Spanglish in the Old West (10/1/2021)

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

Word Meaning or Origin
armadillo literally, “the little armed one”
barbecue from barbacoa, a word of Caribbean origin
bota (boot) Bota is Spanish for riding boot
bravo from Old Spanish, fierce or brave; also a nickname for the Rio Grande
bronco means “wild” or “rough” or “rude” in Spanish
buckaroo possibly from vaquero, “cowboy”
burro a donkey
canyon from cañon
cargo from cargar, “to load”
catamount from “gato montés” – a cougar, mountain lion
chaparral from chaparro, thickets of scrub oak, often almost impenetrable
chaps from Mexican Spanish chaparreras, used to ride through the chaparral
chocolate originally xocolatl, from Nahuatl, an indigenous Mexican language
cinch from cincho, “belt”
comrade from camarada, “roommate”
corral enclosure for livestock; from “corro” – a ring
dally to wrap a rope around the saddle horn, in Spanish dar la vuelta (take a turn)
desperado a bold or desperate outlaw
fiesta in Spanish, it can mean a party, a celebration, a feast, from vulgar Latin festum
filibuster from filibustero, derived from Dutch vrijbuiter, “pirate”
gringo from “Griego” Greek); originally referred to most any outsider. Later, primarily yanquis, or Anglos
hackamore jáquima – headstall, halter
jerky charquí – roughly equivalent to “tasajo”
lariat from la reata, braided rawhide rope
lasso from lazo “tie”
machete large heavy knife with a broad blade
macho macho usually means simply “male” in Spanish
mesa In Spanish it means “table,”
mesquite tree name originally from Nahuatl mizquitl mestizo
mosey a corruption of vamoose to go easily, to drift
mustang from mesteñas, from mesta, mix – a wild horse
nada nothing
palomino from paloma, dove – a horse of a particular gold color, perhaps originally the grayish golden color of the dove; in Old Spain called “Isabellas”
patio In Spanish, the word most often refers to an inner garden or courtyard.
patrón the boss man, owner
pickaninny offensive term, from pequeño, “small”
pinto Spanish pintar for “spotted” or “painted”
plaza town square
poncho Spanish adopted the word from Araucanian, an indigenous South American language
pronto from an adjective or adverb meaning “quick” or “quickly”
quirt cuerda or cuarto – a horsewhip
ranch Rancho often means “ranch” in Mexican Spanish, but it can also mean a settlement, camp or meal rations.
rancher his 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.
remuda a group of spare or extra horses found on a cattle drive
renegade from renegado
rodeo This term is derived from the Spanish word rodeo which meant a gathering of cattle during the time of open range grazing, “to go around”
savvy from sabe, a form of the verb saber, “to know”
siesta a nap
silo location for storing fodder
sombrero In Spanish, the word, which is derived from sombra, “shade,” can mean almost any kind of hat, not just the traditional broad-rimmed Mexican hat.
stampede estampida – the panicked flight of a herd; longhorn breed considered the worst
stockade from a French derivation of the Spanish estacada, “fence” or “stockade”
ten-gallon hat from Spanish tan galán  “so gallant”
tornado from tronada, thunderstorm
vamoose from vamos, a form of “to go”
vaquero or “baquero”; English regionalism for a cowboy
veranda porch along the outside of a building
vigilante from adjective for “vigilant”
wrangler some 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: