The History of the Word Cowboy
English word cowboy has an origin from several
earlier terms that referred to both age and to cattle or
The word "cowboy" appeared in the English
language by 1725. It appears to be a direct English translation
of vaquero, a Spanish word for an individual who managed cattle
while mounted on horseback.
It was derived from vaca, meaning "cow,"
which came from the Latin word vacca. Another English word for a
cowboy, buckaroo, is an Anglicization of vaquero.
At least one linguist has speculated that the
word "buckaroo" derives from the Arabic word bakara or bakhara,
also meaning "heifer" or "young cow", and may have entered
Spanish during the centuries of Islamic rule.
Originally, the term may have been intended
literally—"a boy who tends cows." By 1849 it had developed its
modern sense as an adult cattle handler of the American West.
Variations on the word "cowboy" appeared later.
"Cowhand" appeared in 1852, and "cowpoke" in
1881, originally restricted to the individuals who prodded
cattle with long poles to load them onto railroad cars for
shipping. Names for a cowboy in American English include
buckaroo, cowpoke, cowhand, and cowpuncher.
"Cowboy" is a term common throughout the west
and particularly in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains,
"Buckaroo" is used primarily in the Great Basin and California,
and "cowpuncher" mostly in Texas and surrounding states.
The word cowboy also had English language
roots beyond simply being a translation from Spanish.
Originally, the English word "cowherd" was used to describe a
cattle herder, (similar to "shepherd," a sheep herder) and often
referred to a preadolescent or early adolescent boy, who usually
worked on foot. (Equestrianism required skills and an investment
in horses and equipment rarely available to or entrusted to a
child, though in some cultures boys rode a donkey while going to
and from pasture)
This word is very old in the English
language, originating prior to the year 1000. In antiquity,
herding of sheep, cattle and goats was often the job of minors,
and still is a task for young people in various third world
Because of the time and physical ability
needed to develop necessary skills, the cowboy often did began
his career as an adolescent, earning wages as soon as he had
enough skill to be hired, (often as young as 12 or 13) and who,
if not crippled by injury, might handle cattle or horses for the
rest of his working life. In the United States, a few women also
took on the tasks of ranching and learned the necessary skills,
though the "cowgirl" (discussed below) did not become widely
recognized or acknowledged until the close of the 19th century.
On western ranches today, the working cowboy
is usually an adult. Responsibility for herding cattle or other
livestock is no longer considered a job suitable for children or
early adolescents. However, both boys and girls growing up in a
ranch environment often learn to ride horses and perform basic
ranch skills as soon as they are physically able, usually under
adult supervision. Such youths, by their late teens, are often
given responsibilities for "cowboy" work on the ranch, and ably
perform work that requires a level of maturity and level
headedness that is not generally expected of their urban peers.
Other historic word use
The term "cowboy" was used during the American Revolution to
describe American fighters who opposed the movement for
independence. Claudius Smith, an outlaw identified with the
Loyalist cause, was referred to as the "Cow-boy of the Ramapos"
due to his penchant for stealing oxen, cattle and horses from
colonists and giving them to the British.
In the same period, a number of guerilla
bands operated in Westchester County, which marked the dividing
line between the British and American forces. These groups were
made up of local farmhands who would ambush convoys and carry
out raids on both sides. There were two separate groups: the
"skinners" fought for the pro-independence side; the "cowboys"
supported the British.
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