Oil & Gas Dictionary of Historical Terminology

LUBE LINGO by Roxannne Hitchcock
Published by: Oil Region Books, Oil City, PA
Reprinted by permission from the author
Copies available from the oil150 store

We are constantly using and adapting words to fit our ever-changing culture.

The oil field workers were no different. They used and changed the meanings of words to fit their lifestyle. This little glossary is just a small example of the amount of words and expressions used. This is not meant to be a comprehensive study, merely a sample of the historical terminology used many years ago and in some cases still used today.

For more modern and in-depth definitions check our list of other dictionaries

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To complete a task that seems to be impossible. The Big Inch is said to have been “accidented” across the mountains of Pennsylvania by builders who were unable to recognize the impossible.

Atlantic Ocean

A salt-water well that produces little or no oil. In the 1850’s salt water well drilling was prominent down by Pittsburgh.

Attic Hand

A worker in a drilling or a production crew who is employed in the derrick, usually climbing the tall heights of the derrick.




Descriptive of a worn drilling bit. Many drilling bits were sharpened by toolies before oil was struck.


A well that has no casing, perforated pipe, or screen and doesn’t need one.


An extension on an exhaust. Since the extension alters the sound produced by the engine, the worker in charge of a group of engines can by using extensions of different lengths, determine from a distance whether each engine is running properly.

Barrel House

A combination saloon and dance hall; so called because bartenders habitually put drunken customers who were out of money into barrels and rolled them out of the house.

Big Inch

A twenty-four inch pipe line built during World War II which transported crude oil from Longview, Texas, to Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, and there branched into smaller lines leading to refineries in the east.

Bird Dog

1. An early term used for geologists, who were so called because they were supposed to be able to “smell out” oil. 2. Any person who ferreted out information and bird dogged it to other companies. 3. A snooper or hanger-on who watches oil-field activities with the intention of getting information.

Biscuit Cutter

A clumsy derrickman who drops pipe and so leaves biscuit-like marks on the derrick floor.

Black Gold

An early name for petroleum. (See Petroleum)


The local name for the Big Red Sandstone, Clarion County, Pennsylvania.

Blue Monday Sand

The name given to the lower second sand in Butler County, Pennsylvania.


To handle goods or deals surreptitiously or through other than regular or legal channels.


A simple minded but honest individual, who allows himself to be persuaded that he can make a fortune by investing his “pile” in an oil well with one-half royalty. Some became very wealthy.

Bulk Boat

An open flatboat which was used to transport crude petroleum down Oil Creek to the Allegheny River before 1900. It was called a bulk boat because it carried oil in bulk, untrammeled by barrel, can, or other container. The oil ran from the well in a rough, V-shaped board trough to a crude tank, which was a hole in the ground eight to ten feet deep and eight to twelve feet in diameter, lined with pine planks. The top of the tank was even with the surface of the ground. When a pond freshet came, the oil was pumped through a wooden pipe to the bulk boat and started on its way.


The condition of a man from whose pockets no more greenbacks “can be pumped,” on account of a serious rupture at the bottom.



Carbon Oil

A trade name for kerosene used around 1850-55.

Cash on the Barrel-Head

A term allegedly originating in the oil field in the 1860’s when old Major Adams, manager of the Clapp Farm near Oil City, Pennsylvania, sold his first thousand barrels of oil for cash. As the story goes, he kicked the nearest oak barrel upright and counted the $10,000 on the barrel’s head.

Chocolate Rocks

Bands of red shale occurring between the Second and Third Oil Sands in the Oil Creek, Pennsylvania, field. Also called putty rocks.

Christmas Tree

An assembly of valves, pipes, and fittings the top of a well controlling the flow of oil and gas.


A half acre “clearing” on a barren sidehill, upon whose “brow” three slab shanties, a stable, and a “travelers’ rest” have been erected.


The name for unrefined petroleum, or petroleum in a natural state, not altered, refined, or prepared for use by any process.

Crude Skinners

Early oil teamsters who replaced the boatmen who originally floated the oil down the creek during a pond freshet.

Curbstone Exchange

An informal meeting of producers, dealers, and speculators at Oil City, Pennsylvania, in 1871. The oilmen congregated on the sidewalk in front of the office of Lockhart, Frew and Company, discussed the news, told stories, and bought and sold oil. It was said that often as much as $500,000 exchanged hands in one day.




A worker who transports nitroglycerin. So called because of the dangerous nature of the occupation. Many men lost their lives in this profession, and because of the danger were not allowed to carry life insurance, thus leaving their families in dire straits.

