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Some hopelessly obscure words: the case of cowan

Some words don’t interest anyone. They languish in their obscurity, and even lexicographers miss or ignore them. Yet they too deserve to get their day in court. One such word is cowan “a man who builds dry stone dikes and walls; not a freemason, one who is outside the brotherhood; an amateur, a bungler.” Cowan, we are informed, is invariably used “in conjunction with eavesdropping in a formula addressed to the tyler of a lodge of Freemasons” (but see below!). The meaning of tyler is never discussed. Surprisingly, cowan has been known from texts since the end of the sixteenth century, and those who define it seem to agree that it is Scottish, but no etymology has been proposed by the few modern dictionaries that mention it. Likewise, searching for cowan online produces no results.

The route of the word seems to be clear: from “second-rate mason” (because he does not use mortar?) to “an outside free mason,” and finally to “bungler.” But it is not unimaginable that the development went in the opposite direction: from an early Modern English slang word cowan denoting a bungler or worse to the lingo of masons. I have once experienced a rather rude brushoff with the language of masonry and feel insecure (once bit, twice shy). See my blog post “Unable to put a kibosh on a hard word” (19 March 2010), in which I discussed the term kibosh “cement,” which either exists or does not.  Cowan will probably end up in the same dark hole.

A dry stone dyke.
By John McMillan via Geograph (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

One wonders why such an innocuously looking term lacks an etymology, especially because the origin of coward and cow (verb), let alone the animal name cow, has been investigated with great success. The reason I am writing this blog post is simple. In the periodical American Notes and Queries for the summer of 1889, cowan was discussed at some length (the exact references will be found in my 2010 book A Bibliography of English Etymology). The suggestions, though not particularly inspiring, may present some interest, because it always pays off to look at all conjectures and opinions. What if a wrong association will inspire a better one or point to a more promising direction of research? John Jamieson’s great Dictionary of Scots, the OED, Joseph Wright’s The English Dialect Dictionary, and The Century Dictionary feature the word, but Webster’s predecessors, Webster himself, and his nineteenth-century revisers missed it. Except for Jamieson, no one (that is, James A. H. Murray, Joseph Wright, and Charles P. G. Scott) ventured an etymology.

Below, I’ll summarize what I read in the 1889 exchange. Jamieson, we are reminded, traced cowan to Swedish kufa “to suppress.” There is no way from this Swedish verb to a sixteenth-century English noun. I may also mention Swedish kuf “a crank” and kufisk “eccentric,” apparently, a piece of Uppsala late nineteenth-century student slang. Another hopeless idea occurred to Charles Mackay, a good poet and the producer of the most bizarre (a Swede might say kufisk) etymologies: he believed that most English words go back to Scottish Gaelic. Yet Mackay cited the root of Greek akoúō “to hear”(along with Scottish Gaelic ) and even English to cow, to cower, and the noun coward. It is useful to cite those derivations, to get them out the way. Only the Greek root might deserve some consideration, as long as cowan is connected with eavesdropping, but how could a garbled Greek verb become a late English noun?

An eavesdropper, not a cowan.
“De luistervink” by Nicolaes Maes via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

However, Mackay also mentioned French coyon (a term of abuse, with obvious sexual connotations), which he derived from the same Greek noun. French coyon, Italian coglione, and their cognates are ultimately related to Greek koléos “vagina” (French couille “balls” belongs here too). If cowan originated in French and is a garbled version of a Common European vocabulary of swear words, Mackay’s etymology might be considered, though the phonetic match coyon ~ cowan leaves something to be desired. More important, this derivation presupposes that the word did not originate among masons (a development, mentioned as possible above). The author or compiler of the Ritual of Free Masonry, published in 1835 (as stated by M. C. L. on p. 118 of the aforementioned volume of American Notes and Queries; I wish I knew who this well-informed man from New York was!), also says that cowan is of French origin and that it was once written chouan. Chouans are rather famous figures in French history. Yet they seem to have nothing to do with cowans. Moreover, cowan was never spelled chouan. The idea that cowan is a variant of chouan has no foundation in fact.

Equally fanciful is the suggestion that since cowans were eavesdroppers, the word cowan goes back to French écouter. Once again the sounds do not match. Though M. C. L. favors this derivation, it has nothing to recommend it. As a final flourish, I’ll quote the following passage: “The sword is placed in the hands of the tyler, to enable him effectually to guard against all cowans and [!] eavesdroppers, and suffer none to pass or repass but such as are duly qualified.”

American Notes and Queries, a cousin of the famous British biweekly Notes and Queries.
Via the Internet Archive (public domain)

Here are some points perhaps worthy of note in connection with the word cowan. This noun gained some currency from the professional lingo of masons, in which it carried negative connotations, but masons may have borrowed it from the international slang of artisans or some criminal elements. There is probably no need to look for the origin of cowan in the technical lingo of masons. However, the association between cowan and masonry was so strong that freemasons appropriated the term for their practices. The use of the conjunction and in the above quotation (cowans and eavesdroppers) should not be overlooked: we may conclude that cowans were not or at least not predominantly eavesdroppers. If so, attempts to trace cowan to some word related to listening should be abandoned. Cowan may perhaps be a borrowing from French, but the source (if it indeed existed) has not been discovered. Coyon is not a bad match. However, the route from a swear word with opprobrious connotation to “outsider” poses problems. Finally, one wonders why the word is predominantly Scottish. Perhaps this inconclusive essay will inspire someone to go further.

My schedule for the coming week will prevent me from working on the next post, so that we will meet in what in British English is called a fortnight. If by that time I receive a sufficient number of questions and comments, I may produce a post devoted to traditional gleanings. So far, I have heard only from one of our correspondents, who cited a thought-provoking Hittite parallel to English squash, and questions about the origin of god and (!) deuce.

Featured image by denisbin via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0 DEED)

Recent Comments

  1. Sharon Goetz

    Might there be a parallel in gowan, a smith? Not the flower[1] but the saint, Goban[2], and Goibniu the old deity of folklore[3].

    I append three links–not sure they’ll make it through the spam filter!

    1. https://www.scotsman.com/heritage-and-retro/heritage/scottish-word-of-the-day-gowan-2462606
    2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gob%C3%A1n_Saor
    3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goibniu

  2. Aurélien

    “The route from a swear word with opprobrious connotation to “outsider” poses problems”.
    Does it so much?

    In modern French, “couillon” has lost much of its strength and mostly means “simpleton, someone naïve” (although I suspect there may be regional variations; in any case, this may be much too recent a development for my argument to stand). “A naïve simpleton > a mark, someone who has not been ‘made’ > an outsider” seems a plausible evolution, especially if some kind of underworld slang is involved.

  3. Mrs. Cowan

    The term Cowan was actually first documented in freemasonry in reference to a bloodline, the Cowans. Over time, it has been manipulated into a term used by Freemasons to expel all “cowans”. The Cowans were actually the original stone wall builders in England, but their knowledge was stolen and put into practice by stonemasons. These stonemasons then credited only themselves due to their skill of laying mortar to enable the stone to stick. My point – Cowan was never a term until freemasonry made it to be. It was a powerful bloodline, who the Freemasons have chosen to continuously bash through this subtle term despite that their success and knowledge was derived from the original work of the Cowans.

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