Use of "dan" to mean burro

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OffGrid9

New Member
English - US
I'm older than dirt. Over the past 65 years, reading western literature & poetry, listening to western songs, I've heard or seen several references to "dan" as a donkey, burro, pony, or small pack-horse. Examples:

"I ride an old paint, I lead an old dan, I'm goin' to Montana...."
-- traditional American cowboy song, "I Ride an Old Paint"

"Old Dan and I, with throats parched dry, and souls that cry for water.... Keep amovin' Dan, don't you listen to 'em Dan.... Dan's feet are sore...."
-- sung by Sons of the Pioneers, "Cool Water"

"...My old dan's foot-sore, and I am too...."
-- part of an old song I heard sung by a long retired Arizona cowhand in the 60's

I've looked. I haven't found formal acknowledgement anywhere that "dan", at least in common vernacular of the western US, can be used to mean donkey, or burro, or....

Does anyone have any substantiation of this usage?
 
  • velisarius

    Senior Member
    British English (Sussex)
    The British English word for "ass" - "donkey", is derived from the word "dun", a reference to the colour of the beasts- according to the Etymology Dictionary Online:
    Online Etymology Dictionary


    The WR Random House Dictionary has this:
    "Dun (noun) 4: a dun-colored horse with a black mane and tail".

    It could also be a familiar name for a horse, from its colour
    A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language

    I think it reasonable to suspect that the name "dan/Dan" comes from "dun" or "Dun".
     

    OffGrid9

    New Member
    English - US
    The British English word for "ass" - "donkey", is derived from the word "dun", a reference to the colour of the beasts- according to the Etymology Dictionary Online:
    Online Etymology Dictionary


    The WR Random House Dictionary has this:
    "Dun (noun) 4: a dun-colored horse with a black mane and tail".

    It could also be a familiar name for a horse, from its colour
    A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language

    I think it reasonable to suspect that the name "dan/Dan" comes from "dun" or "Dun".
    Thank you, sir. That's a good etymological analysis, and as you say, a reasonable assumption...and all in 45 minutes! ...And yet...I guess I was hoping to learn of other instances where dan (or Dan) had been used in this manner. I should have been clearer. But that takes nothing from your response, which is outstanding. Thanks again.
     

    velisarius

    Senior Member
    British English (Sussex)
    I realised what you were asking for, OG, but I'm afraid I can't help you with other examples. I've never heard of a familiar name for a donkey in BrE, but then there aren't a great number of donkeys in Britain anyway. Let's hope someone else (probably a speaker of AE) will come along and enlighten us all.

    Meanwhile, welcome to the forum.:)
     
    There are several discussions on the 'net. Here is one where some argue a 'dan' is a burro or mule. Others suggest 'dan' is an alteration of 'dam' (female). Velisarius' 'dun' idea is sometimes mentioned. Another is that, as James said, "Dan" is just a horse/mule name like "Fido" for dogs.

    BUT, "[Old] Dan" may refer to the devil, so it's a name, but given, hence, to mules.

    What is an "Old Dan" Horse? - Straight Dope Message Board

    =========================

    http://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=7295#43889

    Subject: RE: I Ride An Old Paint
    From: GUEST
    Date: 25 Feb 08 - 05:16 PM

    I have been singing this song for years, without knowing what half of it means.

    I am preferring to think the "lead an old Dan" is an old burro, just sorta makes sense. I'm not arguing about the hoolihan.

    But what are the coolies and the draw??? (where the fire and the water is)
     
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    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    I've never heard of a familiar name for a donkey in BrE, ...
    Oh veli! (cries Loob reproachfully.) What about "neddy"?

    I haven't come across "dan", but the Cassell's Dictionary of Slang lists several person-names which have been used at one time or another to mean "donkey", including "tom", "jenny" ... and "baldwin".

    Edit: caps> lower-case​
     
    Last edited:

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    The OED does not fully support Online Etymology Dictionary and says
    Etymology: A recent word, apparently of dialect or slang origin.
    As the original pronunciation apparently rhymed with monkey (whence the spelling), suggestions have been made that the word is a derivative of dun adjective (compare dunnock hedge-sparrow), or, more probably, a familiar form of Duncan (compare the other colloquial appellations, Dicky, Neddy).
    as the "y/ey/ie" sound creates a friendly familiar name (implying "little/dear + name") Duncan becomes Dunkie/Dunky/Dunkey - Hence donkey.
    I guess I was hoping to learn of other instances where dan (or Dan) had been used in this manner. I should have been clearer.
    What is the earliest example that you have of this use of "dan"?
     

