The Word Hoosier
Reference Services Department
Herman B Wells Library
Indiana University - Bloomington
Like barnacles, a thick crust of speculation has gathered
over the word "Hoosier" to explain the origin of Indiana's
nickname. Popular theories, diligently and often sincerely
advanced, form a rich, often amusing body of folklore. Those
theories include: "Who's here?" as a question to unknown
visitors or to the inhabitants of a country cabin; Hussar, from
the fiery European mounted troops; "Huzzah!" proclaimed after
victory in a fight; Husher, a brawny man, capable of stilling
opponents; Hoosa, an Indian word for corn; Hoose, an English term
for a disease of cattle which gives the animals a wild sort of
look; and the evergreen "Who's ear?" asked while toeing a torn-off
ear lying on the bar room floor the morning after a brawl.
The best evidence, however, suggests that "Hoosier" was 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. Although the word's derogatory meaning has
faded, it can still be heard in its original sense, albeit less frequently
than its cousins "Cracker" and "Redneck."
From the South "Hoosier" moved north and westward with the people
into the Ohio Valley, where it was applied at first to the presumably
unsophisticated inhabitants of Southern Indiana. Later it expanded to
include all residents of the state and gradually lost its original, potent
connotation of coarseness in manners, appearance and intellect.
As for the word itself, it may derive from the Saxon word "hoo"
meaning promontory or cliff or ridge or rise or hill. Jacob Piatt Dunn,
diligent scholar of the word, believes a Saxon beginning, and such a meaning survives in various place names in England. There is some sense in the notion, too, that those who applied the insult and those to whom it was applied (and who understood it) came primarily from British stock.
The unusual (ier or sier) ending has always been difficult to explain.
Might it be from "scir" the old form of "shire?" The Hoo Shire would
then be the Hill Country, the High Places or the Mountain Region. Would
that meaning then extend to those who lived in the hills, making them the
"hooscirs" and later the "Hoosiers," the mountain people, hillbillies by
Speculation about the origin of the word Hoosier as a nickname for
residents of Indiana began in print as early as 1833. In that year the
Indiana Democrat of October 26, 1833 reprinted an article from the
The appellation of Hooshier has been used in many of the
Western States, for several years, to designate, in a good
natural way, an inhabitant of our sister state of Indiana. Ex-
Governor Ray has lately started a newspaper in Indiana, which he
names "The Hoshier" [sic]. Many of our ingenious native
philologists have attempted, though very unsatisfactorily, to
explain this somewhat singular term. Mordecai M. Noah, in the
late number of his Evening Star, undertakes to account for it
upon the faith of a rather apocryphal story of a recruiting
officer, who was engaged during the last war, in enlisting a
company of HUSSARS, whom by mistake he unfortunately denominated
Hooshiers. Another etymologist tells us that when the state of
Indiana was being surveyed, the surveyors, on finding the
residence of a squatter, would exclaim "Who's here ," --
that this exclamation, abbreviated to Hoosier was, in
process of time, applied as a distinctive appellation to the
original settlers of that state, and, finally to its inhabitants
generally. Neither of these hypotheses are deserving of any
attention. The word Hooshier is indebted for its existence to
that once numerous and unique, but now extinct class of mortals
called the Ohio Boatmen. -- In its original acceptation it was
equivalent to "Ripstaver," "Bulger," "Ring-tailroarer," and a
hundred others, equally expressive, but which have never attained
to such a respectable standing as itself. By some caprice which
can never be explained, the appellation Hooshier became confined
solely to such boatmen as had their homes upon the Indiana shore,
and from them it was gradually applied to all the Indianians, who
acknowledge it as good naturedly as the appellation of Yankee --
Whatever may have been the original acceptation of Hooshier this
we know, that the people to whom it is now applied are amongst
the bravest, most intelligent, most enterprising, most
magnanimous, and most democratic of the Great West, and should we
ever feel disposed to quit the state in which we are now
sojourning, our own noble Ohio, it will be to enroll ourselves as
adopted citizens in the land of the "HOOSHIER."
