Q. I was in Alaska recently, and I saw the word "sourdough" used in phrases such as "sourdough wit," "sourdough attitude," and "sourdough spunk." I never got an explanation of what "sourdough" means when it is used this way. Can you help?A. According to one version of a popular folk etymology, an Alaskan "sourdough" is someone who is sour on Alaska but doesn't have the dough to go somewhere else.
The truth is more prosaic. "Sourdough" came to denote a veteran inhabitant and especially an old-time prospector of Alaska or northwestern Canada many years ago. During the Yukon gold rush of the late 19th century, sourdough bread was a staple in the prospectors' camps, and the prospectors themselves became known as sourdoughs. Eventually, anyone who had spent a significant amount of time in Alaska or northwestern Canada could be called a sourdough.
The examples of "sourdough" you described are attributive uses, where the noun is used like an adjective to modify another noun. Longtime Alaskan residents naturally tend to feel that sourdoughs have certain qualities, such as wit and spunk, that are lacking in "chee-chakos," that is, in newcomers to Alaska or the Yukon. ("Chee-chako" is a word in Chinook jargon that literally means "newcomer.")
You can find out more about sourdoughs and cheechakos in the works of Jack London and Robert W. Service.
Q. What does the word "Bar" in the name of a ranch, such as "C Bar Ranch," signify?
A. That word "Bar" tells you something about the design of a ranch's brand. The brand is a logo with which livestock are marked (via a branding iron) to show ownership. The idea is to use a unique but fairly simple and easily recognized design.
In 1888 someone observed that "A man must have natural gifts, as well as great experience, before he becomes a good brand-reader." Nevertheless, there are certain established conventions which afford the amateur at least partial success in interpreting brands. For example, a letter lying on its side indicates "Lazy," so a K on its side should be read as "Lazy K." A circle around the letter Z is read "Circle Z." "Bar" is usually represented by a horizontal line either above ("Bar C") or below ("C Bar") a letter. But if the top of the letter is touching the bar above it, "Hanging" is used in place of "Bar" ("Hanging C").
The "Bar" line can be diagonal as well ("Circle Bar," a diagonal line through a circle), though the diagonal line is also called "Slash." If the line is vertical, it might be "Bar" ("Double Bar S" - looks like a dollar sign), but it could also be "One." A curved line attached to the bottom of a letter means the letter is "Rocking" ("Rocking H"). Any sort of bulge attached to either side of a letter that could be construed as wings should be read as "Flying" ("Flying A").
Other designs are more pictorial, employing simple depictions of objects such as a rain barrel, a dinner bell, a keyhole, or a bow and arrow.
The choice of a brand is limited only by the need for originality. To keep track of the myriad of designs, brands are registered by the local branding board (in Texas alone, there are more than 200,000 brands registered). Some brands seem to have originated as the precursors of today's vanity plates, and they can be equally cryptic. "TM," in one case, supposedly stood not for the owner's initials but for "Twenty Miles" - the distance to the nearest saloon.
Other brands have mysterious names associated with a bit of the ranch's history. The "Sea Lion" brand, for example, registered in Texas in 1867, was simply a big "D." But, so the story goes, when another rancher bought some of the "D"-branded cattle and brought them to his ranch on the Texas coast, a number of them waded out into the shallow bay. Seeking help from their original owner to round them up, the exasperated rancher referred to them as "damn sea lions."
Branding's first recorded mention in this country is from 17th-century New England, where its occurrence was most likely due to British influence, but American branding as we now know it really got its start in the 19th-century Wild West, when Texas cattle ranchers adopted the practice from Mexican vaqueros (cowboys).