    OffGrid9

    New Member
    English - US
    There are several discussions on the 'net. Here is one where some argue a 'dan' is a burro or mule. Others suggest alteration of 'dam' (female). Velisarius 'dun' is sometimes mentioned. The other is that, as James said, "Dan" is just a horse/mule name like "Fido" for dogs.

    BUT, "Dan" may refer to the devil, so it's a name but given, hence, to mules.

    What is an "Old Dan" Horse? - Straight Dope Message Board

    =========================

    http://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=7295#43889

    Subject: RE: I Ride An Old Paint
    From: GUEST
    Date: 25 Feb 08 - 05:16 PM

    I have been singing this song for years, without knowing what half of it means.

    I am preferring to think the "lead an old Dan" is an old burro, just sorta makes sense. I'm not arguing about the hoolihan.

    But what are the coolies and the draw??? (where the fire and the water is)
    I've gotten lost among all the responses, and responses to responses. I spent a lot of time in Utah and Arizona in the 60's. Let me tell you what I learned just by living there, and by listening to old timers talk about the song, "I ride an old paint". The song

    A paint is a common term for a pinto horse or pony. Pinto comes from Spanish pintado (painted), shortened through usage to pinto. The terms "paint" and "pinto" are synonymous, and describe any horse or pony with the brown and white markings.

    (I think) a dan is any pack animal that is led, not ridden. I thought the term was mostly used for donkeys/burros, but I wasn't sure, so I started this thread. ...And a lot of you folks are persuasive in saying it applies to mules and horses, too.

    Houlihan (or hoolihan or hooley-anne or Julio-hand) is a lariat-throwing technique
    <Unapproved video link removed. Cagey, moderator.>

    A coulee (NOT coolie!) is a broad, flat-bottomed valley, carved long ago by vast quantities of water released over a relatively short period of time (e.g., Grand Coulee or Moses Coulee in WA, Sand Coulee in MT). Although often dry, they can be fertile, and (somewhat) protected from high winds and blizzards.

    A draw (also called arroyo or gulch) is smaller, can be dry or wet, but from the places I've been they usually aren't flat - they're mostly V-shaped cuts in a plateau's edge, leading down to a valley.

    "Fiery and Snuffy" - I've heard a lot of anecdotal guesses about lightning & thunder, branding-fire and branding-iron, six-guns on left and right hip, and other not-very-well-documented opinions. Most don't make any sense at all, since they aim at inanimate objects without will. If something is "rarin' to go", it is alive and capable of making choices. Let me add MY not-very-well-documented opinion. I met old man Olsen in '64, lived near Corinne UT, he'd cowboyed in the early part of the 20th century. His father and grandfather had cowboyed all over the west. His grand-dad had started just after the Civil War (the AMERICAN Civil War, thank you). He told me he'd heard both terms used on cattle drives, and were personality-types of cattle you needed to watch out for - seemed like there was at least one of each in every large herd. A fiery was high-spirited and nervous, jumpy, ready to go berserk. A snuffy was quieter, but would attack a cowboy with no notice - mean as a snake and spoiling for a fight. Other than what that old man told me, I have absolutely no support for this interpretation...but it makes more sense to me than the others.

    I want to thank all of you for your responses and thoughts. They pushed me to do more digging. I really can't spend any more time on this thread, my wife is ready to disembowel me.
     
    Last edited by a moderator:

    OffGrid9

    New Member
    English - US
    "...What is the earliest example that you have of this use of "dan"?
    I really don't know. The only example I can date is the song, "Cool Water", which was written by Bob Nolan in 1936. It is a beloved "Cowboy Song", but clearly not sung by cowboys.

    "I ride an old paint" is a real, true traditional cowboy song, collected and published in 1927 by Carl Sandburg. It comes from an earlier period, but I don't know how much earler.

    The song I heard sung in Arizona back in 1963...I have no idea where or when it came from. I don't recall most of the lyrics, or much of the tune.

    Sorry I can't be of any more help.


    < Edited to correct formatting of quotation. Cagey, moderator. >
     
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