Lost Language of American Loggers

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FILL A FOREST WITH FIVE-HUNDRED-YEAR-OLD TREES, UP TO A FEW HUNDRED FEET TALL. SEASON IT WITH NATIVE AMERICANS, NATIVE-BORN PIONEERS, AND IMMIGRANTS FROM EVERY CORNER OF THE ATLANTIC AND PACIFIC. INTO THIS WILDERNESS INTRODUCE SHARP TOOLS, ORNERY TEAMS OF OXEN AND SEVERAL THOUSAND-POUND LOGS PULLED BY WIRE AND CHAIN UNDER TENSION. ADD STEEP HILLS AND LOG-FILLED PONDS, RIVERS, OR BAYS, WHERE EVEN A NIMBLE LOGGER MIGHT SLIP. WHILE YOU’RE AT IT, DRAG THROUGH A TESTY STEAM ENGINE THROWING SPARKS INTO A FOREST DRY ENOUGH TO BE A TINDERBOX. THEN BORROW SOME SAILORS WHO SPEAK AND WEAVE IN THE LOCAL JARGON. SEQUESTER THESE WORKERS FROM THE REST OF CIVILIZATION FOR MONTHS AT A TIME. DISTILLED FROM THIS MASH CAME THE LANGUAGE OF THE NORTH AMERICAN LOGGER.

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Advances in management and technology, along with time itself, were clearing the living legends from the forest. They took their speech with them.

Logging remained relatively unchanged until the 1850s, when the frontier collided with the industrial age and the world’s growing demand for wood. Successive developments in technology were hauled to the forest by man and beast to cut timber more efficiently. Within two generations it was clear that, left unchecked, logging’s very efficiency threatened to destroy the forest that gave it life. Enter President Theodore Roosevelt, who created the United States Forest Service to conserve timber for future generations.

Advances in management and technology, along with time itself, were clearing the living legends from the forest. They took their speech with them. Young literary loggers began to track and preserve this lingo. Beasts of burden gave their name to engines powered first by steam and later by gasoline. Axes gave way to chainsaws. Some terms just evolved—after all, the goal of logging had not changed. A few of these words tramped out of the woods and joined the larger culture. Perhaps you’ve flung a few around yourself, without noticing the sawdust that clung to them.

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Below is a selection of logging-based terms from articles and books written from 1910 through 1958 including the comprehensive “Woods Words” by Dean McCulloch, with over four thousand terms. Another valuable source was conversation, including one with Don Van Moos, an operations manager from Weyerhaeuser and another with Joe Linderborg, one the loggers featured on “Ax Men.”

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“SKYLINE”

Its first use in English is murky, but it appeared sometime between 1815 and 1860 as a synonym for the horizon. At the turn of the century, it was applied to ‘cable logging.’ The primary cable was attached to a tall, stout tree and two points on the ground, to allow a system of engines and pulleys to haul trees.

“HAYWIRE”

“Haywire”—Cheap or messed up. Initially from the wire used to bundle hay for the draft animals. Inexpensive and abundant, haywire repaired a variety of things that a poor outfit could not replace. It is easily tangled. This term has gone on to apply to any small cable.

“SKID ROAD”

The name for the road over which logs are skidded. In Seattle, this term went beyond its industrial meaning as the saloons, gambling dens, and brothels grew up on the sawdust and trash filler from Yesler’s mill, on the south side of the skid road–Now Yesler Way.

“Skidrow”—To quote Mr. McCulloch’s “Wood’s Words”: “Careless reporters with dirt in their ears have written skidrow or skid row so often that this miserable, phony term is accepted by the ignorant. There’s no such damn thing as a skidrow, and there never was.”

“SPAR”

“Spar” Or “Mast” Tree—Both are sailing terms applied to cable logging. In logging and sailing, a robust straight tree is essential to either hold the pressure of the sails to make the ship sail across the water or to haul the felled logs towards the spar.

“LOG JAM”

It originally applied to the dangerous situation of logs caught up along any waterway. The biggest logjam on record was seven miles long, half-mile wide and sixty feet deep. This 1895 catastrophe occurred in Little Falls, Minnesota, along the Mississippi river. It took 150 loggers and a quantity of dynamite over six months to clear. This is now a general metaphor for anything held up.

“FILSON”

Again, to quote Mr. McCulloch’s “Wood’s Words”: “The brand name of a manufacturer of woods clothes, particularly of a cruiser coat which has been a favorite woods wear for many years. The name has come to be applied to almost any make of cruiser coat.”