“Cowboy up” is an expression which refers to a specific profession, but is often repeated in other walks of life. Its exact meaning can depend upon the situation, but basically it means work hard and stay true to yourself and your ideals. Some complain that urban youth have co-opted this phrase and are acting as “posers.” I have also heard my own family use the phrase “fireman up” when dealing with putting out a campfire, but I do not think they believe themselves to be the heroic figures we have come to depend upon to save life and property.
These idioms refer to a particular type of conduct. Perhaps they are a secular version of the popular “What would Jesus do” that used to be seen on many items such as jewelery and T-shirts.
Personal definitions of what it means to be a cowboy do vary. A cowboy might be seen as the yahoo at the bar last night who thought he could two-step his way into your girlfriend’s heart. He might be seen as the awkward fellow at a tie and jacket affair. Sometimes the word is used to describe anyone exhibiting wild behaviour. But it also conjures the traditional image of a male made rugged from hard work and with weatherbeaten features.
Regardless of your vision of what a cowboy is, the phrase “cowboy up” also brings to mind noble qualities that are readily and easily recognized by everyone, or at least anyone old enough to remember the western shows and movies where the hero was always a good guy, not the conflicted anti-hero of today. Perhaps the most famous account of what these virtues include was set down by the singing cowboy, Gene Autry. He listed 10 items that he referred to as the Cowboy Code:
The cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
He must always tell the truth.
He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.
He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
He must help people in distress.
He must be a good worker.
He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
He must respect women, parents, and his nation’s laws.
The cowboy is a patriot.
The continual reference to “he” and “cowboy” makes these rules seem archaic, but they would serve well as a code of ethics for anyone. Replace the word “women” with “people” in rule No. 9 and it becomes updated to reflect today’s more equitable society.
We read about lapses of character daily in the newspapers; all the way from the top-ranking officials in a corporation down to those who have yet to even embark on a profession. CEOs escape consequences for activity that is considered ethically bankrupt and bordering illegal. Employees of financial institutions give in to competitive pressure and urge people to take out mortgages so that the bottom line will be met today regardless of what may lie in the future. Students demand professors raise their mark for no other reason than the student’s belief that they deserve better. There are conflicts of interest in the political arena, Ponzi schemes in business, and a general “take what you can get,” or even more unfortunately “what you can get away with,” attitude permeating our society.
Maybe we should all learn to “cowboy up.”
– Barb Galbraith writes from her home in Oakville, Man.