The View From My Window: Montana-ese An Introduction to Treasure State Vernacular

Fritz Shallah  |   Wednesday Dec. 31st, 2014

As you cross the flat follow the crick until you get to the first draw.” Tim said, “Stay center at the chicken foot. You cross several outfits on the way so watch for critters, and there’s plenty buzztails around too. The first gate after 6 cattle guards is my spread.”

“Yup.” I replied.

“I’ve got three head of horses you might see before you get to my trailer. Savvy?”

“You bet!” I affirmed. “Nice speakin’ atcha.”

“Not a problem.” said Tim.

I hung up the phone as my wife looked at me incredulously. “Are you sure you know where we’re going?” she asked. To assure her, I repeated Tim’s clear set of instructions. Rose simply looked at me and said, “You people are crazy. Turn left at the hay bale and go back to the crooked tree? What’s wrong with an address?”
Montanan’s are known for being a colorful bunch and that extends to our slang. Montana speak is as unique as our environment and culture. A mystery to outsiders, it behooves any settler or visitor to have at least a basic understanding of our vernacular.

Here is a short primer. It covers some common expressions and some personal favorites. My selections are the result of years of use and conversations. Usage and precise definitions may vary regionally.  

Basics of polite social interaction:

“Howdy”: Montana’s “aloha”, this is both a greeting and an inquiry of your general well being.

“Yup”: Ranges from simple agreement, to “I disagree but won’t bother arguing with you” to, “You certainly have grasped the obvious” to, “I’m not listening any more than you’re making sense”.  It takes years of practice to distinguish the meanings through context and intonation.

“You bet: (alt. “you betcha”): Assurance you can bet money on. This is a promise of performance since a “man’s word is his bond”. It is sometimes more colorfully expressed as “you bet yer bottom (last) dollar”.

“Nope”:  The opposite of “yup”. Clear as refusal or disagreement. Why waste breath on long explanations?

“No problem” (alt. “not a problem”): Even if it is a problem we won’t tell you. Going out of our way to help drive cattle, put up hay, open a door or feed the neighbor’s horses is a cultural expectation, and therefore, never a “problem”.

“Nice speakin’ atcha” (alt. “nice jawin’ with  ya”): Used at the end of a conversation to indicate the deep pleasure received in dialogue with you. Even if it wasn’t.

Instruction is approached indirectly here. A cardinal rule is “Find a gate open, leave it open. Find it closed leave it closed”.  Tim chose not to insult me by directly speaking to his concerns about his horses getting loose. He allowed me to prove whether I had “horse” (common) sense enough to read between the lines.

“Savvy”: This derivative of the Spanish “sabe’ means; “Do you understand?”

The “Lifted Finger”: No! Not that finger! An unspoken civility involving the lifting of 1 or several fingers, (or your whole hand), while grasping your steering wheel. Performed when encountering an oncoming vehicle, it carries a range of meanings from “Howdy”, to “Yup, I belong here.” to “No I’m not lost on this back road.”

Terms for possessions and people:

“Dude” (alt. city slicker): Customers at Dude ranches, tourists, and those who visit or move here to “live the Western experience”. Enthusiasm usually overrides their common sense. Even wearing Western dress to blend in, a “Dude” is as obvious as a “mustard plaster in a coal scuttle” (think about it). The opposite of being “duded up” (properly dressed up for a fancy occasion)

“Greenhorn”: A reference to inexperience. Only time will tell whether they will “prove up” their worth by perseverance and perception.

“Old hand”: The opposite of a “dude”. This person is qualified and dependable, a graduate of the school of experience. Similarly, a “top hand” is the best of the bunch at a task or skill.

“Easterner”: Any person from East of the demarcation line at the Eastern side of North Dakota, Wyoming or Colorado. Some draw that line at Miles City, MT.

“Bunny hugger” (alt. “tree hugger”): Describes environmentalists and animal rights activists. We’ve preserved the environment for generations as a matter of survival and legacy. Our animals may not have “rights”, but horses and dogs are our best friends. (Hold the sheep jokes, please).

“Prune picker” (alt. “orange picker”): Anyone from California.

