Spanglish in the Old West

Document created by Gary E Moore on Sep 30, 2021
Version 1Show Document
  • View in full screen mode

Nothing is more American than a cowboy, right? So, buckaroos, let’s go on a roundup. Grab your lariat and chaps, cinch the saddle tight on your palomino, pull down your 10-gallon hat, open the corral gate, and let’s go stampede some wild mustangs back to the ranch! Now vamoose!

Actually, the first people to herd cattle on horseback in North America were not the stereotypical cowboys we see in western movies and television shows. The first cowboys were vaqueros who introduced the ancient Spanish cattle herding tradition to the Southwest. Their name is derived from vaca, the Spanish word for cow.

Figure 1. Vaqueros. Image from Buckaroo Leather Products.

Many of the words commonly used in agriculture, especially ranching, are derived from our Hispanic Heritage. In the first paragraph above, how many of the words come to us from the Spanish? Go ahead, count them. As you read the rest of the Footnote, we will see if you are correct.

This is the third footnote in our celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month which runs from September 15 to October 15.

The “Real” Cowboys of the Old West

In reality, the cowboys in the western United States were a heterogeneous lot. There were Hispanic cowboys, a sizable number of African American cowboys, some indigenous native cowboys, and the Anglo-American cowboys. Historians estimate that 1 in 3 cowboys were Hispanic, 1 in 3 were Anglo-America, 1 in 4 were African-Americans with the remainder being indigenous natives of Mexico or America.

According to PBS History Detectives (ND) series:

From Gene Autry to John Wayne to Heath Ledger, the cowboy is a staple of American culture, but that quintessential American icon has roots south of the border.

When Spanish settlers brought the longhorn to the Southwest, they also brought a centuries-old tradition of cattle wrangling.

The vaquero, the Spanish term for “cowboy,” was a ranch hand who drove the cattle from Mexico into what is now the Southwestern United States.

Ranching, branding, and trail driving were long-established traditions in Spain and later in Mexico under the hacienda system.

Even cowboy garb has its roots in this unique culture. The wide-brimmed hat, pointed-toe boots, bandana, and chaps—short for “chaparajos”—all have their roots in Spanish and Mexican traditions.

In the early 1900s, railroad advertising for tourists created a new image of the cowboy as a clean-cut Anglo singing songs by the campfire. Hollywood movies popularized that image with Westerns in the 1930s and ’40s.

The early history of the vaqueros in their culture is not just a footnote to the sagas of the Wild West. These were the origins of that all-American icon “the cowboy.”

Robles writes (1999):

The first and, for a long time, best cowboys came from Mexico, since the cattle market in Mexico preceded the one in the United States. The first Anglo cowboys were young men from the East whose interest in the unknown West led them to their new career. They learned the trade from the Mexican vaqueros and, as a result, came to use Spanish vocabulary for many of their surroundings, techniques, and tools.

Spanglish in the Old West

Let’s explore the vocabulary and terminology of agriculture that was derived from our Hispanic Heritage. What follows is merely a sampling. There are many more words and terms that could be offered.

