The Grammarphobia Blog

Are cowpokes poky?

Q: In your write-up on “slowpoke,” you suggest that the “poke” part is derived from an old verb meaning to potter about or dawdle. I think working cowpokes might bristle at that suggestion.

A: Yes, we speculated in that post that the “poke” in “slowpoke” may be derived from the adjective “poky,” which can mean slow, and the verb “poke,” which can mean to dawdle.

And, as you may recall, the singing cowboy Jimmy Wakely does indeed suggest pokiness in the 1948 movie Range Renegades when he sings, “I’m an old cowpoke just a-pokin’ along.”

But cowpokes don’t usually dawdle. The “poke” in “cowpoke”—an early 20th-century American word for a cowboy—is probably a “poke” of a different color.

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests two possible origins of this “poke.” It may be the name for a native plant used as a smoking material (the same one mentioned in our earlier post). Or it may be from the verb “poke,” meaning to jab or prod.

Since cowboys poke cattle (literally or figuratively) to move them along, that last explanation seems convincing.

There’s been a bit of confusion about the age of the term “cowpoke” because of some mistaken research years ago.

The OED says the earliest written use of “cowpoke” is an 1881 citation in Harold Wentworth’s American Dialect Dictionary, which was published in 1944. But that 19th-century citation was wrong.

Jonathan Lighter, in his Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, says that Wentworth, “and hence all other standard sources, erroneously cites Croffutt Grip-Sack Guide to Colorado (1881); the word cowpoke is not found in that work.”

Lighter’s oldest examples of “cowpoke” are from the 1920s. Although we’ve found earlier ones for “cow poke” or “cow-poke, they referred to agricultural devices, not to cowboys. 

A Google search turns up many patent applications, dating back to the 1870s, for devices described as “animal pokes” or “cow-pokes.”

These “pokes” are yoke-like contraptions for securing and controlling an animal’s head, for example when it’s grazing.

A 1907 issue of the Farm Implement News Buyer’s Guide lists an enterprise called Wichita Cow Poke Manufacturing Company, a Kansas firm whose business is making “cow pokes.” Among other businesses making “animal pokes,” the buyer’s guide lists the American Animal Poke Company, of Kansas City, Mo.

The use of “poke” in this sense reflects a broader meaning—“a thing that pokes,” in the words of the OED.

Oxford says this use of the word dates from early America, where a “poke” was “a yoke or collar (often with a pole attached, which projects forward and downward) put round the neck of an animal to prevent it from breaking through or jumping over fences.”

The earliest example in writing for this “poke” dates from 1809. The first example that mentions a cow is from Josiah G. Holland’s Gold Foil Hammered from Popular Proverbs (1859): “We put a poke upon a vicious cow.”

There are even older examples of a verb “poke,” meaning to put a poke on an animal. It was first recorded in the 1780s and is now obsolete.

The OED doesn’t make any direct connection between these livestock uses of “poke” and the cowboy term “cowpoke.” 

But we do know that the livestock meanings of “poke” (both noun and verb) derive from the sense of something that pokes. Perhaps the cowboy term does too, and is a reference to poking or prodding cattle.

The OED has a tantalizing citation from a 1928 issue of Lariat Magazine, a journal that published poetry and stories of the Old West: “I camped there once, and a cowpoke told me why they were named that.”

Unfortunately, that’s all there is to the citation! And we couldn’t find a digitized version of the Lariat issue online. If you happen to own a tattered copy of the January 1928 issue, let us know.

Check out our books about the English language