Phrases from the past have the ring of history

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As a writer I've always felt I had a limited vocabulary, but I generally get by pretty well. But sometimes you just have to look something up. Last week it was the phrase "grass widow" I found in Bill Dolan's Pages of the Past column.

Grass widow was used in the Nevada Appeal 120 years ago. On Wednesday, Dolan reminded us of the story "Satisfied All Around ... Friday night a grass widow in this town was married to a new husband, and after the conclusion of the ceremony, the newly-made couple, accompanied by the forsaken husband, adjourned to the saloon opposite the Capitol Square, and drank to each other's health. There is nothing like winding up an affair of this kind in a real sociable manner."

According to American Heritage Dictionary "grass widow" is used to describe a woman who is divorced or separated from her husband; a woman whose husband is temporarily absent; an abandoned mistress; or the mother of a child born out of wedlock.

The dictionary says the term, dating from 1528, came from the practice of using grass or hay for a bed rather than a real bed.

The phrase likely evolved as "the figurative use of pasture as in out to pasture," said the dictionary.

Many other items in Bill's past columns also piqued my interest, such as: pillory, scarifer, references to the Third House, the Slippery Gulchers, miles of wind, Riepetown, White Pine County, dropsy, the frail sisterhood, younkers, cayuses and the Merci Train.

Pillory is a good word to describe the antics of the Third House. It means to expose to ridicule and abuse, to criticize harshly. In February 1877, the word was used to describe a bill by Sen. Stewart wherein "wife-beaters would be stood and exposed to the pillory. He says it is the nature of a 'Scarlet Letter' of the male variety."

In his Myth of the Month series, State Archivist Guy Rocha describes the Third House as "a body created to lampoon and satirize the 1861, 1862 and 1864 territorial sessions and the 1863 Constitutional Convention."

In the company of gentlemen named Stewart, Musser, North, Sterns, Ball and Brosnan, famed writer Mark Twain made the following closing speech: "Gentlemen: Your proceedings have been exactly similar to those of the convention which preceded you. You have considered a subject which you knew nothing about; spoken on every subject but the one before the House, and voted, without knowing what you were voting for, or having any idea what would be the general result of your action."

In this case, the Third House was to have debated religious tolerance. Instead the "lawmakers" (many from the convention) debated the taxation of the mines, quoted a bit of Shakespeare and avoided religious discussion at any cost.

Gold Hill News reporter Alf Doten recorded the session in his journals so Twain's words are not lost to us today.

There's more to the Third House for those who want to look something up.

The frail sisterhood, a phrase used in April 1877 speaks of the ladies from the houses of ill repute, from the red light district, from the cribs or, as we more specifically say in 2002, prostitutes. I don't know how hard it would be to find the word prostitute used in the 19th century papers.

In this case, "the frail sisterhood was somewhat agitated last evening by an unpleasant rupture between two of their number. One with the rather general and promiscuous pseudonym of 'The English Blonde' was charged with having discussed the character of a certain Miss Lee in a manner bordering on disregard of strict parliamentary usage. Judge Witherell issues bail and the case is Monday."

Tuesday's paper held the following account: "Demanded a jury trial and got it. This young woman is given to this character of offenses it seems and she is leading a career that is not at all a beautiful one. A too numerous multitude were present and the sidewalk and doorway of the court-house presented a plentiful gathering of the curious with an ear for the unclean." The woman was pronounced guilty and fined $100 or could opt for 50 days in jail.

Some of the other antiquated words and phrases such as miles of wind, cayuses and younkers need more study. I expect they are part of the slang of the time. From the clips taken by Dolan, I gather cayuses to mean horses, which were being run ragged "by 'scoop' reporters and they are all of that kind" as they made the training runs with Gentleman Jim Corbett and Robert Fitzsimmons. According to the account in the March 12 appeal of 1897, "The lively horses are nearly all on the verge of collapse."

Younkers was used in 1877 to describe youngsters whose misguided parents have supplied them with shotguns and ammunition. The boys had been shooting "promiscuous bullets in all directions, regardless of their destination or detention, whether in any man's body or head or other."

Miles of wind seems to be a weather term for Carson, in February 1897, had 3,430 miles of wind and 4.17 inches of precipitation. I called the state climatologist for an answer to this one -- I can't be expected to find everything.

Scarifer, used in an account from 1927, must mean the same today as it did back then, but I'd never seen it. I think it means plow, but I couldn't find a definitive answer.

It was used March 31, 1927, to describe the death of "W.C. Scott, stage driver during the rawhide days and a worker for the state Highway Department at

Fallon, was killed when a truck dragging a scarifer, hit an obstruction. It landed on the truck and a prong struck him in the side." Anyone with an explanation can e-mail me at I'd love to know for sure what this is.

Dropsy is the old-fashioned word for the medical condition of edema -- excessive fluid in the tissues -- and was used in 1927 to describe the death of 79-year-old Mrs. Mary Gifford.

I found the Merci Train, ran out of time and room in this column to describe it, but you can go see it at the Nevada State Railroad Museum or wait for the next column.

I'm dying to know about the "widely publicized Riepetown, White Pine County extortion incident." And I can't find a reference anywhere except in the Appeal to Slippery Gulchers, but I'm still looking some things up.

Kelli Du Fresne is features editor for the Nevada Appeal.


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