The Word – Cowan

Richard H. Ryder, 2017

According to Merriam-Webster, a cowan is one who is not a Freemason or pretends to be one.

Albert G. Mackey, in The Lexicon of Freemasonry, indicates it is strictly a Masonic term that is derived from the Greek word kuon, a dog.  “In the early days of the church, when the mysteries of religion were communicated only to initiates, the infidels and unbaptized were called ‘dogs’, a term probably suggested by such passages of scripture as Matt, vii. 6, ‘Give not that which is holy unto the dogs’ ’’. It is thought that the Freemasons corrupted the term into cowan.

MacKay also states that “Another interpretation of this term as a result of later investigation proves it to be a Stone Mason capable of building only dry walls”.

As with any profession, imposters tried to pass as legitimate masons. These ‘cowans’, first mentioned in Scotland in 1598, had served their apprenticeship.  They were trained and proficient but had not yet been admitted into a lodge. As such, they were not part of the fraternity and thus were avoided by those already admitted into the lodge. In fact, cowans were prevented from working. This was according to a statute in place in 1598, which reads as follows: “Item, that no master or fellow craft receive a cowan to work in his society, or company, nor send any of his servants to work with cowans under pain of twenty pounds so oft as any person offends in this respect.” In 1738, the term cowan was first found in English Freemasonry, appearing in the Second Book of Constitutions.