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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Finding Etymology Gold in the Mines

California is best known for some unique elements: forms of video entertainment, trend-setting, and (over 150 years ago), gold. While many of the gold mines of the late 1840s "played out," words from that bygone era remain. Take an etymological trip through the Gold Rush country and learn about how the words of the time have remained in today's vernacular.


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Did your ancestors seek their fortunes in the gold fields? The California Gold Rush was a major event in the history of both California and the United States. But did you know that it also contributed to today's vernacular? A number of terms and phrases were added to the English language when the gold was mined. Here we will examine a few of these and see how our ancestors might have applied them.

Life in the "diggings" was anything but easy; many of the problems stemmed from the difficulty people had in "hitting pay dirt" - the dirt that actually "paid" because it contained the sought after gold. While the miners were sifting through literal "dirt" for their "pay," today we use the term to refer to any endeavor that will result in a reward (Hendrickson, p. 514). Genealogists will often declare that they have hit "pay dirt" when they uncover a wealth of records in the area where their ancestors lived.

The phrase "go West, young man, go West," urging early Americans to seek their fortunes in the frontier, is often attributed to Horace Greeley. However, even the newspaper writer himself said that it originated with John Babsone Lane Soule in 1851, inspired by the discovery of gold in California in 1848. Whatever the case, we still hear people uttering that phrase when they talk about venturing into a new and, hopefully, better life (Hendrickson, pp. 295-296).

In the rivers of the Mother Lode country in California, the miners could be found using pans to sift through the sand and dirt, hoping that their efforts would "pan out." The exercise of washing the dirt away from the valuable ore took some skill and the adept miner would also have to use his powers of evaluation to determine if the remaining material was gold. This has evolved into the use of the term "pan out" to mean the activity has been evaluated and deemed worthwhile (Mordock & Korach, p. 104). On the contrary, when something "doesn't pan out," it means that there was nothing of value found. This has evolved into the term "to pan," as a critic might "pan" a play, stating that it was a poor production (Garrison, p. 207).

As mentioned earlier, a miner's life was not an easy one. When a newcomer arrived in the mining camps, it was frequently clear all too soon that he was a "tenderfoot" - unused to the hard work required to work a claim. While that term was used long before the American West sorted the men from the boys, it took on a new meaning as many flooded into the gold fields of California, complaining of sore feet caused by the constant travel and hard work standing (or squatting) to get at the riches that were anything but "easy pickings" (Hendrickson, p. 661). Besides the tenderfoots (tenderfeet?), the mining communities lured a group of less than desirable characters called "pikers." While some say that the term refers to those who arrived by "traveling down the pike" ("pike" being a shortened version of "turnpike," the English term for "road"), others believe that the word originated with Missouri's Pike County, the furthermost point of "civilization," before one stepped into the wilderness territories considered, in the mid-1800s, to be the West. A "Piker," then, is one who came from "Pike County," determined to work their unscrupulous ways in the new frontier (likely much to the pleasure of the decent residents of Missouri, who were pleased to bid them adieu) (Mordock & Korach, pp. 104-105).

While many settled in the West as cattle ranchers and lumbermen, the major draw was the lure of gold. People flocked into the area in hopes of "striking it rich." This "uniquely American" term referred to the act of literally striking at the rock and dirt in an effort to find a rich ore deposit (Hastings). We still use the term "to strike it rich" when we refer to a success in some endeavor, such as finding a lost ancestor.

Not everyone was successful at becoming wealthy as a result of their mining efforts. Some did make a living by conducting their business among the diggings, including the Chinese, who were expected to cook or do laundry, but not much else. A Chinaman who might try his hand at mining would be refused the right to file a claim in a blatant practice of bigotry. As a result, the slang "he doesn't have a Chinaman's chance" became synonymous with a person having no chance at all (Mordock & Korach, pp. 105-106).

Amusement was something that the miners sought at every opportunity. Those in the various mining communities in Nevada and California often created their own amusements. One such diversion was the bull and bear fights. The Argonauts (the term for the California miners who were much like the Greek Jason and his Argonauts, in search of the Golden Fleece) would pit these animals against each other in bloody competition (Sederquist). Some say that this is the origin of the Wall Street terminology, but there is some disagreement about that among etymologists.

Another form of amusement, if you could call it that, was the visit to the local brothel. The ladies of the evening were often found in the mining communities. Also in the mining communities was a population of cats, most likely to keep vermin at bay. Many miners kept cats as pets but, when the men left to mine new territory, give up on the activity altogether, or to meet their Maker, the cats were left to fend for themselves. The local prostitutes would then take the felines into their abode, soon causing the brothels to be overrun with the creatures. The result: the term "cat house," as a euphemism for "house of prostitution" (Wright, p. 112).

While the cats might have been successful in ridding the mining camps of the mice and rats, the lice that frequently could be found living on the miners themselves were not as easily disposed of. Many a miner was considered "lousy" due to his lice-laden condition. Of course today we use the term much less specifically, and anything that is less than desirable might be termed "lousy" (Barnhart, p. 611).

As genealogists, we hope our research pans out and that we strike it rich with our hours of time on the computer or in a library. Hitting pay dirt is the constant quest. We are eager to help the tenderfoot - the new researcher who is just learning about genealogy. We always hope that our own relative was not a piker or, along the same vein (not verified as being a mining term, but suspected as such), engaged in lousy activities like bull and bear fights, or spending his time in cathouses. And if we find that our ancestor followed the adage to "go West, young man," we fervently hope that he left a clear paper trail.


Barnhart, R. K. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology: The Origins and Development of Over 25,000 English Words. New York: Chambers Harrap Pub., Ltd., 2003.

Garrison, Webb. What's in a Word? Fascinating Stories of More than 350 Everyday Words and Phrases. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 2000.

Hastings, Michael. "The Right Mix; Best country to get rich: United States. Texas is the optimistic new model for an immigrant-led economy." Newsweek International, July 26, 2004. Retrieved October 20, 2008, from

Hendrickson, Robert. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins. New York: Checkmark Books, 1997, 2000.

Mordock, John, & Korach, Myron. Common Phrases and Where They Come from. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2001.

Sederquist, Betty. "Boring Books, Bad Theatre." Sierra Foothill Magazine: Gold Rush Entertainment. Retrieved October 20, 2008, from

Wright, Mike. What They Didn't Teach You about the Wild West. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, Inc., 2000.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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