OIL FIELD HANDS use a large vocabulary of names and expressions which apply to the work and life that goes with drilling for and producing petroleum. As is true with working men away from women in all industries, many of their most colorful phrases are salted with unprintable words, a large portion of them referring to the questionable parentage of almost anything. However, there remain a great many interesting expressions, some that are meaningless outside an oil field, others that are from the soil and would be understood by any Texan. All of this talk recorded here has been picked up in the Texas Gulf Coast.
“Get the job done” is an expression common among oil field hands from the roustabout to the general superintendent. It is traditional in the “Oil Patch,” a colloquial variation of “Oil Field” or just “the Field,” not to back off from any job no matter what the difficulties or how dangerous. “Do something, if you do it wrong.”
If a roustabout or roughneck complains about wages or hard work to a fellow worker, he will probably be told that, “you hired out to work, didn't you, there is a fellow up town living on a cracker a day that wants your job.” The reply may be, “I was looking for a job when I got this one,” or “I've got my sack full anyhow,” or “I've got it made.” The last two expressions mean he is independent, doesn't need a job. He may say, “I'm ready to drag up (quit), I've got money in the bank and cattle out west.” If this man is really a trouble maker, he may get “run off” (fired). He might just get “eat out” or a “reaming” from his boss, the driller.
If there is a smart aleck in a crew who is always “popping off,” there is usually some other roustabout or roughneck who will “put the packoff on him,” or shut him up. This expression is from a device used to control the flow of a well.
At the end of a hard day one of the hands will probably say, “I gave ’em an honest jump today,” or “another day, another dollar. In a million days I'll be a millionaire.” He may be told, “Well, boy, you be back here in the morning without a pain in your body, ’cause you're gonna keep your head down and your rear up if you make it on this job.”
If you have to work overtime, you are “stuck.” When you are in a big hurry, you “hull out” or “gin” (gin a bale).
Anything heavy around a drilling rig, especially the drill pipe, is called “pig iron.” When “the man” is advising the driller he is doing a job wrong, if he is an old timer, he will say “that ain't well diggin’.”
An evasive answer to an inquiry as to a hand's whereabouts is “he went to Fort Worth with a load of goats.”
Regardless of the occupation, whether drilling, production, or in the office, to “make a hand” means to be a competent, efficient worker.
One of the most universally used terms is “boll weevil,” which means an inexperienced man. “Boll weevil tongs” are chain tongs that even a boll weevil cannot put on the pipe wrong. One manufacturer calls his tubing head a “boll weevil tubing head” because it does not require an experienced man to land it. A shop-made device that injects lubricating oil into the steam line on a drilling rig is a “boll weevil lubricator.” A boner in any kind of work is a “boll weevil stunt.”
If a man is dumb or forgetful, he is “like a goose, wakes up in a new world every day.”
One of the less offensive names for a man who plays up to his boss for special favors is a “graper,” who is held in very low esteem.
You are in a “boom” if a lot of work is going on, whether drilling or production. If you cannot handle your job, it “eats you up.” If you get in trouble, you are in a “bind.” When you try to do a job and it goes wrong, you may be told you “twisted off,” which comes from the name for a drill pipe failure. This expression is common in poker games. When a player draws to a straight or flush and misses, he will say, “I twisted off.”
If any kind of equipment fails, the operator will say it “swarmed” (as a bee colony separates) or more commonly, it “cratered.” This last word comes from the description of the worst kind of “blowout” or wild well, where a huge crater is formed.
When a man says he is ready to “flange up” he is about through. This common saying comes from the necessity of using a flange union to complete nearly all pipe connection jobs.
During an active drilling campaign (a boom), when the edge of the field is discovered by a rig encountering the producing sand below the salt water horizon, they have “hit the Gulf of Mexico” or “the suitcase sand.” The roughnecks know that before long there will be a “suitcase parade” of layoffs or transfers. This will usually start as “roughneck talk” (rumors).
A well which fails to produce oil or gas is a “duster” or “dry hole.” A gas well is a “blue whistler.” A well or field that has to be pumped is “on the beam.”
A roughneck who loses his girl to another has been “drilled around.” If someone passes him up for a better job, he has been “sidetracked” or “bypassed.”
