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Deciphering Lumberjack Lingo

My father-in-law Andrew Tahja started his working life as a whistle punk. What does that mean? On a logging show often workers cannot see each other and someone off to the side, who can see everything, used loud mechanical whistles to start actions. He was called a whistle punk. A book called “Lumberjack Lingo” by L.G. Sorden, written in 1969, focuses on the often whimsical vocabulary invented by loggers.

Logging camp cookhouses provided many unique terms. If a logger asked for cackleberries, slush, sow bosom, doorknobs and skid grease he was asking for eggs, coffee, bacon, biscuits and butter. He might not want bearbait or redhorse for dinner but gut, firecrackers and fish eggs were fine. Translation? Bearbait was meat so old and ripe it was inedible and redhorse was salted or corned beef, but gut was tasty bologna and fish eggs was tapioca pudding. Oh, and don’t forget the firecrackers…they were the cooked beans.

Jobs in the cookhouse included the belly burglar, a poor cook, and the doughboys, kitchen helpers, with the hash slingers who brought food to the table. The kitchen mechanic or pearl diver was the dishwasher and the pot-walloper worked with him.

How about clothing? Pants were always under discussion. High-water or staged pants were cut off at the top of high boots, right below the knee. If they were waterproof they were called tin pants. Get in a fight and you might suffer from logger’s smallpox. Loggers boots had spikes in them and their imprint could scar your skin if you got stepped on. That’s what happened when you drank too much cougar milk…illegal homemade liquor. Your hat was called a louse cage and you had to deal with pants rabbits…lice.

Logging camp jobs came with their own terms too. Bull of the Woods was the boss of the logging crew. He disliked camp inspectors. These were short-term workers traveling from camp to camp looking for work and a free meal. Catskinners drove Caterpillar tractors or dozers and gandy dancers were the pick & shovel men, especially around railroads. Hair pounders were the horse teamsters and a heaver was a fireman on a wood burning locomotive throwing wood in the firebox.

Iron burners were the blacksmiths using Irish baby buggies (wheelbarrows) in their work. Ink slingers worked in the office. They appointed man catchers to go out and recruit new workers. Landlookers were the men who could estimate the value of standing timber and knotbumpers were the men who cut knots off of logs before they were moved.

Road monkeys kept the roads going into camp open and tie whackers cut railroad ties from logs and stumps and detectives looked over clear cuts to measure waste in an operation. No matter what job you did, it was good not to be a woodpecker. That meant you were a poor chopper. And you didn’t want to leave camp wearing a wooden kimono. That last term meant you were dead and in a coffin.

Every profession had its own insiders' language and the logging industry did too. Terms varied around the country and this long out-of-print book was a great way to learn about them.

One Comment

  1. Marcia February 1, 2018

    Most entertaining thing I’ve read all day … thanks for this colorful bit of history!

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