We (unintentionally) started a debate about the origin of the word “buckaroo” with our quiz Can you speak American? last week. Richard Bailey, author of Speaking American, argues that it comes from the West African language Efik. Here OED editor Dr. Katrin Thier argues that the origin isn’t quite so clear.
By Dr. Katrin Thier
The origin of the word buckaroo is difficult to establish and is still a matter of debate. In the sense ‘cowboy’ it first appears in the early 19th century, written bakhara in the earliest source currently known to us, but used alongside other words of clearly Spanish origin. Later variants include baccaro, buccahro, and buckhara. On the face of it, a derivation from Spanish vaquero ‘cowboy’ looks likely, especially as the initial sound of the Spanish word is essentially the same as b- in English. The stress of the English word was apparently originally on the second syllable, as in Spanish, and only shifted to the final syllable later.
However, there is evidence from the Caribbean for a number of very similar and much earlier forms, such as bacchararo (1684), bockorau (1737), and backaroes (1740, plural), used by people of African descent to denote white people. This word then spreads from the Caribbean islands to the south of the North American continent. From the end of the 18th century, it is often contracted and now usually appears as buckra or backra, but trisyllablic forms such as buckera still occur in the 19th century. This word was brought from Africa and derives from the trisyllabic Efik word mbakára ‘white man, European’. Efik is a (non-Bantu) Niger-Congo language spoken around Calabar, a former slave port in what is now southern Nigeria.
Given the multi-ethnic and multilingual make-up of the south of the United States, it seems conceivable that similar words of different origin could meet and interact, influencing each other to generate new forms and meanings. However, a number of difficulties remain in explaining the change of sense and also the varying stress pattern if the word of Efik origin is assumed to be the sole origin of buckaroo ‘cowboy’.
This is a word that we look forward very much to researching in detail for the new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary currently in progress. We would welcome any earlier examples of the word in the meaning ‘cowboy’, if any readers know of any.
Dr. Katrin Thier is Senior Etymology Editor at the Oxford English Dictionary.