Derrick Apples

Small parts of the derrick that sometimes fall to the floor; nuts, bolts, washers, and even mud (which shrinks as it dries and falls to the floor.)

Dog Town

Boom town in Clarion County. It is said because of the large number of dogs in town, and also because the town was desolate, it was “not fit for a dog.”


1. Any small house on a leases; a place to keep lease records, hang one’s cot, change clothing, or get out of the weather. 2. The cooplike structure near the derrick floor where the driller or tool dressers keep their working clothes. 3. A small, single-room stove-heated building (often separated from the main building of a gas or gasoline station to assure safety from fires). 4. A pumper’s office.

Dog Town

Boom town in Clarion County. It is said because of the large number of dogs in town, and also because the
town was desolate, it was “not fit for a dog.”


1. One who uses a divining rod in prospecting for oil. Diviner, oil smeller, oil wizard. 2. A divining rod used in prospecting for oil. In the days before geologists many well sites were located using this method. The oil boom began in Pleasantville because of this method.

Drake’s Yoke

The first oil derrick in America, designed and built by E.L. Drake at Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859. The derrick was twelve feet square at the base with four timbers thirty feet long, gradually narrowing to three feet square at the top. It was assembled on the ground and then raised to the proper position. So named by the men who helped Drake raise it.



Elephant Well

The third producing well in Titusville, Pennsylvania; so named because it produced what was at that time (1860) an enormous yield, 75 to 80 barrels a day.



Fancy Stock Company

The epithet applied to the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company of New York, which was organized in 1854 but almost universally distrusted until the middle of 1855 when Benjamin Sillaman’s analysis of the Titusville oil was made public. This report proved to be a turning point in the establishment of the petroleum industry.


A horse-drawn slide or sled used in the early days to transfer pedestrians across muddy streets.




1. A scraper with self-adjusting spring blades which is inserted in a pipe line and carried forward by fluid pressure to clear away accumulations from the walls of the pipes. Said to have been named by Pennsylvania Dutch farmers who associated the device with witches and evil spirits because of the rumbling and chugging noises the scraper makes as it progresses through the pipe. 2. A device used to explode the nitroglycerin in shooting an oil well, so called because after dropping the Go-Devil you were to “go like the Devil.”


Clothing worn by the oilfield workers. It usually consisted of a flannel shirt, corduroy trousers, high topped boots or heavy shoes with leggings for the rugged country.


A narrow barge fifteen to twenty-five feet long, with a capacity of twenty-five to fifty barrels; used for transporting oil in the 1860’s.


Also known as a “flowing well.” So named because natural gas under the oil was released when the exploring drill struck the pocket containing it. The gas rushed to the surface carrying the petroleum ahead of it and causing it to flow spontaneously often throwing it high in the air over the derrick.




A hogshead ordinarily contains a minimum of 63 or a maximum of 140 gallons. If the Rangoon wells yielded 400,000 hogsheads annually, they produced a minimum of 600,000 barrels or a maximum of over 1,300,000 barrels per year.




An early pronunciation of oil. Made famous when Ann Evans’ “Dad struck ile!” sounded all over Franklin when James Evans drilled an oil well right in his back yard.


Originally any independent oil company outside the Standard Oil group; now, any small oil company, or individuals or companies engaged in a single branch of the oil industry.




To use a spring pole in well-drilling, probably because of the bobbing up and down and jerking motion.

Johnny Newcome

An early name for a newcomer to the oil regions, a greenhorn to the business.

Jumping a Claim

Taking possession of a mine or oil claim by stealth, fraud, or force.



Kicking Down

A method of drilling which involved the use of a short, elastic pole made of ash or hickory, ten to fifteen feet in length, and arranged over the well, working over a fulcrum. Stirrups were attached to the end of the pole, on which two or three workers each placed a foot and by a kicking motion brought down the pole and produced the action necessary to work the bit.

Kosmos Burner

A burner for testing the candle power of illuminating oils.




An agreement in writing between a land owner and a “flat” whereby the former, for valuable consideration, grants the latter the privilege of testing the landowner’s territory, and, if found paying to reserve to himself all the profits, and, if otherwise, to allow the lessee to hang himself on the erected derrick.

Long John

The stationary, tubular boiler which was used to furnish power for drilling Drake’s Well; the boiler had originally been used by steamers.




A cable-tool driller; so called because the engine he operated was called a mail pouch and because the driller often used Mail Pouch tobacco.


1. To torpedo a well at night to evade the patent held by Col. E.A. Roberts, used before 1883. 2. To engage in any illegal activity at night, a moon lighter.