An oil company that has a hard time financially and has to use patched-up equipment is a “po’ boy [poor boy] outfit.” The community of houses built up around a major oil company headquarters is called the “camp.” The company-owned houses built to accommodate the key men are usually in a group. The privately owned houses where the “hands” live is officially the “employees’ camp,” but the people who live there sometimes call it the “po’ boy camp,” although many of the “po’ boys” have a nicer “spread” than the company houses.
Any kind of faked or altered reports are “boiler housed,” referring to the alleged practice of pumpers “gauging their tanks in the boiler house.”
Occupation names are as colorful as the rest of the oil field diction. All officials from the main office are “pressure,” or “big shots.” The manager of a field is officially the District Superintendent, but the hands will refer to him as the “kingfish,” “head roustabout,” “head knocker,” or “the Man.” Anyone with authority has “stroke.” The “Stroke Department” includes the District Superintendent, Tool Pushers, and Farm Bosses. The Engineers are called among other things, the “Brains Department” or just “Brains.”
A Tool Pusher is in charge of one or more drilling rigs. The name originated in the days when his main job was to keep the rig supplied with drill bits or tools and the day driller was king of the rig. Now the bits are handled by a truck driver known as the “junk hustler”, and the Tool Pusher has authority over all drilling crews.
A Farm Boss is in charge of producing and treating oil after the wells are completed. All gangs and pumpers work under him. The name probably started in the early days when a producing unit now referred to as a Lease, was called a Farm, which it usually was.
A rotary driller is foreman of a drilling crew. He is more often called a “rig runner,” “well digger,” or “digger.” Speaking of a day driller, a roughneck will say he is “running days.” The 4:00 P. M. to midnight shift is called “evening tour” (pronounced tower), and midnight to 8:00 A. M. is “morning tour” or the “graveyard shift.” The driller operates the drawworks and rotary to drill the hole or run pipe in or out.
Next to the driller is the derrick man, who works in the derrick when pipe is being run in or out of the hole. He is also pump repair man. They say he “works derricks.”
The two rotary helpers are the legendary “roughnecks.” When making a “trip” (out and in the hole with the drill pipe) one is “pipe racker” who guides the stand of drill pipe coming out of the hole to its proper place on a platform and “stabs” it in the joint hanging in the rotary going in the hole. He also latches the breakout tongs and helps handle the slips. The other roughneck works the “boll weevil corner,” which is always the first job for an inexperienced man. He latches on the backup tongs coming out of the hole and the makeup tongs going in the hole if a star post is used. A roughneck is emphatically a skilled laborer.
The fifth man in a drilling crew is the fireman or “pot fireman.” He fires the boilers with gas or oil, repairs the boiler feed pumps, and helps out the roughnecks during trips. Two of his most important jobs are to make coffee, and wash the crews’ overalls in a “blow barrel,” usually a fifty-five gallon oil drum connected up to water and steam. It is rough on the overalls, but gets them clean.
The foreman of a gang is a roustabout gangpusher. His crew consists of three more roustabouts. Their duties are to connect oil wells to the gas-oil separators and lease-stock tanks, maintain all producing equipment, and keep the producing properties cleaned up. A gangpusher is said to be “pushing a gang” while a roustabout is “in the gang.”
A lease pumper is called a pumper even though every well in the field is flowing. It is his duty to regulate the flow of the wells, gauge the tanks into which the wells produce, treat oil water emulsion, and report on “gauge tickets” all oil.
A rig builder erects and dismantles derricks and has nothing to do with the drilling rig. The name originated in the days of wooden derricks when the rig builders built the derrick and then hewed out a walking beam, made a bull wheel, and sampson post for “standard” pumping rig.
A “dry watchman” watches a rig that has been shut down or “stacked.”
The crum boss is custodian of the bunkhouse. I do not know the origin of the name, but “crum” is an archaic form of crumb.
A swamper is a truck or tractor driver's helper, but the name is often used for any kind of helper. The “dauber” is a welder and a “pump doctor” is a pump repair man.
