"Bear sign” is a cowboy term for doughnuts. In the Pacific Northwest, “bear sign” means berry jam. “Bear sign” is first recorded from the 1830s to mean “bear droppings or tracks” (literally, the signs of a bear).
No one knows exctly why or when “bear sign” came into cowboy lingo for doughnuts, but it appears on Andy Adams’ Log of a Cowboy (1903).
Western Slang, Lingo & Phrases
Bear Sign - A cowboy term for donuts made while they were on the range. A cook who could and would make them was highly regarded.
Log of a Cowboy
Literature Network » Andy Adams » Log of a Cowboy, The » Chapter XVIII. The North Platte
“‘There was a little woman at the ranch,’ said he, ‘wife of the owner, and I was helping her get up dinner, as we had quite a number of folks at the ranch. She asked me to make the bear sign—doughnuts, she called them—and I did, though she had to show me how some little. Well, fellows, you ought to have seen them--just sweet enough, browned to a turn, and enough to last a week. All the folks at dinner that day praised them. Since then, I’ve had a chance to try my hand several times, and you may not tumble to the diversity of all my accomplishments, but I’m an artist on bear sign.’
“Miller arose, took him by the hand, and said, ‘That’s straight, now, is it?’
“‘That’s straight. Making bear sign is my long suit.’
by Ramon F. Adams
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Books
Doughnuts, something he rarely had the opportunity of eating except when he went to town, were called “bear sign.”
The Chisholm Trail
by Ralph Compton
New York: St. Martin’s Press
For Christmas dinner there was fried chicken, ham, fish, roast wild turkey, and venison. There were dried apple cakes, driped apple pies, rice pudding, and bear sign.*
by Kerry Newcomb
New York: St. Martin’s Press
“Bear sign!” Colby exclaimed as he espied the sugared doughnuts on the table.
Creed of the Mountain Man
by William W. Johnstone
New York: Pinnacle Books
She was carrying a platter of still-steaming bear sign, the sweet doughnuts that cowboys had been known to ride ten miles for.
Pearlie’s eyes widened and he let out a whoop. “Hey, Cal, Miss Sally’s got some bear sign for us!”
(Dictionary of American Regional English)
1. Bear droppings or tracks.
1839 S. Lit. Messenger 5.377/1 GA, To be sure I did see a powerful sight of bear signs.
2. Transf: doughnuts. West
1903 (1965) Adams Log Cowboy 280 NM, She asked me to make the bear sign—doughnuts, she called them. 1942 Berrey-Van den Bark Amer. Slang 926 West, Bear sign, doughtnuts. 1944 Adams Western Words bear-sign—The cowboy’s name for doughnuts.
3. Transf; among loggers; berry jam. West
1942 Berry-Van den Bark Amer. Slang 513, Logging terms, bear sign, berry jam. 1958 McCulloch Woods Words Pacific NW, Bear sign—Blackberry jam, particularly if very seedy.
Texas (Lone Star State Dictionary) • (1) Comments • Monday, January 01, 2007 • Permalink
"You get some, John. You ain’t much for work, but I’d keep you for making bear sign. I never saw you beat.”
“Time was I’ve been kept making bear sign for three days without letup, make ‘em by the dishpan full, and none left at the end. Men ride miles to get handful of bear sign.”
“RADIGAN” by Louis L’Amour. Bantam Books, 2008