Mother Hubbard Bit

A drilling bit especially useful for working in a hole that muds up easily, or in a rock which is hard and contains wide seams. The bit is almost a wide at the top as at the cutting point and the steel is exceptionally thick. The result is that the bit so nearly fills the hole that it is not likely to slip off into slanting openings. The sharp shoulders on the bit cause it to cut its way through the mud when pulling out.

Mouse Trap

A fishing tool, cylindrical in form, open at the bottom and fitted with an inward opening valve; designed to fish out small parts that may be lost in a well.


To search for and publicize real or alleged corruption. The most famous being Ida Tarbell, for exposing the Standard Oil Company.


A well about which information is withheld from the public while it is being drilled. One of the most famous is the “646” well at Cherry Grove, Warren County, Pennsylvania.




The product of the action of nitric acid and sulphuric acid on glycerin. It is not properly a nitro compound, as the name implies, but a nitric ester of glycerin. It is an oil substance about one and one-half times a heavy times as heavy as water, is almost insoluble in water, and is used as a principal or active ingredient in dynamite, gelatin dynamite, etc. It is not used commercially in the form of a liquid, except for “shooting oil wells.”


A medicinal oil manufactured by the Standard Oil Company in the 1920’s. Their advertisement states “Nujol is a lubricant, not a laxative. When taken into the body it is not absorbed, as drugs and medicines are. The action of Nujol is entirely different from that of castor oil, olive oil, pills, salts, mineral waters, laxatives or cathartics. Its action is that of a mechanical lubricant, not a medical irritant.” Standard Oil also produced other petroleum medicinals.



Oil Creek Humbug

A dry hole, leaving its’ owners high, dry, and mostly broke. The Fountain well (the first famous flowing well, located at Funkville,) was nicknamed “Oil Creek Humbug” because paraffin destroyed it.

Oil Drummer

A salesman of petroleum products. Usually traveling the country side with wagon carrying his various wares. John Eaton, the founder of Oil Well Supply, began in this manner.

Oil Fever

The “disease” of eager oil speculators. Otherwise known as “oil on the brain.”

Oil Prince

An heir to an oil fortune. John (Coal Oil Johnny) Steele was an early famous oil prince.

Oil Sand

Crude oil is located not in large pools, as the term oil pool would indicate, but in one or more layers of porous oil saturated rock, each of which is called an oil sand. These formations as a rule are overlaid with an impervious cap rock preventing the oil and gas from escaping while salt water usually occupies the lower parts of the sands.

Oil Scout

A representative of an oil company who is expected to keep his employers informed about new wells and other developments in the fields.

Old Oil

Oil on which storage has been paid for a certain length of time but not to the day of transaction; when paid to the day of transaction, it is called fresh oil.

Organ of Oil

An epithet applied to the Oil City Derrick, the daily newspaper covering all the important early developments in the oil industry. First issued on September 11, 1871, in Oil City, Pennsylvania.



Paleozoic Age

The most productive geologic age in American petroleum-bearing sedimentary rocks.

Pay Dirt

An earth formation in which there is a paying yield of oil. Originally a mining term.


The Bradford and Foster Brook Railroad, built in 1877; so called because the train ran on a single rail. It operated for only a short time.


Black gold, crude oil, Devil’s tar, earth oil, flowing gold, fossil oil, Kier’s Rock Oil, Pennsylvania crude, rock oil, Seneca oil, and many other names. In the early part of the 19th century it was defined as bitumen, black, floating on the water of springs.

Pipe-Line Harley

Henry Harley, the president of the first great pipe-line company, The Allegheny Transportation Company (1871), which controlled nearly 500 miles of pipeline in Pennsylvania, to Tidioute, Irvineton, Oil City, Shamburg, Pleasantville, and Titusville.


A deep rock fissure. Pithole Creek, Pennsylvania, was named for the pitholes there; because of their great depth and the steam that arose from them, constantly accompanied by foul odors, they were never completely explored. Some believed that the pitholes were entrances to hell and the odor was that of brimstone; others believe that they indicated the presence of petroleum. Oil was discovered there in 1864.

Pond Freshet

An artificial flood used in early days to increase the depth of a creek temporarily. Water was stored in ponds during the rainy season and was released during the dry season; by this method the transportation of oil could continue the year round regardless of the season. When the dams were opened, oil boaters were cut loose from their moorings and plunged helter-skelter down the creek. There were many collisions and jams and much oil was lost. Sightseers came prepared to dip up the oil that spilled, and it was said that many people got their start in the oil industry by this practice.