Jacob Piatt Dunn
Jacob Piatt Dunn, for many years secretary of the Indiana Historical
Society, provides the fullest consideration of "Hoosier" in his 1907
article, "The Word Hoosier," which continues research he had done for a
1902 article in the Indiana Magazine of History. The two items
and a third published in 1913 appear as a whole in slightly altered form
in his Indiana and Indianans (1919). Dunn accurately observes that the 1833 article from the Cincinnati Republican covers "most of the ground
that has since been occupied" only ten months after the publication of
Finley's famous poem "The Hoosier's Nest." Dunn carefully examines that
"occupied ground" in his 1907 article, a detailed examination of the
term which nearly every serious researcher cites. He dismisses with
scholarly ease explanations of the term that individuals had
proposed over the years. Three features, though, he find, are common to
most of the suggested etymologies:
The third characteristic, he finds, is true for many of the explanations,
but untrue of the word itself, for it had long been used in the south as
a derogatory term for a rough countryman. His correspondents assured
too, that the term continued in its use and meaning at the time of his
research, without reference to Indiana.
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 come 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
Dunn does an admirable job examining the various theories about the word
"hoosier" and honestly states that 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 a slang term widely in
use in the South, signifying an uncouth rustic." Although he declines to
state an origin of 'hoosier" with certainty, Dunn concludes that the
word "carries Anglo-Saxon credentials. It is Anglo-Saxon in
form and Ango-Saxon in ring." He considers several possibilities and
notes that the Saxon term "hoo," meaning a high place, cliff or promontory,
survives in a number of place names. He also ran across the Cumberland
dialect word, "hoozer," meaning something unusually large.
As possible support for derivation from the Cumberland word he cites in the
1919 publication an article from the Northwestern Pioneer and St.
Joseph Intelligence of April 4, 1832:
Dunn commented, "The sturgeon, with its covering of plates, is a rough-looking
customer as compared with common freshwater fishes; and the obvious
inference of the use of the word "Hoosier" in this connection is that,
while it was being applied to Indiana people, the "real Hoosier" was
rough-looking individual, like the sturgeon."
A Real Hoosier. -- A sturgeon, who, no doubt, left Lake Michigan
on a trip of pleasure, with a view of spending a few days in the pure
waters of the St. Joseph, had his joyous anticipations unexpectedly marred
by running foul of a fisherman's spear near this place -- being brought on
terra firma, and cast into a balance, he was found to weigh 83 pounds.
As for the form of the word, Dunn observes that throughout Finley's
manuscript copy of the "The Hoosier's Nest," Finley spells the word
"Hoosher" and places it within quotation marks. In later editions of the
work it appears as "Hoosier." The original spelling suggests that
the word had not yet been often seen in print, and, as Dunn says, "several
years passed before the spelling became fixed in its present form." In
fact it is seen as Hoosier, Hoosher and Hooshier in early spellings.
Conjecture, Moonshine, Hogwash and Spook Etymology
Dunn does a kindly job dismissing most of the proposed origins of
Indiana's nickname. Occasionally, however, he is moved to speak of
"moonshine," and Mencken uses the same term. Others, somewhat less
courtly, refer to "spook etymology" (John Ciardi) or "hogwash" (Webster's Word Histories). George Stimpson simply finds the propositions "ludicrous." Each is right, for the "curious theories" (Stimpson) about the word have created an imaginative body of folklore, a collection of often foolish tales, as entertaining as they are inaccurate.
The speculation, the outrageous, endearing discussion of the term,
makes it more interesting than the plain truth about it. From 1833 to the
present it has figured in filler items for newspapers and in "Hot Line" or
"Ask the Globe" columns because of the oddity of the word and the
traditions surrounding it. "What is a Hoosier?" is the question; the
answers follow in glorious plentitude.
The Indiana Historical Bureau Answers
The Indiana Historical Bureau in response to the often asked
question issued a pamphlet, the revised version of an article
that appeared in the September 1965 issue of the Indiana
Historical Bureau Bulletin. Here appears the official, or
The Word "Hoosier"
For well over a century and a half the people of Indiana have been
called Hoosiers. It is one of the oldest of state nicknames and has had a
wider acceptance than most. True, there are Buckeyes of Ohio, the Suckers
of Illinois and the Tarheels of North Carolina -- but none of these has
had the popular usage accorded Hoosier.
