The Lost Language of American Loggers

Loggers slang
Loggers in Washington State, circa 1910

Remember Paul Bunyan and his big, blue ox? The giant frontier logger may be a vaguely-recalled legend today, but in the mid-twentieth century, he was a symbol of a disappearing, iconically American way of life. In 1942, writer Elrick B. Davis collected a glossary of terms tied to the old logging tradition.

At the time he was writing, the lumber industry had begun to see American forests as giant tree farms. Loggers used trucks and tractors to bring in the harvest, and treated the job like any other, living in towns near forested areas with their wives and children.

But Davis delights in the earlier tradition of lumberjacks who spent most of their time in logging camps far from civilization, creating “a vocabulary so pithy and colorful that its memory stays alive in loggers’ sentimental hearts.” Although, as it turns out, much of that vocabulary didn’t make it into Davis’s account since “most of the loggers’ lingo has been, through the years, semantically too high-test for print even in a scientific journal.”

One word that did jump into mainstream use was “haywire,” “in the sense of broken, substitute, esatz, jerry-fashioned, flimsy, crazy, idiotic, or anything else so contemptible that no other word can be found that is strong enough to serve.”

Vestiges of logger language stay with us today.

Davis noted that dictionary writers had guessed at an origin of the word deriving from a tangled mess of wire snarls. But the term’s actual origins were in the reuse of wire from a hay bale to repair a strap or chair, hang wet clothes on the line, or hold together a cracked stove. The kind of logging venture that required a great deal of such inventiveness was a “haywire show,” in contrast to a “candy show” with good, modern equipment.

Among the other colorful-but-printable terms Davis collected was “jerk,” which he defined as “a punk.” Punk, in turn, meant a boy or young man who was new to the job.

Some of the logger slang came from the radical labor union Industrial Workers of the World, known as the Wobblies. “The Wobbly horrors” was defined as “the jim-jams that bedevil an employer who fears labor trouble.” “Pie in the sky”—a dismissive Wobbly term for the heaven promised by Christian capitalists—meant bourgeois respectability.

Many of the terms Davis collected were specific to their time and place—guthammer for a gong that calls loggers to meals, or deacon seat for a long bench made of halved logs. But some still survive, in one form or another. Jack, meaning any man, became hijack—from a bandits’ command to “stick ‘em up.” And skidroad, a forest road using greased cross-skids, became the section of town where loggers might carouse on their day off—the kind of place we might still know as skid row today. While logger culture may have vanished, vestiges of their language stay with us.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the name of the Industrial Workers of the World.


JSTOR Citations

Paul Bunyan Talk

By: Elrick B Davis

American Speech, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Dec., 1942), pp. 217-225

Duke University Press

Livia Gershon

Livia Gershon is a freelance writer in Nashua, New Hampshire. Her writing has appeared in publications including Salon, Aeon Magazine and the Good Men Project. Contact her on Twitter @liviagershon.

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