Equipment and tools used in the field also have their peculiar names, some functional, some fanciful. The steam, gas, or diesel engine driven hoist which raises and lowers pipe in the hole by means of a wire rope run through a “crown block” on top of the derrick and a “traveling block” moving in the derrick, is called the “drawworks.” While running or pulling pipe the “hook” below the “traveling block” supports the “elevators,” a device that latches around the pipe by means of steel loops called “elevator bails.” While drilling or “making hole,” the drill pipe is supported by a “swivel” and “kelly joint” or “grief stem” suspended from the hook and screwed into the drill pipe. The “kelly joint” is a square, hexagonal, or grooved hollow forging, which slides through and fits snugly in the “rotary drive bushing.” The “rotary” is a turntable controlled by the driller and usually turned by a chain from the “drawworks.” The “rotary hose” connects the “swivel” to the top of the “standpipe,” a pipe run up a corner of the derrick. The bottom of the standpipe connects to reciprocating “slush pumps” or “mud hogs” and drilling fluid or “mud” is pumped through the drill pipe and bit all the time it is rotating on bottom.
If a well is being drilled and the drilling fluid (mud) pumped down the drill pipe enters the formation instead of flowing back up the hole, you “lose returns.” When the end of an old catline or bull rope is raveled out it becomes “soft line.” A chaise longue-looking affair is made by a fireman out of 2 x 12 boards for his personal use in front of the boiler and is called his “lazy bench.” When pipe is being measured (tallied) the man who holds the end of the tape to one end of the pipe has the “ignorant end.” The cross beam at the top of the drawworks is the “headboard.” The vertical columns which support drawworks bearings are “jack posts.” The opposite end of the drilling line from the drawworks drum is tied down to a “dead man.”
The “rathole” is a joint of casing stuck through the derrick floor a few feet from the rotary and drilled down into the ground. When the kelly is not being used to drill it is lowered in the rathole and does not have to be laid down. When the size of the bore hole is reduced while “coring” the small hole is also called “rathole.”
Heavy pieces of pipe which run adjacent to the bit on bottom of the drill pipe are “drill collars.” Any kind of an adapter used between two sizes of pipe is a “sub.” When anything is lost in the hole, it is a “fish” and all devices used to recover material dropped in the hole are “fishing tools.” If it is to go inside the fish, it is a “spear,” if it fits over the fish, it is an “overshot.” A “bulldog spear” is one that cannot be released. One type of sucker rod overshot used on pumping wells is called a “mousetrap.” There are innumerable kinds of patented fishing tools.
Several years ago when heavy tool joints were first being used to connect joints of drill pipe, operators did not put them on every joint. A tool joint “box” went on top of a stand of pipe and a “pin” on bottom. If the stands were “doubles” a drill pipe coupling connected the two joints, if they were “thribbles,” two couplings connected the three joints of pipe. While drilling it is necessary to make single joint connections each time you “make the kelly down.” To accomplish this one joint was equipped with a box and pin where doubles were set back and two joints for thribbles. These were the “greyhounds.” They were used as follows: make the kelly down, pull it out and run in a greyhound; make the kelly down, pull it out, lay down the two greyhounds and run in a thribble; repeat the process. Since every joint of drill pipe is now equipped with a box and pin, greyhounds are obsolete.
Now when drill pipe is removed from the hole, it is stood on end with two to four pieces screwed together. They are referred to as “doubles,” “thribbles,” or “fourbles,” a “stand,” or “a set back.” The platform the derrick man works on is called the “double board” or “fourble board” but rarely the “thribble board.” Each piece of drill pipe is called a “joint” or “stalk.” Short pieces of line pipe are “nipples.” Short joints of casing or tubing are “pup joints.” Short sucker rods are “pony rods.” The connections between joints are “tool joints.” Two methods used in racking the drill pipe back are the “hayrake methods” and “finger and monkey board method.” The platform around the top of the derrick is the “water table” and the cross beam above it is the “gin pole.”
A driller knows how much weight is on the bit in the bottom of the hole by watching the weight indicator attached to the drilling line. If it has a weight recorder on it, the roughnecks call it a “stool pigeon,” because the tool pusher by looking at the chart can tell not only whether the rig has been shut down in his absence, but the exact time.
The boilers are the “pots” and the automatic firing control on the boilers is the “nigger boy.” Steam is sometimes called “smoke.”
A very heavy set of chain tongs used only on hard-to-break drill collars is called “Old Maude” or the “Bull Tongs.” A rotary made so that the center can remain still while the outside turns is called “double deck.” When it is used to make up pipe going in the hole the chain tongs are engaged by an erect tool called the “star post” which fits into the moving outside ring of the rotary while the weight of the drill pipe in the hole is carried by “slips” resting in the rotary. Some rigs make up their drill pipe with a “spinning line” which turns it by friction and is pulled by the “cathead.”