But where did Hoosier come from? What is its origin? We know that it came
into general usage in the 1830s. John Finley of Richmond wrote a poem,
"The Hoosier's Nest," which was used as the "Carrier's Address" of the
Indianapolis Journal Jan. 1, 1833. It was widely copied throughout
the country and even abroad. Finley originally wrote Hoosier as "Hoosher."
Apparently the poet felt that it was sufficiently
familiar to be understandable to his readers. A few days later, on Jan. 8,
1833, at the Jackson Day dinner in Indianapolis, John W. Davis offered
"The Hoosher State of Indiana" as a toast. And in August, former Indiana
Gov. James B. Ray announced that he intended to publish a newspaper,
The Hoosier, at Greencastle, Indiana.
A few instances of the earlier written use of Hoosier have been found.
The word appears in the "Carrier's Address" of the Indiana Democrat
on Jan. 3, 1832. G. L. Murdock wrote on Feb. 11, 1831, in a letter to Gen.
John Tipton, "Our Boat will [be] named the Indiana Hoosier." In a
publication printed in 1860, Recollections . . . of the Wabash
Valley, Sanford Cox quotes a diary which he dates July 14, 1827,
"There is a Yankee trick for you -- done up by a Hoosier." One can only
wonder how long before this Hoosier was used orally.
As soon as the nickname came into general use, speculation began as to its
origin. Among the more popular theories:
- When a visitor hailed a pioneer cabin in Indiana or knocked upon its
door, the settler would respond, "Who's yere?" And from this frequent
response Indiana became the "Who's yere" or Hoosier state. No one ever
explained why this was more typical of Indiana than of Illinois or
- Indiana rivermen were so spectacularly successful in trouncing or
"hushing" their adversaries in the brawling that was then common that they
became known as "hushers," and eventually Hoosiers.
- There was once a
contractor named Hoosier employed on the Louisville and Portland Canal who
preferred to hire laborers from Indiana. They were called
"Hoosier's men" and eventually all Indianans were called Hoosiers.
theory attributed to Gov. Joseph Wright derived Hoosier from an Indian
word for corn, "hoosa." Indiana flatboatmen taking corn or maize to New
Orleans came to be known as "hoosa men" or Hoosiers. Unfortunately for
this theory, a search of Indian vocabularies by a careful student of
linguistics failed to reveal any such word for corn.
- Quite as possible is a facetious explanation offered by "The Hoosier
Poet," James Whitcomb Riley. He claimed that Hoosier
originated in the pugnacious habits of our early settlers. They were
enthusiastic and vicious fighters who gouged, scratched and bit off noses and
ears. This was so common an occurrence that a settler coming into a
tavern the morning after a fight and seeing an ear on the floor would
touch it with his toe and casually ask, "Whose ear?"
Many have inquired into the origin of Hoosier. But by all odds the most
serious student of the matter was Jacob Piatt Dunn, Jr., Indiana historian
and longtime secretary of the Indiana Historical Society. Dunn noted that "hoosier" was
frequently used in many parts of the South in the 19th century for
woodsmen or rough hill people. He traced the word back to "hoozer," in the
Cumberland dialect of England. This derives from the Anglo-Saxon word
"hoo" meaning high or hill. In the Cumberland dialect, the world "hoozer"
meant anything unusually large, presumably like a hill. It is not hard to
see how this word was attached to a hill dweller or highlander. Immigrants
from Cumberland, England, settled in the southern mountains (Cumberland
Mountains, Cumberland River, Cumberland Gap, etc.). Their descendants
brought the name with them when they settled in the hills of southern
As Indiana writer Meredith Nicholson observed: "The
origin of the term 'Hoosier' is not known with certainty. But certain it is
that ... Hoosiers bear their nickname proudly."
