Origin of the Word Hoosier

J. P. Dunn


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 1, Issue 2, pp 86-96

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Origin of the Word Hoosier

[The many and varied accounts of the origin of the term "Hoosier" mostly have in common one thing—improbability. These stories are too well known to give space to here and may be found elsewhere—for instance in Meredith Nicholson's "The Hoosiers." So far as we know Jacob P. Dunn is the only one who has made anything like a thorough study of the question, and because his conclusions seem to us the most reasonable theory in the field, and, in addition, are but little known, we think they will be of interest here. The following article is the second of two that appeared in the Indianapolis News (see Aug. 23 and 30, 1902), and contains the substance of Mr. Dunn's argument, the first being, mainly, a discussion of the current stories. The entire study in a revised form will probably be published before very long in the collections of the Indiana Historical Society.]

In 1854 Amelia M. Murray visited Indianapolis, and was for a time the guest of Governor Wright. In her book, entitled "Letters from the United States, Cuba and Canada" (page 324), she says: "Madame Pfeiffer (she evidently meant Mrs. Puslzky, for Madame Pfeiffer did not come here and does not mention the subject) mistook Governor Wright when she gave from his authority another derivation for the word ‘Hoosier.’ It originated in a settler's exclaiming ‘Huzza,’ upon gaining the victory over a marauding party from a neighboring State." With these conflicting statements, I called on Mr. John C. Wright, son of Governor Wright. He remembered the visits of the Pulszkys and Miss Murray, but knew nothing of Madame Pfeiffer. He said: "I often heard my father discuss this subject. His theory was that the Indiana flatboatmen were athletic and pugnacious, and were accustomed, when on the levees of the Southern cities, to ‘jump up and crack their heels together, and shout ‘Huzza,’ whence the name of ‘huzza’ fellows.' We have the same idea now in ‘hoorah people,’ or ‘a hoorah time.’"

It will be noted that all these theories practically carry three features in common:

  1. They are alike in the idea that the word was first applied to a rough, boisterous, uncouth, illiterate class of people, and that the word originally implied this character.
  2. They are alike in the idea that the word came from the South, or was first applied by Southern people.
  3. They are alike in the idea that the word was coined for the purpose of designating Indiana people, and was not in existence before it was applied to them.

If our primary suspicion be correct, that all the investigators and theorists have followed some false lead from the beginning, it will presumably be found in one of these three common features. Of the three, the one that would more probably have been derived from assumption than from observation is the third. If we adopt the hypothesis that it is erroneous, we have left the proposition that the word "hoosier" was in use at the South, signifying a rough or uncouth person, before it was applied to Indiana; and if this was true it would presumably continue to be used there in that sense. Now this condition actually exists, as appears from the following evidence.

In her recent novel, "In Connection with the De Willoughby Claim," Mrs. Frances Hodgson Burnett refers several times to one of her characters—a boy from North Carolina— as a "hoosier." In reply to an inquiry she writes to me: "The word ‘hoosier’ in Tennessee and North Carolina seemed to imply, as you suggest, an uncouth sort of rustic. In the days when I first heard it my idea was also that—in agreement with you again—it was a slang term. I think a Tennesseean or Carolinian of the class given to colloquialism would have applied the term ‘hoosier’ to any rustic person without reference to his belonging to any locality in particular. But when I lived in Tennessee I was very young and did not inquire closely into the matter."

Mrs. C. W. Bean, of Washington, Ind., furnishes me this statement: "In the year 1888, as a child, I visited Nashville , Tenn. One day I was walking down the street with two of my aunts, and our attention was attracted by the large number of mountaineers on the streets, mostly from northern Georgia, who had come in to some sort of society meeting. One of my aunts said, ‘What a lot of hoosiers there are in town.’ In surprise I said, ‘Why, I am a ‘Hoosier.’ A horrified look came over my aunt's face, and she exclaimed, ‘For the Lord's sake, child, don't let anyone here know you're a hoosier.’ I did not make the claim again, for on inspection the visitors proved a wild-looking lot who might be suspected of never having seen civilization before."

Mrs. Mary E. Johnson, of Nashville, Tenn., gives the following statement: "I have been familiar with the use of the word ‘hoosier’ all my life, and always as meaning a rough class of country people. The idea attached to it, as I understand it, is not so much that they are from the country, as that they are green and gawky. I think the sense is much the same as in ‘hayseed,’ ‘jay’ or ‘yahoo.’"

Hon. Thetus W. Simes, Representative in Congress from the Tenth Tennessee District, says: "I have heard all my life of the word ‘hoosier’ as applied to an ignorant, rough, unpolished fellow."

