This is a purely Masonic term, and signifies in its technical meaning an intruder, whence it is always coupled with the word eavesdropper. It is no t fo und in any of the old manuscripts of the English Freemasons anterior to the eighteenth century, unless we suppose that lowen, met with in many of them, is a clerical error of the copyists. It occurs in the Schaw Manuscript, a Scotch record which bears the date of 1598, in the following passage: "That no Master or Fellow of Craft receive any cowans to work in his society or company, nor send none of his servants to work with cowans." In the second edition of Anderson's Constitutions, published in 1738 (page 146), we find the word in use among the English Freemasons, thus : ''But Free and Accepted Masons shall not allow cowans to work with them ; nor shall they be employed by cowans without an urgent necessity; and even in that case they must not reach cowans, but must have a separate communication." There can be but little doubt that the word, as a Masonic term, comes to us from Scotland, and it is therefore in the Scotch language that we must look for its signification. Now, Jamieson, in his Scottish Dictionary, gives us the following meanings of the word: Cowans.
A term of contempt ; applied to one who does the work of a mason, but has not been regularly bred.
Also used to denote one who builds dry walls, otherwise denominated a dry diker.
One unacquainted with the secrets of Freemasonry.
And he gives the following examples as his authorities:
A boat-carpenter, joiner, cowan (or builder of stone without mortar), get ls. at the minimum and good maintenance. P. Morven, Argyles. Statistic, Acct., X, 267. N.
Cowans. Masons who build dry-stone dikes or walls. P. Halkirk, Carthn, Statistic. Acct., XIX, 24. N. In the Rob Roy of Scott, the word is used by Allan Inverach, who says:
She does not value a Cawmill mair as a cowan.
The word has therefore, in the opinion of Brother Mackey, come to the English Fraternity directly from the Operative Freemasons of Scotland, among whom it was used to denote a pretender, in the exact sense of the first meaning of Jamieson.
There is no word that has given Masonic scholars more trouble than this in tracing its derivation. By some it has been considered to come from the Greek meaning a dog; and referred to the fact that in the early ages of the Church, when the mysteries of the new religion were communicated only to initiates under the veil of secrecy, infidels were called dogs, a term probably suggested by such passages as (Matthew vii 6), "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs"; or (Philippians iii 2), "Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision'' (see also Revelations xxii 15). This derivation has been adopted by Oliver, and many other writers.
Jamieson's derivations are from the old Swedish kujon, kuzhjohn, meaning a silly fellow, and the French coion, coyon, signifying a coward, a base fellow. No matter how we get the word, it seems always to convey an idea of contempt. .The attempt to derive it from the chouans of the French Revolution is manifestly absurd, for it has been shown that the word was in use long before the French Revolution was even meditated.
However, Brother Hawkins points out that Doctor Murray in the New English Dictionary says that the derivation of the word is unknown.
Notwithstanding the above reference by Brother Hawkins we may venture to consider another objective.