Cowgirl Sass & Savvy: Lingo language of the West

Julie Carter is a New Mexico writer and author whose column appears weekly on Rio Grande Digital.

Julie Carter

Cowboy lingo has always been my first language. I never thought to dissect, define or explain it. It always seemed pretty clear to me.

Recently a few questions from someone who seriously wanted to be correct in his terminology but claimed only Eastern savvy sent me on a quest to learn why I knew what I knew.

Here in the Southwest, just a few cow trails north of Mexico, we are quite familiar with the mixture of Spanish and English terms. I had just never seen them all in a list until Robert Smead published a book called Vocabulario Vaquero, Cowboy Talk.

The book is a dictionary of sorts that diagrams the absorption of a large number of ranch-related words from Spanish into English. He contends it offers striking evidence of that particular heritage in the history of the American West and its cowboys.

Many of the essential cowboy items of tack originated in the Spanish culture. The bozal, usually written and said as bosal, is the nose band of a headstall or hackamore, which is from the Spanish term jáquima.

Cowboys still use and still say chaps. That is pronounced as “shaps” which stems from the original Spanish chaparreras, also pronounced with the “sh.” The first guy you hear say chaps with the ch sound as in chapped lips, see if he isn’t from New York City and check the origin of his salsa while you’re at it.

Corral, lariat, latigo, cinch and 10-gallon hat all are words we throw around that have Spanish roots. Gallon in the hat doesn’t refer to capacity but to the braided decorations or galones that adorned it. What came first, tank or tanque? Both hold water.

A Spaniard by the name of Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca (that means head of a cow — poor Nuñez!) erroneously gave the Spanish term búfalo to the bison because it looked like the Indian or African wild ox, and it stuck.

After the words themselves comes the peculiar direct phrases used by the cowboy who is almost always free from the constraints of polite society or convention. These are covered in two other books written by Ramon Adams called Cowboy Lingo and Western Words.

A cowboy’s slang usually strengthens rather that weakens his speech. The jargon of this individual among individuals is often picturesque, humorous and leaves you with no doubt how the man felt about the subject he was talking about.

The cowboy squeezes the juice from language, molds it to suit his needs and is a genius at making a verb out of anything. The words “cowboy” and “rodeo” can be verbs and “try” is not.

“He paid his entry fees knowing he better have enough try to cowboy up and rodeo tough.”

There are phrases that cover situations like when someone talks a lot with their hands. “He couldn’t say ‘hell’ with his hands tied.” When riding a horse with a rough gait that pounds even the best of riders you will hear, “That buzzard bait would give a woodpecker a headache.”

For a breed of mankind that has a reputation for being “men of few words,” the cowboy culture has their own entire dictionary of the West. It is filled with words from several nationalities, many occupations and all rolled into a “lingo” uniquely their own.

Time to go catch the old cow-hocked, gotch-eared, ring-tailed cayuse, cinch up my kack and spend a little more daylight riding for the brand instead of for the grub line.

Julie can be reached for comment at jcarternm@gmail.comVisit her website at http://julie-carter.com/.

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