H. L. Mencken treats the term in The American Language where
the Sage of Baltimore relies considerably on the scholarship of Jacob
Dunn for his discussion of "hoosier." Using Dunn as his guide, he
discusses the various possibilities of the term's origin, observing that
early etymologists "all sought to connect the term with some idea of
ruffianism." He begins with the "husher" theory and moves quickly to
"Who's here?" both of which Dunn rejected. He mentions the fanciful
barroom brawl and "Whose year?" and Lehmanowsky and the "hussar" story.
Sam Hoosier, the canal contractor, comes next, followed by hoosa,
that Indian word for corn, and the exclamation, "Huzza!" He returns to
Dunn and offers three more possibilities: hoose, a cattle disease;
hoozer, a Cumberland, England, dialect word applied to "anything
unusually large;" and huzur, a Hindustani form of address to
"persons of rank or superiority." Mencken endorses no explanation; he
observes that "hoosier" at the start "did not signify an Indianan
particularly, but any rough fellow..." and that it was a more or less
common term in the upland South, a synonym for cracker. In
Indiana, however, the term had settled into is current meaning as a
resident of the state by 1833.
Webster's Word Histories
Webster's Word Histories neatly and concisely presents the
various theories about the word "hoosier," including the seldom-mentioned
"houssière" (holly plantation) and the dialectical "hoose" (roundworm).
It acknowledges that Dunn "dismissed most of these explanations as hogwash as far back as 1907."
Dunn's theory of "hoozer," the Cumberland word for anything unusually large has "at
least some vestige of plausibility." A discussion of the disparaging use of the term follows.
Webster's tends to doubt the connection between "Hoosier" as a nickname of Indiana
and "hoosier" as a term applied to a mountaineer or backwoodsman. It errs when it refuses to
recognize the possibility that "Hoosier" as a common term of opprobrium or disparagement
migrated from the upland South to the Ohio River Valley and beyond into Indiana. It
also rejects any connection with the Anglo-Saxon word "hoo." Webster's may be too
hasty, and that haste somewhat spoils an otherwise excellent presentation.
Baker and Carmony
Ronald L. Baker and Marvin Carmony in their Indiana Place
Names round up the usual suspects. They treat the "who's 'ere?"
greeting; Samuel Hoosier, the Louisville canal contractor; "hussars" or
"hushers;" "houssière, French for "bushy places;" "hoose," an
English dialect word for roundworm; "hoosa," a supposed Indian word for
corn; "huzza," the exclamation of victory or celebration; and "hoozer," "a
southern dialect word meaning something especially large." (Other sources,
when speaking of "hoozer" meaning something very large, refer to the
Cumberland, England, dialect word; Baker and Carmony seem alone in
assigning the term with the same meaning to the south without further
explanation.) Evidence from the Linguistic Atlas, they conclude, reveals
"Hoosier" as a "derogatory epithet" meaning uncouth and "synonymous with hick,
hayseed and hillbilly," a term still in use in the upland South.
Baker revisited the world of "Hoosier" origins in his From
Needmore to Prosperity. In his introduction, he answers his own
question, "Who is a hoosier" with a description of various suggested
origins of the term. He examines recent scholarship and concludes that
"most scholars now agree with Dunn and McDavid that Hoosier comes
from a southern dialect word meaning 'a rough or uncouth person.'"
Dictionary of American Regional English
The Dictionary of American Regional English provides a
thorough treatment of the American regional lexicon, based
on both written evidence and field work. For "hoosier" it gives the usual
spelling and pronunciation and invites the reader to consult the variants
in the entry: hoogie, hoojy, hoo(d)ger, hoojer, hooshier, hooshur. To
illustrate the use of the word the Dictionary provides a number of
quotations taken from a variety of sources dating from 1831 to 1980. It
notes, too, that term also occurs in combined forms, like "country
hoosier" and "mountain hoosier," and it presents the definition:
A series of quotations follows to illustrate the definition,
many of them identified by geographical source:
A hillbilly or rustic; an unmannerly or objectionable person. Such
usage is chiefly Southern or of the Southern Midlands and often
The Dictionary continues with additional definitions: "A
White person considered to be objectionable, esp because of racial
prejudice" and "... an inexperienced or incompetent person." As a verb,
"hoosier" means "to be a farmer" (Berry and Van den Bark) and "hoosier up"
means "...to work incompetently; to slow down or shirk on a job, usually
on purpose." "Hoosier up" can also mean "to play tricks or take sides...;
to badmouth." With all definitions, noun or verb, several quotations show the word's
usage or serve as authorities for the definition itself.
