Cowboys and Aliens II Forum

Influences for the Old West
alanajoli at 8:50AM, Dec. 18, 2007
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I thought I'd talk a little bit here about the way I'm using language in the dialogue. As we all know, Hollywood Westerns aren't great representations of what life was like in the Old West. They do, however, provide a pretty iconic sound. There's a laid back style of using language that you wouldn't find in Victorian settings, or among professionals in the “civilized East” during the same time period. There's also a lot of great slang that's fun to use.

As an avid fan of Joss Whedon's Firefly and Serenity, I admit that a lot of the Old West slang in my head actually comes from the way those characters spoke, and for the same reasons: language is used a lot more creatively, and non-specifically, on that crew. I suspect Joss and his writers were also trying to evoke that Old West feel, so it sounds quite a bit like what you'd find in penny Westerns. I've also got Stagecoach, Shane, Magnificent Seven, Rooster Cogburn, and an assortment of other classic Westerns floating around in the back of my brain, and I'd like to think those all come into it as well.

The other day, I was talking to a friend who was surprised by my use of the word “yella,” which I've always understood to mean “coward.” She, on the other hand, thought it was a racial term–something I would *never* use! (I avoided using several Stephen Foster songs in my recent Zeke microrecorder post because the langauge, while accurate to the time, is now considered horribly racist. Despite Stephen Foster's own political leanings–he was a great supporter of the Union during the war, and was known as someone who was against slavery–Foster's use of language that, at the time, was used in slave communities themselves, looks now less like emulation and more like oppression. His Black Face style of Vaudeville performance appears just the same: a mockery of a people rather than an attempt to capture some of the music that was so obviously a model for Foster's own work.)

But back to “yella.” From the Straight Dope article I tracked down on the subject (http://www.straightdope.com/mailbag/myellowbellied.html), it looks like using the term “yellow” by itself is more common in Westerns than it was in the West. Out on the Frontier, the term “yellow dog” was common for calling something (or someone) worthless. “Yellow-bellied” was common as well, and it seems likely that people in the Old West might have shortened the description, given their laid-back use of language. But there doesn't seem to be much documentation showing an actual usage. So this is one of those words that Hollywood made popular and stuck in the back of my mind as “real” Wild-West slang. The article is actually really interesting, and I hope you all will give it a look!
last edited on July 18, 2011 10:23AM
JerMohler at 3:35PM, Dec. 30, 2007
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Interesting, Alana.

I never really thought about the word “yella” before. But, it doesn't surprise me all that much that the word “yellow” is more common in westerns than it actually was in the old west. There probably wasn't as much talking in the old west as there is in film anyway - at least in western movie terms. Probably just as much violence and action, just less talking about it. Heh. If that makes sense.

It is interesting, anyway.
Jeremy Mohler
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last edited on July 18, 2011 10:23AM
Adam Black at 4:02PM, Jan. 28, 2008
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If you haven't read “Preacher” yet, do so. They did a pretty good job of giving a western feel to that book.

Besides, it's pretty much one of the greatest comics ever made. :)
last edited on July 18, 2011 10:23AM
JerMohler at 5:04PM, Jan. 28, 2008
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I have to agree with you whole heartedly, Adam. Preacher is definitely classic - it should be up there with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns.
Jeremy Mohler
Creative Director
Cowboys and Aliens II
http://www.drunkduck.com/Cowboys_and_Aliens_II/

Owner and Art Director of Baeg Tobar
http://www.baegtobar.com
info@baegtobar.com

My Portfolio:
http://www.jeremymohler.com
last edited on July 18, 2011 10:23AM

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