In the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, where the Arabian American Oil Company has its oil operations, a tool pusher might ask several roughnecks about some joints. To those unfamiliar with oil industry parlance, these words and terms, and others in daily use by oil men, would be incomprehensible.
But among oil workers, the man called tool pusher is readily identifiable as the drilling foreman, the roughnecks he spoke to are the men who work on the derrick floor, and the joints he referred to are 30-foot sections of pipe.
The oil industry, like every major industry, has its own private language—thousands of words that describe equipment, personnel and industry procedures far more colorfully than any dictionary.
It's a growing language, one that's ever changing, depending on the time and place. Oil terms in use today by Aramco employees in Saudi Arabia are not necessarily those used in Texas, although many words run throughout the industry wherever it is found, and the changes in the lingo since the first commercial well was drilled on a Pennsylvania hillside more than a century ago have kept pace with changes in technology.
The rugged crews who manned the rigs had little schooling in the early days, and the words they used to describe the tools of the trade did not come from textbooks. Many terms had a live, imaginative quality that made an outsider feel he was actually seeing the great rigs bringing up the thick black crude.
You caught the fever of the oil strike days that sent fortune hunters streaming to the Oklahoma plains and the Texas/Louisiana Gulf Coast when you heard glowing accounts of an oildorado—a term taken from Eldorado, legendary city of wealth, to describe a region rich in petroleum.
You felt the elation that swept the fields when someone brought in a gusher, a lucky strike that sent oil spouting up from the depths of the earth in a black geyser pluming high above the derricks. You shared the bitter frustration that came when crews found only a duster or dry hole, scornful names for drilled holes yielding no oil. And you sensed the peril that lurked in every new well when oil men spoke grimly of a blowout, the violent release of a gas pocket that could send drill pipe or drilling cable and bit hurtling skyward, blown out of the hole by gas pressure.
The drillers used words they knew to describe equipment and processes they didn't quite comprehend, and the terms that emerged were usually more accurately descriptive than the fancy titles employed by the experts.
To the boy-turned-driller, the probe tools used to retrieve equipment lost in a well became fishing tools, and whatever was lost was known as a fish. Fishing tools include overshots, junk baskets, sockets, and spears. The belt against which the sweating derrick man strained as he worked on the drill pipe was called a belly buster, and the buried log or rock employed to anchor down a twanging guy wire came to be known by the somewhat macabre title dead man.
The many-armed complex of flow connections and valves that kept a well under control was known as a Christmas tree. And the driving force of the huge wooden wheel which geared power from the engine to the drilling line came alive when men talked of the band wheel.
The workers described themselves in blunt but picturesque imagery. Before the turn of the century when wells were drilled with primitive cable tools, the crewmen were known as toolies. After 1900, with the advent of the rotary rig, they called themselves roughnecks if they worked on the derrick floor, derrick-men if they worked above in the rig.
The pioneers of petroleum land adopted—knowingly or not—most of the classic devices of metaphor in developing their lingo.
Making an attribute do duty for the whole, they used terms like mud-smeller or rock-hound for a geologist testing dirt for the presence of oil and shooter for the man who in the old days dropped a charge of nitroglycerine to clean a clogged well. Today shooter is applied to the member of the seismic exploration team who handles dynamite.
Another technique was to substitute figures of speech for literal descriptions. Thus crude oil was labeled black gold, and the man-sized upright beam used to break the fall of the seesaw apparatus driving the drill usually was called a headache post.
Vivid verb phrases were employed to depict the operation. Hitting the pay meant to strike oil-producing sand; to spud in covered the initial starting of the hole from the surface after the rig has been "moved in," and to skid the rig was the order to shift a derrick.
A certain cynicism crept into the terms used to portray familiar figures in the field.
One who drills wells in the hopes of finding oil in a territory not known to be an oil field was called a wildcatter—one who prospects out where the wildcats howl. Oil witch was the name applied to the diviner who made money in the days before geologists by walking the fields with forked stick in hand waiting for the prongs to dip where oil lay beneath the ground. He was also called a doodle-bugger because the prongs of his stick reminded workers of the horns of an insect.
Because oil men worked long hours outdoors, it might be suspected that their healthy appetites caused food terms to pop up in their work. Soup stood for nitroglycerine; eggs for charges of dynamite; macaroni for small diameter pipe; tabasco sauce for the red acid used to dissolve the limestone through which a well was drilled; and apple butter for the thick dressing on engine belts.
In the early days the porridge-like mixture dredged up when the bit bored through sand, limestone and shale beds came to be known as buckwheat batter, and the samples of rock formation carved from a well much as breakfast cakes are cut from dough were called biscuits.
Oil men have also borrowed heavily from the language of the sailor to describe their operation.
Aboard a ship, for example, the crow's nest is the lookout platform at the top of the mast. Oil hands use crow's nest to describe a platform which serves as a base of operations at the top of the derrick. At sea, a marlinspike is a sharp steel tool that joins or splices ends of rope. Roughnecks use the same term for the tool employed to splice wire. When a sailor goes over the side of his vessel, he uses a Jacob's ladder. A drilling crew also has a Jacob's ladder—an upright pipe with rungs attached to each side, and a two-legged pole supporting drilling equipment is labeled a mast.
Sometimes the same terms are used by seamen and oilmen, but with different meanings. To swab down a ship's deck is to mop it, but swabbing down a well means to remove oil and water from the hole. And in oildom windjammer doesn't mean a picturesque sailing vessel, but a worker who talks too much.
The reason for the parallel in nautical and petroleum terms has never been definitely established, but some historians suggest that the discovery of oil in 1859 lured many unemployed seamen to Pennsylvania to get in on the boom. The word boom, incidentally, was originally an oil field term referring to a petroleum-rich region.
With the development of offshore oil prospecting and the fleet of drilling ships that probe the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico and other coastal waters in quest of pay sand, the nautical influence is becoming even more pronounced.
Petroleum men call the Gulf of Mexico area, where drilling a wildcat well can cost millions, the Blue Chip Sea. And the bays and bayous of Louisiana and Texas where the offshore rigs cluster are known as whale pastures. This refers, however, not to the big sea mammal, but to the earliest days when an oil gusher was called a whale. Helicopters that range over the Gulf carrying men and equipment to the rigs are called sky hooks because of their ability to hover over the target without moving.
Seismographer is the term used to describe a relatively new breed of oil man. These hardy scientists who employ seismic instruments slog across open lands from Alaska to Saudi Arabia, drilling holes and setting off dynamite blasts to produce artificial earthquakes. Shock waves from the man-made quakes, picked up by geophones known as jugs, help the seismographers map subsurface structures.
As the oil industry changes with the application of new equipment and new technology, so will its private parlance change. A derrickman who retires this year would find himself hard-pressed to understand the lingo in use at a derrick site 25 years from now. Chances are, though, that he'd still find a crew of roughnecks hard at work.