1941 Hall Coll. neTN, Hoosiers -- people speak of goddamn [hoosiers], a damn feller...who
don't know nothin' except what they've [sic] learned in the mountains.
In town they speak of "country hoodgers" or "mountain hoodgers" ... in
North Carolina they speak of "Tennessee Hoosiers;" in Tennessee they
speak of "North Carolina Hoosiers.").
Paul Dickson in his What do You Call a Person from ...?
explores the term and in easy prose discusses the ubiquity of "hoosier" in
Indiana. He also reviews the "spirited Senate tomfoolery" between Senators
Quayle and D'Amato concerning the 1987 NCAA basketball championship game
between Indiana University and Syracuse. The Senate section of
Congressional Record for March 30 and March 31, 1987 records the
action. The day of the game Senator D'Amato toyed with the "sacred word"
and quoted Webster's Third New International Dictionary, which
defines "hoosier" not only a resident of Indiana but also as "an awkward,
unhandy or unskilled person, especially an uncouth rustic." Syracuse lost
the game to Indiana, and Senator Quayle rose to introduce a non-binding
resolution with a new definition of "hoosier:"
Dickson also entertainingly records Quayle's exchange with William A.
Llewellyn, president of the Merriam-Webster Company, over the word's
definition. He suggests the senator might better turn his attention to
Saint Louis, where the word's meaning makes D'Amato's teasing jibe seem
Whereas Indiana University's basketball team displayed the real meaning of
the word, 'hoosier,' therefore be it resolved that a Hoosier is someone
who is smart, resourceful, skillful, a winner, unique and brilliant.
Indianian or Indianan
The application of "hoosier" to residents of Indiana rather stifled
the debate of the relative merits of Indianian or Indianan to refer to
citizens of the state. In both popular writing and reference works
neither Indianan nor Indianian is often seen, both terms having long ago
yielded to "hoosier." Indiana is nearly universally known as the
"Hoosier State," yet that is not its official nickname. Why states need legislated
nicknames (and flowers, rocks, trees, animals, insects, or muffins) is a
separate question, but Indiana in some fit of blandness adopted "The Crossroads of
America" as its "official" sobriquet.
In support of the word "hoosier," Indiana's senators found bipartisan, common cause.
On April 12, 2016 Senators Joe Donnelly and Dan Coats sent a letter to Michael Abramson,
chairman of the Government Printing Office's Style Board. They wrote to ask that the Style Board change
its designation of Indiana natives in the next edition (2016) of the Style Manual from Indianan (Style
Manual, 2008. p. 93; rule 5.23) to Hoosier. "For more than 180 years, the residents of Indiana have
proudly called themselves Hoosiers. References to the term can be found in private correspondences,
travel reminiscences, and local newspapers as early as 1826," they observe. They further note, "As you
can see, whether we are cheering for the Indiana Hoosiers on the basketball court, hiking the Hoosier
National Forest, or inviting friends over for some Hoosier Hospitality, we have always called ourselves
Hoosiers." And they conclude, "As Meredith Nicholson wrote in 1912, 'The origin of the term "Hoosier" is
not known with certainty. But certain it is that...Hoosiers bear their nickname proudly.' Regardless of
its roots, the Hoosier moniker has endured since our state's beginnings, and we urge you to consider its
inclusion in the GPO's next Style Manual."
"Stalking the Elusive Hoosier's Nest"
"For years one of the great mysteries of Indiana history has been the
origin and true meaning of the word Hoosier," George T. Blakey begins his essay in the
summer, 1999 issue of Traces. "Three people -- John Finley, Marcus Mote and
Monimia Boyd -- unsuspectingly collaborated in popularizing the term as a nickname
for residents of Indiana."
Then the fun begins.
