Want to talk like an old-time logger?

To paraphrase things I have read and been told by old-time loggers, here is a proven recipe for unique jargon as it pertained to the old logging industry: Start with a mixture of immigrants from around the globe — some experienced loggers, and others new to the forest. Mix in miles of forest filled with several-hundred-year-old trees that stood 200 feet tall. Add in steep hills, fast-flowing rivers and streams plus ponds filled with 40- to 50-foot-long logs. Then stir in sharp instruments, wires and cables, explosives and horses, mules and oxen.

Then if you really want to make something spicy, add a fire-spitting steam engine that sends sparks out into a tinderbox of pine needles and cones, sawdust and other combustible material.

Take all of these ingredients and then sequester this mixture for months at a time away from civilization. Let it simmer and then add in a few liquor and tobacco products occasionally for good measure.

Now you have the perfect recipe for language development as it applied to the old logging camps and timber industry.

So let’s see how fluent you are in “logger-speak.”

(I have been told and also read that the term “lumberjack” was not really a term used in the old days. In the Pacific Northwest the men working out in the forest were called “loggers” and in the upper Midwest and East they were called “woodsmen.”)

Here are some words or phrases you may be familiar with…or maybe not.

Snag:  A dead tree that is still standing. 

Widow Maker:  A dead, detached limb that is hung up in a tree above you.

A widow maker. (Photo courtesy of James M. Allen)

Barber Chair: A tree that spins like a barber chair and gets out of control of the cutter as it falls. 

Strong as an Ox: In the old logging days oxen were preferred over horses or mules as they were much stronger. They were also easier to keep as they didn’t require shelter like horses and donkeys often did. Additionally, they ate mainly grass and didn’t require hay or oats.

A team of two oxen reportedly could drag a log weighing a ton or more out of the forest. Imagine how heavy some of the old-growth trees were, when it took a team of 20 oxen to drag the log out.

1900 circa photo courtesy Edmonds Historical Museum

Highball or Highball It:Word or phrase indicating the need to “hurry” — often for safety reasons.

Buck: To cut a tree into lengths after it has been felled.

Tinware: Pots and pans made out of tin. The loggers oftentimes worked away from camp during the day and had to supply their own pails, plates, cups and utensils to eat their meals.

Meal time in the woods circa 1900. (Photo courtesy Edmonds Historical Museum)

Skid Road: A path or road where logs were laid down so that heavier items (logs or equipment) could be more easily slid or be pulled across.  Note: some skid roads had two logs running parallel that the logs were slid along rather than a row of logs lain out side by side.

Skid road being constructed in the 1890s. (Photo courtesy Port Gamble Historical Museum)

Skid Row: In some locations “skid row” was synonymous with “skid road.” But the term “skid row” also came to mean the shanties or small cabins that the loggers lived in around the camps. In some places the areas and accommodations were deplorable. The long-term isolation, hard work and presence of alcohol at times led to squalid living conditions.

Cabins/shanties constructed with fallen logs circa 1895-1900. (Photo courtesy Port Gamble Historical Museum)

Hit the Skids: Placing a log on skids so that it could be slid downhill. Generally the phrase came to mean a quick downturn of fortunes.

Greasing the Skids: Adding animal grease to the skids was a common practice. It was hoped that the grease would make the larger logs easier to move over the skids. Over time, the phrase came to mean making things easier to accomplish.

Greasing the skids, circa 1900. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

Grease Monkey: The job title of the person who applied the grease to the skids.

(As a kid growing up in Portland in the 1970s, there was a chain of automobile lubrication shops whose name was Grease Monkey. I never realized the origin of the name.)

OK, how about some additional descriptive job titles?

Filer: Loggers needed sharp saws, so each camp had one or more indivdiduals whose job was to file the saw’s teeth one at a time. This person was also referred to as the dentistin some regions.

Iron or Metal Burner: The camp blacksmith who shod the shoes of the horses and donkeys and repaired sleds and other equipment used in the transport of the logs.

A metal burner at work circa 1900. (Photo courtesy Edmonds Historical Museum)

Long Logger: A logger who worked on logs 40 feet long or longer.

Bullwhacker: The person who was responsible for the oxen and use of the ox teams.

Boom Man: The person who walked on the logs once in the water, who used a pole to position the logs within the log boom for transport.

Log booms at a sawmill on the Columbia River, Oregon 1905. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

How about some equipment terms?

Haywire: Initially the term came from the wire used to bundle hay for the draft horses and oxen. It was abundant, inexpensive and used to repair a variety of things. The problem was that it could easily get tangled and was not very durable. Over time it came to mean something that went awry.

Hoot-nanny: A small device that was used to hold the crosscut saw in place while sawing the log from underneath.

(I have actually attended a hootenanny, which is a Scottish word for celebration or party. But I could not find any reference where the name/term hoot-nanny evolved into meaning a celebration or party. )

Swedish Fiddle: A crosscut saw. The crosscut saws used in the Pacific Northwest were at times over 20 feet in length as the trees they were cutting had diameters of over 16 feet. It was said that when the saw was in use, it sometimes sounded like a fiddle.

A lengthy crosscut saw. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

Finally, some miscellaneous terms:

Macaroni: Sawdust

Hardtack: A flat cracker or bread made of flour, salt and water. Holes were poked in it to be sure it remained flat and then baked several times to get all the water out. This kept it edible without refrigeration.

Guthammer: The gong that was struck to call the loggers in for dinner.

Nosebag: A lunch bucket. The name possibly was derived from the bag containing oats or grain that was slid over a horse’s nose.

Snoose: Damp snuff or chewing tobacco.

Deacon Seat: A bench made from a log that has been split lengthwise.

Photo courtesy the New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1860-1920.

Epilogue: When I was researching and writing the article on the 2022 Bolt Creek wildfire and its ties to the early Edmonds shingle mills, I learned that the word “bolt” referred to a 42-inch-long piece of wood that had been cut from larger circular “rounds” that came from large red cedar trees. I knew that the word “bolt” could refer to a fastener, a strike of lightning, a strip of cloth or as a verb it could mean to quickly run away.

So that made me think about compiling a list of words and phrases I had come across in my reading, and from my experience as a first responder working on wildfires – ergo this article.  I hope you enjoyed it and learned something too.

You can read about the 2022 Bolt Creek wildfire and its ties to the early Edmonds shingle mills here.

— Researched and written by Byron Wilkes. Thanks to the Edmonds Historical Museum, the Port Gamble Historical Museum, the New York City Library and several old-time loggers for verification and clarification of the logging terms that appear in this article.

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