The following three statements were furnished to me by Mr. Meredith Nicholson, who collected them some months since.

John Bell Henneman, of the department of English, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, writes: "The word ‘hoosier’ is generally used in Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee as an equivalent for ‘a country hoodlum,' ‘a rough, uncouth countryman,' etc. The idea of the ‘country’ is always attached to it in my mind, with a degree of ‘uncouthness’ added. I simply speak from my general understanding of the term as heard used in the States mentioned above."

Mr. Raymond Weeks, of Columbia, Mo., writes: "Pardon my delay in answering your question concerning the word ‘hoosier’ in this section. The word means a native of Indiana, and has a rare popular sense of a backwoodsman, a rustic. One hears: ‘He's a regular hoosier.’ "

Mrs. John M. Judah, of Memphis, writes: "About the word ‘Hoosier'—one hears it in Tennessee often. It always means rough, uncouth, countrified. ‘I am a Hoosier,’ I have said, and my friends answered bewilderdly. ‘But all Indiana-born are Hoosiers,’ I declare. ‘What nonsense!’ is the answer generally, but one old politician responded with a little more intelligence on the subject: ‘You Indianians should forget that. It has been untrue for many years.’ In one of Mrs. Evans's novels—‘St. Elmo,' I think—a noble and philanthropic young Southern woman is reproached by her haughty father for teaching the poor children in the neighborhood—‘a lot of hoosiers,' he calls them. I have seen it in other books, too, but I cannot recall them. In newspapers the word is common enough, in the sense I refer to."

It is scarcely possible that this wide-spread use of the word in this general sense could have resulted if the word had been coined to signify a native of Indiana, but it would have been natural enough, if the word were in common use as slang in the South, to apply it to the people of Indiana. Many of the early settlers were of a rough and ready character, and doubtless most of them looked it in their long and toilsome emigration, but, more than that, it is an historical fact that about the time of the publication of Finley's poem there was a great fad of nicknaming in the West, and especially as to the several States. It was a feature of the humor of the day, and all genial spirits "pushed it along." A good illustration of this is seen in the following passage from Hoffman's "Winter in the West" (published in 1835, Vol. i, Page 210) referred to above:

"There was a long-haired ‘hooshier’ from Indiana, a couple of smart-looking ‘suckers’ from the southern part of Illinois, a keen-eyed, leather-belted ‘badger’ from the mines of Ouis-consin, and a sturdy, yeomanlike fellow, whose white capot, Indian moccasins and red sash proclaimed, while he boasted a three years' residence, the genuine ‘wolverine,’ or nauralized Michiganian. Could one refuse to drink with such a company? The spokesman was evidently a ‘red horse’ from Kentucky, and nothing was wanting but a ‘buckeye’ from Ohio to render the assemblage as complete as it was select."

This same frontier jocularity furnishes an explanation for the origin of several of the theories of the derivation of the name. If an assuming sort of person, in a crowd accustomed to the use of "hoosier" in its general slang sense, should pretentiously announce that he was a "husher," or a "hussar," nothing would be more characteristically American than for somebody to observe, "He is a hoosier, sure enough." And the victim of the little pleasantry would naturally suppose that the joker had made a mistake in the term. But the significance of the word must have been quite generally understood, for the testimony is uniform that it carried its slurring significance from the start. Still it was not materially more objectionable than the names applied to the people of other States, and it was commonly accepted in the spirit of humor. As Mr. Finley put it, in later forms of his poem:

With feelings proud we contemplate The rising glory of our State, Nor take offense by application Of its good-natured appellation.

It appears that the word was not generally known throughout the State until after the publication of "The Hoosiers' Nest," though it was known earlier in some localities, and these localities were points of contact with the Southern people. And this was true as to Mr. Finley's locality, for the upper part of the Whitewater valley was largely settled by Southerners, and from the Tennessee-Carolina mountain region, where the word was especially in use. Such settlements had a certain individuality. In his "Sketches" (page 38) the Rev. Aaron Wood says:

"Previously to 1830 society was not homogeneous, but in scraps, made so by the eclectic affinity of race, tastes, sects and interest. There was a wide difference in the domestic habits of the families peculiar to the provincial gossip, dialect and taste of the older States fro mwhich they had emigrated."