Most drawworks are equipped with a hydraulic device on the drum shaft to take part of the load off the brakes going in the hole. This is called the “water brake” or “yo yo” from its resemblance to the well-known toy.
When a hole is started, it is “spudded in” from the “grass roots.” The first pipe cemented in the hole is “surface casing,” usually 9⅝ in., 10¾ in., or 13⅜ in. in diameter. The casing head, sometimes called “braden head” from one of the early manufacturers, is screwed on the surface casing. The “blowout preventor” flanges to the top of the casing head and is designed to stop the well from flowing from around the drill pipe when it is in the hole. The last string of casing run is the “oil string” and the small pipe suspended in it is “tubing.”
If someone asks a driller how deep he is, the stock answer is “deep as a tree.”
Should a “pay sand’ be encountered and oil string casing set, a strainer of smaller diameter than the casing will usually be set adjacent to the oil sand and held down by “liner” and a “packer.” The strainer is called “screen” regardless of its construction. The liner is pipe of same diameter as the screen and the packer is a patented device usually employing canvas to seal between the screen setting and casing. After the screen is set, the blowout preventor is removed, and the tubing swung from the “tubing head.” The well is finally closed in with a manifold of valves and connections universally known as the “christmas tree.” It may consist of only one valve or a dozen valves and other elaborate control equipment.
Tools used by a roustabout gang are practically the same as described by O. L. Sawey in his article “Pipe Line Diction” in Backwoods to Border. A gang will connect the pipe “flow line” to the “christmas tree” at a well so the oil can flow to the tank “battery,” a group of tanks where all oil produced on a lease is measured and “run” to a pipe line company which transmits it to the refinery. Rate of production of a flowing well is controlled by a restriction in the flowline called a “choke.” Natural gas is separated from the oil by a gas-oil separator usually called a “trap.” If the well produces salt water with the oil, it is usually “treated out” by flowing through a “gun barrel,” a tall tank with a vertical “flume” in the center. In recent years many operators use a “flow treater” instead of a gun barrel. It is an elaborate patented device containing several compartments and a heater. One pumper calls his “the Rice Hotel,” because it has so many rooms in it.
When pressure is released from a well or pressure vessel, it is “bled off.” A long-handle shovel is a “canal wrench.” A device used to grip guy lines so they may be tightened are “come alongs.” A hand-operated brace for drilling holes in steel by hand is “the old man.” A steel load binder for tightening a chain around the load on a truck is a “boomer.”
A pumper's office is his “dog house” and the territory he covers is his “beat.” A device he uses to take oil samples from a tank is a “thief.” A small opening in the top of a tank is the “thief hatch.”
A heat exchanger used on gas lift wells to prevent the gas choke from freezing is a “watermelon.” A well that flows intermittently “heads.”
A hand-operated pump used to lift water out of a “cellar” (the hole around a well head while it is being drilled) is a “one armed Johnnie.”
A malodorant added to natural gas so that leakage may readily be detected by smell is “skunk oil.” An individual gas odorizor used on isolated houses is a “stink bomb.”
Some of the older fields in the Gulf Coast still pump wells with “standard rigs,” that is, cable tool drilling rigs. The wire line drum, drum pulley, and brake wheel make up the “bull wheel.” When “sucker rods” (also called sucker poles) are pulled, the bull wheel is connected to the “band wheel” in the “belt house” by the “bull rope,” a heavy manila rope or small wire line. The band wheel is belt driven by some kind of prime mover. While the standard rig is “bobbin’” (pumping) the pump down in the well is suspended from the end of the “walking beam” by the sucker rods and “beam hanger.” The walking beam rocks on the “sampson post” riding the “saddle bearing.” A post set under the walking beam to catch the weight of the sucker rods in case the pitman breaks on a standard rig is the “headache post.” On more modern rigs a steel segment of a circle on the rod end of the walking beam is the “horse-head.” The beam hanger is a “bridle.” The oscillating motion is transmitted from the prime mover through a crank to the beam by a vertical member called a “pitman.”
Among the transportation equipment, a tractor is a “cat” and a large flat bed semi-trailer truck is a “dance hall.” A short-bed four-wheel truck is a “bob tail.” The boom on a crane truck is the “stinger.” A removable semi-trailer truck bed is a “float.”
When a roustabout thinks a connection is screwed up tight, he says, “that'll do me.” I believe that flanges me up.