Poor Boy

An oil promoter or drilling company with little or no financial backing. Usually operating on a shoestring.






The tent section of a boom town.


Rum, cards and tobacco, the motto of the Swordsman’s Club, a social group organized in Pithole, Pennsylvania, in 1865 by leading citizens. On one occasion, a jokester told a minister that the initials meant “Religious Counsels Treasured,” whereupon the minister preached a sermon praising the organization.


A teamster who hauled barrels of oil to railroad shipping points in the early days of the petroleum industry.


1. All the boring and pumping equipment, including the derrick, used in locating and securing oil. 2. An oil derrick.


1. It is a variety of bitumen; for bitumen is the general term applied to inflammable substances, whether fluid or solid, which is found in the earth or exuding from its surface, and of a particular, disagreeable odor. 2. Petroleum; so called to distinguish it from linseed oil, caster oil, etc.

Rope Choker

A cable tool driller. Probably the nickname originated in the name calling feud between the cable tool drillers and the rotary drillers. It is said that the cable tool drillers first began to call the rotary drillers swivel neck to show their scorn for the new methods of drilling. Resenting the insult that had been cast at their work, the rotary drillers retaliated by calling the cable tool drillers ropechokers. It has been also claimed that the cable tool driller is so called because of his almost human association and relationship with the Manila rope or rag line.


Name given to a member of the crew of an oil derrick during drilling operations. The crew is supervised by the tool pusher who operates the drilling equipment.


1. A semi-skilled laborer who assists the foreman in the general work around producing oil wells and around the property of an oil company. The name was originally given to the laborer who assisted in the loading and unloading of river craft. 2. A common laborer who fires the boiler, does odd jobs about the rig, and aspires to be a tool dresser or a roughneck.


1. A shortened form of a rock hound or geologist. 2. The nickname of the author of this little work.




Name for a popular mixed alcohol drink, so called because the oil workers would stir it with their screwdrivers.

Seneca Oil

Early name for petroleum, probably because of the Seneca Indians that lived here. Nathaniel Carey, one of the earliest settlers on Oil Creek, collected the oil and peddled it all around the area, selling it for 25¢ a gill. Every household had a bottle of “Seneca oil” handy. People regarded it as a remedy for a wide variety of ailments. Carey also traveled to Pittsburgh with two kegs slung across h is horse, where he traded the liquid for groceries and cloth.


A temporary residence erected by those immigrants to the oil regions who expected to make their fortunes in a year and then retire.


One who shoots oil wells with nitroglycerin to loosen or shatter the sand and to increase the flow of an oil well.

Snake Oil

A liquid represented as having medicinal properties. Many traveling hucksters pedaled their wares from the tailgate of a wagon. Not all snake oil medicinals were petroleum based.

Soiled Dove

A prostitute. An active occupation in the many boom towns, one of which was the famous “French Kate” of Pithole.

Soup Wagon

A wagon or truck used to haul liquid nitroglycerin. One bump and …KABOOM!


An oil well with an uncontrolled flow, in general a well that does not require pumping. Also called a gusher or fountain.

Spring Pole

A tool used to work the drill and other implements in sinking a well.


A modern cable tool rig used in drilling. By using this rig it was no longer necessary to build a derrick.

Stripper Well

A flowing well in the 1860’s that flowed constantly during the week days, but ceased on the Sabbath. It was regarded with some superstition by the workmen, and regarded as a great curiosity for a short while. It was thought to be caused by a peculiar confirmation of the veins with relation to the cavities containing the oil.




Nickname for a tool dresser, the driller’s assistant at an oil well, responsible for sharpening or dressing the drill bit. A junior driller.


A strong shell or water-tight box filled with powder, and exploded by a galvanic battery. The explosion is supposed to distend the opening, enlarging the veins, and preparing for the flow of the oil to the region of the pump. Nitroglycerin was also exploded in a well to remove obstructions or reach oil.


A working shift. Most workers worked a 10 to 12 hour shift, six days a week.







West Virginia Rule

A rule adopted in 1886 which set the measure of a barrel as 40 liquid gallons plus 2 more gallons in favor of the buyer.


One who drills for oil in unproven territory in the hopes of striking it rich.





Yellow Dog

A teapot shaped lamp used at night on early drilling rigs. So named by tradition because it gave just enough light to see a “yellow dog.” Another tradition says it gave just enough light to see the “eyes” of a yellow dog.


A spudder for drilling the borehole down to the rock; so called because it has an up and down motion like a toy yo-yo.




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