The tradition in my own family, which was located in the lower part of the Whitewater valley, is that the word was not heard there until "along in the thirties." In that region it always carries the idea of roughness or uncouthness, and it developed a derivative—"hoosiery"—which was used as an adjective or adverb to indicate something that was rough, awkward or shiftless. Testimony as to a similar condition in the middle part of the Whitewater valley is furnished in the following statement, given me by the Rev. T. A. Goodwin:

"In the summer of 1830 I went with my father, Samuel Goodwin, from our home at Brookville to Cincinnati. We traveled in an old-fashioned one-horse Dearborn wagon. I was a boy of twelve years, and it was a great occasion for me. At Cincinnati I had a fip for a treat, and at that time there was nothing I relished so much as one of those big pieces of gingerbread that were served as refreshment on muster days, Fourth of July and other gala occasions, in connection with cider. I went into a baker's shop and asked for ‘a fip's worth of gingerbread.’ The man said, ‘I guess you want hoosier-bait,' and when he produced it I found that he had the right idea. That was the first time I ever heard the word ‘hoosier,’ but in a few years it became quite commonly applied to Indiana people. The gingerbread referred to was cooked in square pans—about fifteen inches across, I should think—and with furrows marked across the top, dividing it into quarter sections. A quarter section sold for a fip, which was 6 ¼ cents. It is an odd fact that when Hosier J. Durbin joined the Indiana Methodist Conference, in 1835, his name was misspelled ‘Hoosier’ in the minutes, and was so printed. The word ‘hoosier’ always had the sense of roughness or uncouthness in its early use."

At the time this statement was made, neither Mr. Goodwin nor I knew of the existence of the last four lines of Finley's poem, in which this same term "hossier-bait" occurs, they being omitted in all the ordianry forms of the poem. The derivation of this term is obvious, whether "bait" be taken in its sense of a lure or its sense of food. It was simply something that "hoosiers" were fond of, and its application was natural at a time when the ideal of happiness was "a country boy with a hunk of gingerbread."

After the word had been applied to Indiana, and had entered on its double-sense stage, writers who were familiar with both uses distinguished between them by making it a proper noun when Indiana was referred to. An illustration of this is seen in the writings of J. S. Robb, author of "The Swamp Doctor in the Southwest" and other humorous sketches, published in 1843. He refers to Indiana as "the Hoosier State," but in a sketch of an eccentric St. Louis character he writes thus:

"One day, opposite the Planter's House, during a military parade, George was engaged in selling his edition of the Advocate of Truth, when a tall hoosier, who had been gazing at him with astonishment for some time, roared out in an immoderate fit of laughter.

"What do you see so funny in me to laugh at?" inquired George.

"Why, boss," said the hoosier, "I wur jest a thinkin' ef I'd seed you out in the woods, with all that har on, they would a been the d—dest runnin' done by this ‘coon ever seen in them diggins—you're ekill to the elephant! and a leetle the haryest small man I've seen scart up lately."

Unfortunately, however, not many writers were familiar with the double use of the word, and the distinction has gradually died out, while persistent assertions that the word was coined to designate Indiana people have loaded on them all the odium for the significance that the word has anywhere.

The real problem of the derivation of the word "hoosier" is not a question of the origin of a word formed to designate the State of Indiana and its people, but of the origin of the slang term widely in use in the South, signifying an uncouth rustic. There seems never to have been any attempt at a rational philological derivation, unless we may so account Mr. Charles G. Leland's remarks in Barriere and Leland's "Dictionary of Slang, Jargon and Cant," which are as follows: "Hoosier (American). A nickname given to natives of Indiana. Bartlett cites from the Providence Journal a story which has the appearance of being an after-manufacture to suit the name, deriving "hoosier from ‘husher—from their primary capacity to still their opponents." He also asserts that the Kentuckians maintained that the nickname expresses the exclamation of an Indianian when he knocks at a door and exclaims ‘Who's yere?' However, the word originally was not hoosier at all, but hoosieroon, or hoosheroon, hoosier being an abreviation of this. I can remember that in 1834, having read of hoosiers, and spoken of them, a boy from the West corrected me, and said that the word was properly hoosieroon. This would indicate a Spanish origin."

The source of Mr. Leland's error is plain. "Hoosieroon" was undoubtedly coined by Mr. Finley to designate a Hoosier child, and what the boy probably told Mr. Leland was that the name to apply properly to him would be Hoosieroon. But that alone would not dispose wholly of the Spanish suggestion, for "oon" or "on" is not only a Spanish ending, but is a Spanish diminutive indicating blood relation. In reality, however, Mr. Finley did not understand Spanish, and the ending was probably suggested to him by a quadroon and octoroon, which, of course, were in general use. There is no Spanish word that would give any suggestion of "hoosier." The only other language of continental Europe that could be looked to for its origin would be French, but there is no French word approaching it except, perhaps, "huche," which means a kneading trough, and there is no probability of derivation from that.