Table 1 – Words Derived from our Hispanic Heritage

WordMeaning or Origin
armadilloliterally, “the little armed one”
barbecuefrom barbacoa, a word of Caribbean origin
bota (boot)Bota is Spanish for riding boot
bravofrom Old Spanish, fierce or brave; also a nickname for the Rio Grande
broncomeans “wild” or “rough” or “rude” in Spanish
buckaroopossibly from vaquero, “cowboy”
burroa donkey
canyonfrom cañon
cargofrom cargar, “to load”
catamountfrom “gato montés” – a cougar, mountain lion
chaparralfrom chaparro, thickets of scrub oak, often almost impenetrable
chapsfrom Mexican Spanish chaparreras, used to ride through the chaparral
chocolateoriginally xocolatl, from Nahuatl, an indigenous Mexican language
cinchfrom cincho, “belt”
comradefrom camarada, “roommate”
corralenclosure for livestock; from “corro” – a ring
dallyto wrap a rope around the saddle horn, in Spanish dar la vuelta (take a turn)
desperadoa bold or desperate outlaw
fiestain Spanish, it can mean a party, a celebration, a feast, from vulgar Latin festum
filibusterfrom filibustero, derived from Dutch vrijbuiter, “pirate”
gringofrom “Griego” Greek); originally referred to most any outsider. Later, primarily yanquis, or Anglos
hackamorejáquima – headstall, halter
jerkycharquí – roughly equivalent to “tasajo”
lariatfrom la reata, braided rawhide rope
lassofrom lazo “tie”
machetelarge heavy knife with a broad blade
machomacho usually means simply “male” in Spanish
mesaIn Spanish it means “table,”
mesquitetree name originally from Nahuatl mizquitl mestizo
moseya corruption of vamoose to go easily, to drift
mustangfrom mesteñas, from mesta, mix – a wild horse
palominofrom paloma, dove – a horse of a particular gold color, perhaps originally the grayish golden color of the dove; in Old Spain called “Isabellas”
patioIn Spanish, the word most often refers to an inner garden or courtyard.
patrónthe boss man, owner
pickaninnyoffensive term, from pequeño, “small”
pintoSpanish pintar for “spotted” or “painted”
plazatown square
ponchoSpanish adopted the word from Araucanian, an indigenous South American language
prontofrom an adjective or adverb meaning “quick” or “quickly”
quirtcuerda or cuarto – a horsewhip
ranchRancho often means “ranch” in Mexican Spanish, but it can also mean a settlement, camp or meal rations.
rancherhis term is derived from the Spanish word ranchero which means the boss of a rancho.  The word now means someone who owns or runs a ranch.
remudaa group of spare or extra horses found on a cattle drive
renegadefrom renegado
rodeoThis term is derived from the Spanish word rodeo which meant a gathering of cattle during the time of open range grazing, “to go around”
savvyfrom sabe, a form of the verb saber, “to know”
siestaa nap
silolocation for storing fodder
sombreroIn Spanish, the word, which is derived from sombra, “shade,” can mean almost any kind of hat, not just the traditional broad-rimmed Mexican hat.
stampedeestampida – the panicked flight of a herd; longhorn breed considered the worst
stockadefrom a French derivation of the Spanish estacada, “fence” or “stockade”
ten-gallon hatfrom Spanish tan galán  “so gallant”
tornadofrom tronada, thunderstorm
vamoosefrom vamos, a form of “to go”
vaqueroor “baquero”; English regionalism for a cowboy
verandaporch along the outside of a building
vigilantefrom adjective for “vigilant”
wranglersome sources say word is derived from Mexican Spanish caballerango, one who grooms horses, akin to remudero

While saddle is not a Spanish word, the Spaniards added the horn to it and that served as the model for our western saddles.

The names of nine states are Spanish derived. They are:

  • California — a mythical island from the 1510 Spanish novel Las sergas de Esplandián by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo.
  • Colorado — “red-colored” (referring to the color of the river that is the state’s namesake).
  • Florida — “flowery”
  • Montana — from montaña (“mountain”)
  • Nevada — “snowy”
  • New Mexico — an anglicization of Nuevo México.
  • Texas— the Spanish adopted the word tejas from the language of the indigenous Cado people. It means “friends” or “allies.”
  • Utah — derived from the name of the indigenous Ute people, by way of Spanish yuta.
  • Arizona— from Spanish Arizonac, itself an adoption of the word alĭ ṣonak, meaning “little spring,” from the local O’odham language. Alternate etymology may be the Basque haritz ona (good oak).

Concluding Remarks

So, how many Spanish-derived words did you count in the first paragraph of this Footnote? There were eleven. As we teach our students it would be appropriate to emphasize the agricultural terms and practices that we have adopted from other cultures. It is only fitting to recognize the contributions of various cultures to our nation and agriculture.


Public Broadcasting Service (ND). Cowboys.

Robles, Heather A. (1999) “Spanish Additions to the Cowboy Lexicon from 1850 to the Present,” Deseret Language and Linguistic Society Symposium: Vol. 25 : Iss. 1 , Article 4. Available at:

The following sources were also used to identify the Hispanic influenced agricultural words: