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This is a line from the movie The Ballad of Buster Scruggs:

(Buster Scruggs to the camera, supposedly to the viewer, before turning to face an opponent in a gunfight duel): Things have a way of escalating out here in the West with one thing leading to another, but I should be able to make pretty short work of this ramified old son-of-a-gun.

Dictionaries define ramify as to spread out, but I don't see how that can fit in this context. What does it mean here?

  • Have not seen the movie, but perhaps it means the old son-of-a-gun no longer has his wits about him, and so Buster Scruggs believes he can make short work of him. – Weather Vane Nov 18 '18 at 17:42
  • Haven't seen the movie, but in westerns and spoofs of westerns there is the possibility that it is a malapropism. A plant "ramifies" into shoots or branches from a main stalk. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 18 '18 at 18:01
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From Merriam-Webster:

Ramify has been part of English since the 15th century and is an offshoot of the Latin word for "branch," which is "ramus." English acquired several scientific words from "ramus," including "biramous" ("having two branches"). Another English word derived from "ramus" is the now obsolete ramage, meaning "untamed" or "wild." "Ramage" originated in falconry-it was initially used of young hawks that had begun to fly from branch to branch in trees.

I expect the person who wrote this particular vignette read the term "ramified" in some Old West novel or newspaper article and decided it would sound good in the script, even if the intended meaning is not quite correct. It's certainly rare enough that few would know what it meant out of context, but in the film we can (more or less) guess what Buster is saying about his opponent.

  • And what is he saying? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 18 '18 at 20:23
  • @Tᴚoɯɐuo Any word paired with "son of a gun" is likely to be some kind of aspersion. The exact meaning is unimportant. – Andrew Nov 19 '18 at 0:24
  • Based on the definition, a ramified old son-of-a-gun is a wild old son-of-a-gun. To analyze it further, wild could stand for erratic or unskilled. In other words, Buster Scruggs considers himself more skilled and in no danger of losing the duel. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Nov 19 '18 at 2:00
  • @JasonBassford or just angry. – Andrew Nov 19 '18 at 2:12
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Wright in his English Dialect Dictionary cites attestations for ramified where the word is used to refer to crops which are choked with a "rubbishy" growth. So the word could be a synonym for "worthless" or "no good"—an aspersion, as Andrew says in a comment above.

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