pan below the plate. The priming powder in the pan ignited the charge in the bore, firing the rifle. When a rifle flint wore out, most people replaced it. However, a miserly individual would pull out a knife and sharpen, or “skin,” the flint.

Another idea is that ‘skinflint’ derived from ‘skin the flint,’ an earlier idiom denoting a person who ensured frugality through excessive measures. The existence of similar phrases (shave a louse, shave a flea, and the French shave an egg) makes this theory seem likely. 

Both of these suggestions may be true, for all we know. 

Historical Reference: ‘Skinflint’ was first recorded in A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew by B. E. Gent (1699): “Skin-flint, a griping, sharping, close-fisted Fellow.”

‘To skin a flint’ made its print debut in a poem from The Legend of Captaine Jones: relating his adventure to sea, his first landing, and strange combat with a mighty beare : his furious battell with his six and thirty men, against the army of eleven kings, with their overthtow [sic] and deaths : his relieving of Kemper Castle : his strange and admirable sea-fight with six huge gallies of Spain, and nine thousand soldiers : his taking prisoner and hard usage : lastly, his setting at liberty by the Kings command, and returne for England by David Lloyd (1656):

’Mongst all those Blustering sirs that I have read

(Whose greatest wonder is that they are dead)

There’s not any Knights, nor bold Atchivers Name,

So much as Jones’s in the Booke of Fame:

They much of Greeces Alexander bragg,

Hee’d put ten Alexanders in a Bag:

Eleven fierce Kings, backt with two thousand Louts,

Jones with a Ragged Troope beats all to Clouts.

But sure it was a Conquest by Compact,

For he could never be accus’d of fact:

And yet no story a Romancer sings,

That ere exploited more stupendious things;

Quixot a winged Gyant once did kill,

That’s but a flying tale, beleiv’t who will:

This were but petty hardship, Jones was one

Would Skinne a Flint, and eat him when h’had done.”

Example: My uncle is such a skinflint that, after a party, he goes through the trash to salvage all the plastic cups and cutlery.


Here’s a colorful word that’s fun to say. It brings pirates to mind. Yes? ‘Skulduggery’ means treachery, which certainly helps the association. The first syllable sounding like ‘skull’ doesn’t hurt either. Well, and the second syllable recalls digging. (But I digress.) The slang term, 'skulduggery,' is thought to have come from ‘sculdudrie,’ a Scottish word of uncertain origin used by at least 1713. It described adultery and other bawdy misbehavior. This is the most popular origin theory, but it's interesting to note that the modern meaning of skulduggery differs. Other opinions on its origin exist. Several attach it to similar-sounding words for guilt.

Historical Reference: ‘Skulduggery’ arose as a separate term in America, where it meant subterfuge. William Faulkner is credited with creating a verb form (skuldug). The first known print citation, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, dates from 1867: “From Minnesota had been imported the mysterious term ‘scull-duggery’, used to signify political or other trickery.” Apparently, this word mystified folks in the nineteenth century, too. 

Example: What sort of skulduggery are they up to?

What’s New with Janalyn Voigt

Books take time, and the wheels of publishing move slowly. I’m still editing The Whispering Wind (Montana Gold, book 6). Catching up on my writing and household duties is a bit challenging after suffering a burn injury while on deadline. Thank the Lord, I'm in a lot better shape now. Unfortunately, my email inbox isn’t. I have to admit that focusing is hard, with everything going on in the news. I regularly have to cast my crown at Jesus’s feet, and surrender my worries to Him. 

If you want to know more about the books I write, visit the bookstore at my website.

About Hills of Nevermore

Can a young widow hide her secret shame from the Irish preacher bent on helping her survive? 

In an Idaho Territory boom town, America Liberty Reed overhears circuit preacher Shane Hayes try to persuade a hotel owner to close his saloon on Sunday. Shane lands face-down in the mud for his trouble, and there’s talk of shooting him. America intervenes and finds herself in an unexpectedly personal conversation with the blue-eyed preacher. Certain she has angered God in the past, she shies away from Shane. 

Addie Martin, another widow, invites America to help in her cook tent in Virginia City, the new mining town. Even with Addie’s teenage son helping with America’s baby, life is hard. Shane urges America to depart for a more civilized location. Neither Shane’s persuasions nor road agents, murder, sickness, or vigilante violence can sway America. Loyalty and ambition hold her fast until dire circumstances force her to confront everything she believes about herself, Shane, and God. 

Based on actual historical events during a time of unrest in America.


  1. Always interested to learn the origins of idioms.

  2. Thanks for posting. I've never thought of skullduggery having to do with guilt, but rather trickery and up to no good. Interesting!