In fact, "hoosier" carries Anglo-Saxon credentials. It is Anglo-Saxon in form and Anglo-Saxon in ring. If it came from any foreign language, it has been thoroughly anglicized. And in considering its derivation it is to be remembered that the Southerners have always had a remarkable faculty for creating new words and modifying old ones. Anyone who has noted the advent of "snollygoster" in the present generation, or has read Longstreet's elucidation of "fescue," "abisselfa," and "anpersant" (Georgia Scenes, page 73), will readily concede that. And in this connection it is to be observed that the word "yahoo" has long been in use in Southern slang, in almost exactly the same sense as "hoosier," and the latter word may possibly have developed from its last syllable. We have a very comomn slang word in the North—"yap"— with the same signification, which may have come from the same source, though more probably from the provincial English "yap," to yelp or bark. "Yahoo" is commonly said to have been coined by Swift, but there is a possibility that it was in slang use in his day.

It is very probable that the chief cause of the absence of conjectures of the derivation of "Hoosier" from an English stem was the lack in our dictionaries of any word from which it could be supposed to come, and it is a singular fact that in our latest dictionaries—the Standard and the Century—there appears the word "hoose," which has been in use for centuries in England. It is used now to denote a disease common to calves, similar to the gapes in chickens,

  • ∗ Mr. Dunn is sometimes over-positive in his statements. Mrs. Emma Carleton, of New Albany, calls our attention to the old French word huissier, as used by Sir Walter Scott in "The Abbott" (Chapter 18). The "hussier" was an usher; hence Mrs. Carleton suggests, with some plausibility, that the word might have attached to the first French occupants of Indiana, as the ushers of civilization, or that the use of it by them "might have been the lingual forefather of Hoosier."—The Editor.
caused by the lodgment of worms in the throat. The symptoms of this disease include staring eyes, rough coat with hair turned backward, and hoarse wheezing. So forlorn an aspect might readily suggest giving the name "hooser" or hoosier" to an uncouth, rough-looking person. In this country, for some reason, this disease has been known only by the name of the worm that causes it—"strongylus micrurus"— it sounds very much like "strangle us marcus" as the veterinarians pronounce it— but in England "hoose" is the common name. This word is from a very strong old stem. Halliwell, in his "Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial words," gives "hooze" and "hoors," and states that "hoos" occurs in the "Cornwall Glossary," the latter being used also in Devonshire. Palmer, in his "Folk-Etymology," says that "hoarst—a Linconshire word for a cold on the chest, as if that which makes one hoarse," is a corruption of the old English "host," a cough, Danish "hoste," Dutch "hoeste," Anglo-Saxon "hweost," a wheeziness; and refers to Old English "hoose," to cough, and Cleveland "hooze," to wheeze. Descriptions of the effect of hoose on the appearance of animals will be found in Armatage's "Cattle Doctor," and in the "Transactions of the Highland Society of Scotland," fourth series, Vol. 10, at page 206.

There is also a possibility of a geographical origin for the word, for there is a coast parish of Cheshire, England, about seven miles west of Liverpool, named Hoose. The name probably refers to the cliffs in the vicinity, for "hoo," which occurs both in composition and independently in old English names of places, is a Saxon word signifying high. However, this is an obscure parish, and no especial peculiarity of the people is known that would probably give rise to a distinctive name for them.

There is one other possibility that is worthy of mention—that the word may have come to us through England from the Hindoo. In India there is in general use a word commonly written "huzur," which is a respectful form of address to persons of rank or superiority. In "The Potter's Thumb," Mrs. Steel writes it "hoozur." Akin to it is "housha," the title of a village authority in Bengal. It may seem impossible that "hoosier" could come from so far a source, and yet it is almost certain that our slang word "fakir," and its derivative verb "fake," came from the Hindoo through England, whither for many years people of all classes have been returning from Indian service.

As a matter of fact words pass from one language to another in slang very readily. For example, throughout England and America a kidnapper is said in thieves' slang to be "on the kinchin lay," and it can scarcely be questioned that this word is direct from the German "kindchen." The change of meaning from "huzur" to "hoosier" would be explicable by the outlandish dress and looks of the Indian grandees from a native English standpoint, and one might naturally say of an uncouth person, "He looks like a huzur."

It is not my purpose to urge that any one of these suggested possibilities of derivation is preferable to the others, or to assert that there may not be other and more rational ones. It is sufficient to have pointed out that there are abundant sources from which the word may have been derived. The essential poin is that Indiana and her people had nothing whatever to do with its origin or its signification. It was applied to us in raillery, and our only connection with it is that we have meekly borne it for some three score years and ten, and have made it widely recognized as a badge of honor, rather than a term of reproach.


Published by the Indiana University Department of History.