Sunday, September 18, 2005

Apple #111: What's a Hoosier?

Felix J. from Indiana, wanted to know, for once and for all, what the word "Hoosier" means, and where it came from. Felix, I'm assuming you know, the word isn't flattering. So what I have to tell you might not be nice to hear. But at least you will know the answer. And perhaps you can also take some comfort in the fact that David Lee Roth is also a Hoosier, originally.
  • Dictionaries playing it safe give the definition of Hoosier as a native or resident of Indiana. But we know there's more to it than that.
  • It's not listed in my copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, nor is it in my Compact Oxford Dictionary. Perhaps it's considered slang and not worthy of inclusion?
  • I was taught, in high school English class, that the word means "country bumpkin." The Infoplease dictionary offers the similar definition: "any awkward, unsophisticated person, esp. a rustic."
  • Jeffrey Graf of the Reference Department at the Indiana University Libraries at Bloomington provides this definition: "a term of contempt and opprobrium common in the upland South and used to denote a rustic, a bumpkin, a countryman, a roughneck, a hick, or an awkward, uncouth or unskilled fellow."
  • As far as where this word comes from, once again, nobody really knows, but everybody's got an idea. Here are some of the possibilities:
    • The first recorded appearance of the word was around 1826. At this time, Indiana was still considered frontierland, and part of The West. The West was supposedly full of men who could outrun, outfight, and probably outdrink another man. These super-strong men of the West were called "hushers" because of their ability to shush their foes. Bargemen originally from Indiana who traveled up and down the Mississippi were known to be especially combative and engaged in all sorts of fights, organized and otherwise. Thus it is possible that these men earned the nickname of "husher" for their home state. And then this word mystically was transformed both in pronunciation, to Hoosier, and in meaning, to something derogatory.
    • Alternatively, many think that the word originated from a greeting. It used to be common practice to holler to someone in their cabin, so they did not shoot you, "Hello the cabin!" The folk inside would holler back, "Who's yer?" which was a variant of "who's there" or "who are you?" Eventually, the story has it, this got slurred over time to Hoosier.
    • The secretary of the Indiana Historical Society has concluded after much research that the word comes from a Cumberland, England dialect word, "hoozer." Some dictionaries say this word means anything large, which is sort of mysterious. Mr. Indiana Historical Society says that "hoozer" comes from an Anglo-Saxon word "hoo" meaning high, or hill. Immigrants who came from Cumberland first went to the Appalachians and then moved up into the hills of southern Indiana and brought the word with them. I'm not sure I like this suggestion because if you've ever been to most parts of Indiana, you know there ain't a hill to spit at for miles.

photo from "Flat, but not Dull -- Understanding the Central Indiana Glacial Landscape"

    • The story I like best -- because it accounts for the practice of capitalizing the word Hoosier -- is that a contractor named Samuel Hoosier was hired to get a canal built, not in Indiana but in Louisville. He liked to hire men from Indiana because he found them to be hard-working and efficient. Eventually, all his employees came to be called Hoosiers. Presumably, the people in Louisville didn't like outsiders in their territory, so perhaps for them, the term took on its negative connotation.
    • A similar story has it that a different man, Robert Hoosier, was in charge of extending the National Road (US 40) from Columbus, Ohio, where it had last stopped, into Richmond, Indiana. Workers in the then-territory of Indiana agreed to work in Ohio, which was already a state, because they would earn more money in a state rather than in a territory. These workers who moved temporarily across the state line got the name "Hoosiers" in reference to the man for whom they worked. Again, the negative connotation may have gotten attached later by those who didn't like interlopers.
  • I was wondering, why on earth the State of Indiana would choose to refer to itself as the Hoosier State, but it turns out, that's only what everybody else calls it. The official nickname for the state is "Crossroads of America."
  • Senator Dan Quayle (later VP Quayle) tried to change the meaning of the word in 1987 by adopting a non-binding resolution in the Congressional Record that Hoosier should mean instead, someone who is "smart, resourceful, skillful, a winner, unique and brilliant." What prompted him to do this was Indiana's 1987 basketball championship loss to Syracuse.
  • Looks like, in spite of their best efforts, the Hoosiers haven't been too successful at re-formulating their image.

Dan Quayle photo from

Infoplease Dictionary, Hoosier
Merriam-Webster Online, Hoosier
The Word Detective, Hoosier
Wikipedia, Hoosier
The Word Hoosier, by Jeffrey Graf of the Reference Department at Indiana University Libraries, Bloomington provides perhaps the most exhaustive description of all possible sources of the word.

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