“Outfit”: Your business, your employer, or an organization you affiliate with, (ie: family, church or club). Taking pride in representing your “Outfit” is called “riding for the brand”. “Outfit” is sometimes used to refer to a vehicle (see “rig”).  

“Rig”:  A cowboy’s saddle, (his”riggin’”), is the essential tool for horseback transportation and work. This is therefore the term for your vehicle, usually your pickup. A pickup is never called a truck. A truck is a semi or 18 wheeler. Out here we know the difference between types of “rigs”!

Animal, vegetable or mineral?

“Critter”: Used generically now to indicate an animal, especially a small one, this was originally used in reference to a bovine.

“Buzztail”: Aptly describes a rattlesnake.

“Pony”: A general reference to a horse, size notwithstanding. Also a town in Montana.

“Coyote”: A ky’-yote is a wild canine common to Montana. Say ky-yo’-tee and you’re either from somewhere else or smuggling aliens.

“Speed Goat” (alt. “prairie goat”): A Pronghorn. Defined at different times as a member of either the goat or antelope families. It has proven to be neither, but it’s own unique species. Kinda like Montanans!

“Slow elk”: Typically a cow, but also a type of Beer from Missoula.

“Muley” and “Whitey”: The two common breeds of deer in Montana.

“Rug rat” (alt. “curtain crawler”): A small child or toddler.

“Bronc” (alt. “bronco”):  Neither a football team or a “rig”. This is a horse that bucks.

Geographically speaking

“Creek” Pronounced “crick” if you’re referring to a stream of water.  Pronounced “creak” if you’re referring to a town with “crick” in the name (Wolf Creek, Willow Creek). Are ya’ keepin’ up?

“Draw”: Like a valley, it is enclosed on 2 sides by hills or mountains, but smaller.

“Gulch”: A narrow, v-shaped “draw” formed by erosion, often with a creek or dry stream bed at the bottom.

“Flat”: A relatively level area in an region with more distinct topological relief. (The Townsend flats). Differs from a “bench” which is a smaller, clear, flat area on the side of a hill or ridge.  

“Hole”” A valley, usually smaller in size, that is encircled by steep hills or mountains. (Jackson Hole, the Big Hole country).

“Up” and “Down”: Directions determined by the flow of water. We travel “up” to Big Sky from Bozeman even though it is South of here because the Gallatin flows “down” to us.

“Back East” (alt. “out east”): Where Easterners (or those who act like it) come from.  

“Chicken foot”: A place where a road has 3 or more roads or trails leading out of it.

“Gopher Crotch”: The middle of nowhere. You might call this “b.f. Egypt”.

“Spread” (“alt. place”): The land belonging to a particular “outfit”. By the way, never call a ranch a farm. Farmers and ranchers are distinct classes and differing operations. If you don’t know the difference stick to “spread” or “place”.


“Ditch”: A drink not a geographic feature. Usually bourbon and water. Southerners call this “bourbon and branch”
“Borrow Pit”: (alt. barrow pit). The depression dug along the sides of roads to allow drainage.

“Rodeo”: Pronounced “rode’-ee-oh”. A sporting event. Saying “ro-day’-oh reveals you to be one of them damn Cal-i-forn-yuns!

“Blacker ‘n the inside of a cow”:  Really dark!

“Breakfast, dinner and supper”: Ranchers and farmers eat the big meal of day at the noon hour for the needed calories. We go out to eat in the evening at “supper” clubs. Lunch then dinner is purely a “city slicker” contrivance.

Understanding these terms and proprieties does not give you license to use them. Nothing will make you a “honyocker” faster. Just be yourself, be friendly, listen and pay attention. Act with respect and common sense and we’ll give you the same. You’ll fit in better that way, and if you stay, in twenty five years or so, you might be able to say you’re “from” Montana, “the jen’-yoo-ine article” !

Oh yes! I have homework for you. There are some terms in here I have used but deliberately not defined.  For your edification and pleasure here are some websites I used for reference on this topic: the list of Montana Slang by Todd Klassy at (last updated April 2014), (the May 23, 2012 posting) and Montana Lingo, Dos and Don’ts at (from October 21, 2010). Please also look in Bozeman Magazine’s own archives at   

About the Author(s)