Cowboy
Posted: 03 May 2007 12:05 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Forgive me if this has been done before, but how does “cowboy” come to mean “a tradesman who does poor-quality work” in the UK? (Best use of the pun: “You’ve tried the cowboys, now try the indians” on the side of an Indian builders’ van in London)

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Posted: 03 May 2007 04:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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In the US it has come to mean someone who charges in attacking some problem, metaphorical guns blazing, with no care for unintended consequences

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Posted: 03 May 2007 04:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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OED doesn’t specifically say but my best guess is that it’s an extension of this sense:

cowboy 1 b. A boisterous or wild young man

This has a first cite of 1942. It’s not a big step from the concept of wildness, irregularity in behaviour, to irregularity in trade.

cowboy, 1 e, A person without qualifications who competes against established traders or operators, providing shoddy goods or services usu. at low (or inflated) prices; one who is recklessly unscrupulous in business.

First cite for this is 1972.

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Posted: 04 May 2007 02:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Cowboys were also known to be disdainful of manual labor. One way to tell a cowboy to hit the trail and don’t come back was to hand him a shovel and say get to work.

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Posted: 05 May 2007 02:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Was this in real life or a book you read?

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Posted: 05 May 2007 03:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Not in my real life or even my unreal life. I read it long ago in an account purported to be spoken by a cowboy. So it was in a book but not in a western, unless of course I’m just misremembering.

However, your point is well taken. The realities of cowboy life probably included a lot of manual labor. But that didn’t preclude the cowboys themselves from having some construct of an idealized life, or their own fictionalized version of reality. “Carpenters” do everything from digging ditches to fine woodworking. It’s very likely, though, that the guy installing custom moldings would consider certain jobs beneath him, not because he’s never done it, but because he never wants to have to do it again. In my experience it’s also true that every person has an idea that a certain level of work is beneath him or her. The “I don’t do floors” syndrome. My suspicion is that there was a job description of “cowboy” which gave the occupier of the job the sense that he was a little better than the ordinary worker. It was specialized, skilled work.

Of course, a few people I know have no pride and will do absolutely anything required, but they run their own businesses and have plenty of money.

[ Edited: 05 May 2007 04:52 PM by foolscap ]
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Posted: 06 May 2007 11:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Please, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude. I was just ribbing in good fun.

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Posted: 06 May 2007 06:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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No need to apologize. I wasn’t taking offense. It was an interesting question.

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