1. a man in stories and films called Westerns about the North American West
2. a man whose job is to look after cows on a ranch in the US
3. British: someone in business who provides goods or services that are of very bad quality
Origin and usage
The term cowboy, originally written cow-boy, was first used by the author Jonathan Swift in the early 18th century to refer to a boy who looked after cows. The common current meaning (2 above) dates from the mid 19th century, when it was still hyphenated. The word was first used to refer to an unscrupulous or incompetent trader in the 1970s.
There are many terms that can be used to refer to a man who takes care of cattle, including cattleman, herdsman, herder and cowhand. While these have mostly remained confined to their original meaning, the meaning of cowboy has been extended, at first as a derogatory term for Americans who opposed independence. The term was then applied to the characters who herded cattle in the North American West in the latter part of the 19th century and who became the protagonists of the genre known as westerns. The rough-and-ready nature and often lawless behaviour of these characters led to an extended meaning of ‘wild young man’ which was itself subsequently extended to mean incompetent or unqualified tradespeople who prey on the unwary. Cowboy features in compounds such as cowboy hat and cowboy boots, while country music features singing cowboys, lonesome cowboys and even rhinestone cowboys.
“Let him ride a horse. He’s a cowboy ain’t he?”
Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust
“I’m like 6’2 when I wear heels, so I tend to wear cowboy boots a lot.”
cattleman, cowhand, gaucho, herdsman