Lightheartedly, in a pawky manner even, but with the eye of an
historian Blakey traces the appearance, disappearance, reappearance, dating,
dating and the other curiosities surrounding three icons of Indiana history.
Finley's poem is the best known. The "Hoosier's Nest" is a
classic ("The voice that sang the Hoosier's Nest / Of Western singers the first and best,"
according to James Whitcomb Riley.). Blakey explains that Finley "told his daughter that it [the
term hoosier] was already in use by the time of his poem." But Finley maintained he had written
it in 1830. The first publication was the "carrier's address" in the 1833 Indianapolis
Journal. It was a separate printing and "cannot be located today with the newspaper of that
date." Apparently his daughter, Sarah Wrigley, inherited an original manuscript of the poem
with a notation of the date in Finley's hand. She donated the manuscript to the Indiana State
Library. It somehow got lost. They have only a "literal copy" she made earlier when she was still
reluctant to part with the original.
Then comes Marcus Mote whose painting, also called the "Hoosier's
Nest," dates from 1844, or perhaps not. Mote translated, in Blakely's words, onto canvas
"in solid, literal fashion," the poem's scene as "a visitor encounters 'The Hoosier's Nest' with
towheaded Hoosieroons peering from the cabin door; animal skins decking the walls, livestock grazing in
the clearing, and wilderness looming darkly behind all the foreground
detail." The painting disappeared for a time, reemerged, was donated to the State Library,
and transferred to the Indiana State Museum. Was it the original, though? Why does the date 1891
appear on it?
Monimia Boyd also painted the subject and presented her work to the State Library
in 1849. After a critic questioned its merits, so the story goes, her husband
cut it from its frame and returned it to his wife. Following her death the work seems to have gone
here and there until "for the moment, Monimia Boyd's painting is, once again, a fugitive." For
Blakey the game was afoot, and were he Dr. Watson, he might have recorded his account as "The
Curious Adventure of the Missing Hoosier Icons."
The "Hoosier's Nest," by Marcus Mote
Steve Haller celebrates the 175th anniversary of "The Hoosier's Nest” with an article in the
fall, 2008 issue of Traces. He will concentrate, he says, on the
connotation of the word hoosier "preceding its general
acceptance by the 1840s," rather than offer a comprehensive survey of the "subsequent litany of positive, negative,
humorous and serious references." A survey appears anyway.
Dunn is the favored source, not unreasonably, and Haller cites Dunn's observation that
hoosier was adopted in Indiana "in spite of prior meanings and taken on with a humorous
spirit at a time when westerners (today's Midwest) were fond of adopting state
nicknames and that
the 'double sense' meaning was essentially gone by the late 1830s." This in contrast to "Nicholson's
bemoaning the appellation."
The comments of Carmony, Baker and others searching for the "Holy Grail," the "origins and
meaning of Indiana's nickname," also turn up in the birthday homage. So does Finley's daughter,
who "affirmed that when her father wrote his famous poem the word 'no longer designated a rough,
uncouth backwoodsman, but a self-reliant man who was able to defend his home, and command
the respect of his neighbors.'"
For his tribute, Haller has done his research competently. He
might have questioned Sanford Cox's Recollections dating the term to 1827, hardly a
contemporary account since the book appeared in 1860. But he doesn't count it as true, either.
Examples of the use of the word round out the text. He doesn't miss the October 26, 1833
item that appeared in the Cincinnati Republican, a reprint of an earlier story in the
Indiana Democrat. He does conclude, however, with a cloying quote (perhaps a certain
amount of saccharine is inevitable in discussing the word) from Walter Havinghurst's
The Heartland (1962):
"Whatever its origin, the name of Hoosier has
had a lasting appeal for Indiana people and has a quite enviable aura. For more than a hundred
years it has continued to mean friendliness, neighborliness, and idyllic contentment with Indiana
landscape and life."
"Hoosier" in Use: The Early Years
Many reasonably reliable sources, including the Oxford English
1826 as the earliest written appearance of the word hoosier. They
offer as evidence a letter dated February 24, 1826 that James Curtis of Holt County, Missouri,
sent to his uncle, Thomas Beeler of Indianapolis. Curtis wrote:
A research worker in the Indiana State Library discovered the letter, and the Library
reported the discovery in the April 1949 issue of the Indiana Bulletin of History.
