Origins of Common Words - Cowboy

About the history, origins, and definitions of the common word cowboy.

UNCOMMON STORIES BEHIND COMMON WORDS

Cowboy - Cow-boy, hyphen and all, dates back at least to 1725, when it referred to a boy who tended cattle. The word resurfaced during the American Revolution, this time to describe the Tory guerrillas who rang cowbells in order to lure unsuspecting Patriots into the brush. In the 19th century, of course, cowboys worked on ranches in the American West; the word was either translated from its Spanish equivalent, vaquero, or was a revival of the old cow-boy. (By the time Hollywood was through, the heroic gunslinger of the silver screen had little to do with cattle or boys, but that is another story.) The suffix boy may sound curious today, but at that time it was neither restricted to youth nor degrading. Nineteenth-century compound words commonly used boy--even fire fighters were called fireboys--and Columbus called his sailors muchachos long before that.

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