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Debate: What is the origin of “buckaroo”? OED Editor responds

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.

Recent Comments

  1. Daniel Buck

    Dr. Thier, “seems conceivable” is a rather weak reed upon which to argue the point. Lighter’s HDAS, vol, has variations on “buckeroo” in California going back to the 1820s. I’m sure, since the digitization of newspapers has exploded since 1994, when he published that volume, that many earlier examples have been found.

    The debate reminds me of the ongoing kerfuffle over the origin of the word “gringo,” with every possible “seems conceivable” possibility being offered up.


  2. Daniel Buck

    Vaquero and cowboy are an easy link; finding a specific reference to the transition from vaquero to buckaroo is more elusive.

    Proquest’s American Periodicals (1818 – )brings up 854 vaqueros and 113 vaqueros + cowboys.

    But this pooped up via books.google.com: T.S. Kenderdine, California Revisited, 1858-1897 (1898): “The cowboys here are called ‘buckaroos;’ a corruption of the Spanish word ‘vaqueros:’ . . . .” Kenderdine first traveled and worked in California 1858-59.

    Whether Kenderdine has it right or is passing on folk etymology, he’s one of the first to specifically link buckaroo to vaquero.

    The literature mined by Lighter and Cassidy is, I think, persuasive in support of buckaroo variations as a corruption of vaquero, going back to the early 1800s in Spanish-speaking regions.

    A fascinating aspect of the word is how it later worked its way out of the Spanish areas of texas and California and up into the more Anglo Northwest, Idaho, Oregon, & Washington, and also into Nevada.

    More research required.


  3. Daniel Buck

    Should have read “popped up.” Maybe I a created a new catch phrase.


  4. Michael

    What’s the african root?

  5. Daniel Buck

    Cassidy, vol. 1, traces buckra to the Efik word mbakara, which became, “chiefly coastal SC and GA,” to mean 1/ boss, master; 2.a/ any white person; 2.b/ white trash; 3/ of the white race.

    What Cassidy does not do, however, is indicate that buckra led to buckaroo. That notion seems to be Richard Bailey’s, though he provides no real evidence to support it.

    The evidence is plentiful — again, see Cassidy — that buckaroo developed in Spanish-speaking areas of North America as a word for cowboy, from the Spanish word for cowboy, vaquero.


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