The English word cowboy was a direct English translation of vaquero, a Spanish word for an individual who managed cattle while mounted on horseback. It was derived from vaca, meaning "cow," which came from the Latin word vacca. It was first used in print by Jonathan Swift in 1725, referring to a boy tending cows. It was used in Britain from 1820 to 1850 to describe young boys who tended the family or community cows. Originally, the English word "cowherd" was used to describe a cattle herder (similar to "shepherd", a sheep herder), and often referred to a pre-adolescent or early adolescent boy, who usually worked on foot. This word is very old in the English language, originating prior to the year 1000.
By 1849 "cowboy" had developed its modern sense as an adult cattle handler of the American West. Variations on the word appeared later. "Cowhand" appeared in 1852, and "cowpoke" in 1881, originally restricted to the individuals who prodded cattle with long poles to load them onto railroad cars for shipping. Names for a cowboy in American English include buckaroo, cowpoke, cowhand, and cowpuncher. Another English word for a cowboy, buckaroo, is an anglicization of vaquero.(Spanish pronunciation: [baˈkeɾo]).
Today, "cowboy" is a term common throughout the west and particularly in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, "buckaroo" is used primarily in the Great Basin and California, and "cowpuncher" mostly in Texas and surrounding states.
Equestrianism required skills and an investment in horses and equipment rarely available to or entrusted to a child, though in some cultures boys rode a donkey while going to and from pasture. In antiquity, herding of sheep, cattle and goats was often the job of minors, and still is a task for young people in various third world cultures.
Because of the time and physical ability needed to develop necessary skills, both historic and modern cowboys often began as an adolescent. Historically, cowboys earned wages as soon as they developed sufficient skill to be hired (often as young as 12 or 13). If not crippled by injury, cowboys may handle cattle or horses for a lifetime. In the United States, a few women also took on the tasks of ranching and learned the necessary skills, though the "cowgirl" (discussed below) did not become widely recognized or acknowledged until the close of the 19th century. On western ranches today, the working cowboy is usually an adult. Responsibility for herding cattle or other livestock is no longer considered suitable for children or early adolescents. However, both boys and girls growing up in a ranch environment often learn to ride horses and perform basic ranch skills as soon as they are physically able, usually under adult supervision. Such youths, by their late teens, are often given responsibilities for "cowboy" work on the ranch.
"Cowboy" was used during the American Revolution to describe American fighters who opposed the movement for independence. Claudius Smith, an outlaw identified with the Loyalist cause, was called the "Cow-boy of the Ramapos" due to his penchant for stealing oxen, cattle and horses from colonists and giving them to the British. In the same period, a number of guerrilla bands operated in Westchester County, which marked the dividing line between the British and American forces. These groups were made up of local farmhands who would ambush convoys and carry out raids on both sides. There were two separate groups: the "skinners" fought for the pro-independence side, while the "cowboys" supported the British.
In the Tombstone, Arizona area during the 1880s, the term "cowboy" or "cow-boy" was used pejoratively to describe men who had been implicated in various crimes. One loosely organized band was dubbed "The Cowboys," and profited from smuggling cattle, alcohol, and tobacco across the U.S.–Mexico border. The San Francisco Examiner wrote in an editorial, "Cowboys [are] the most reckless class of outlaws in that wild country ... infinitely worse than the ordinary robber." It became an insult in the area to call someone a "cowboy", as it suggested he was a horse thief, robber, or outlaw. Cattlemen were generally called herders or ranchers. The Cowboys' activities were ultimately curtailed by the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and the resulting Earp Vendetta Ride.