The Chicago Tribune picked up the story and ran it on June 2, 1949, but
improved the spelling and turned "hoesiers" into "hoosiers."
... the Indiana hoesiers that came out last fall is settled from 2 to 4 milds of us ...
The letter is real enough, but, as Jonathan Clark Smith points out, for some
reason the date is wrong, 1846 rather than 1826. 1826 is not smudged or
marred in any way on the manuscript. A curator or librarian, though, has
indicated in pencil  on it to correct the writer's error. Smith observes
Holt County, Missouri, was not created until 1841, named for a man who died in
1840. Further research confirms his dating of the letter. Census
records of 1830 and
1840 place James Curtis in Indiana. The letter itself refers to the
marriage of C. J. Beeler and Margaret Vondy (born on the Isle of Man) on
Thursday, February 5th. February 5, 1846 was a Thursday, and the Holt
County Historical Society has published a list of "Marriages Recorded in the
Holt County Missouri Courthouse." One entry reads: G. I. Beeler. Margaret
Vandy. 5 March 1846.
A passage in Sanford C. Cox's Recollections of the Early Settlement
of the Wabash Valley includes an entry from the diary of a schoolmaster
in Black Creek, Fountain County:
The volume, though, published in 1860, is hardly contemporaneous, not the best source for a definitive early use of the word.
Under date of July 14, 1827, the diarist relates a current anecdote about
a squatter who gave a false alarm that Indians were coming, in order that
he might ride to Crawfordsville and enter a claim for his land ahead of
some speculators he had seen looking it over. Successful in his deceit,
boasted: "There is a Yankee trick for you -- done up by a Hoosier."
Several sources, including the State Library, cite a letter (in the Indiana State Library Manuscript Section) from G. L. Murdock to Gen. John Tipton. In that letter written from Cincinnati and dated February 11, 1831, Murdock replies to Tipton in response to an advertisement and offers to deliver goods by steamboat to Logansport. He concludes, “Our boat will be named The Indiana Hoosier.”
Dunn had always hoped that earlier references to the word would turn up, but the Murdock letter seems to be the first verifiable instance of its use. In spite of much searching, no one, apparently, has found previous written evidence of the term.
The earliest printed instance of the word Hoosier appears in the Vincennes Gazette of February 19, 1831. A letter to the editor, signed RACKOON, comments on the increasing population of Indiana and concludes: “The ‘Hoosher’ country is coming out, and the day is not far distant, when some states which have hitherto looked upon us as a kind of outlandish, half-civilized race, will have to follow in our train. Let the ‘Half-horse, half-alligator’ coun [sic] country look to it.”
The Frankfort Argus of September 28, 1831, citing the (undated) Louisville Advertiser, devotes the entire front page and part of the second to a description of “A Republican Barbecue.” The barbecue celebrated a victory for Jacksonians in the recent Kentucky elections. Appropriate toasts were drunk, a lot of them, each accompanied by a musical piece, sometimes chosen for praise, sometimes for mockery and derision. The tenth toast was to Gen. John Adair, who had been elected to congress, and the “excellent band” played “The Hooshier March,” by A.M. General Adair (“In his return to the ensuing Congress, Kentucky exhibits her lively recollection of and gratitude for his eminent public services”) did have an Indiana connection. He had fought in the Indian Wars as a major of volunteers under Colonel (later General) James Wilkinson. Among the engagements were the battles of Ouiatenon in Tippecanoe County (1791) and Kenapacomaqua (1791), on the Eel River near present day Logansport.
"The Hoosher's Nest," by John Finley (1797-1866) appeared as an "Address
of the Carrier of the Indianapolis Journal, January 1, 1833."
Finley's verse helped popularize the term Hoosier and for many years
was thought to be the first written example of it. His spelling of the
word (regularized to "hoosier" in later revisions of the work) and use of
quotation marks around it suggest that the word, while known, had not yet
found its place in the dictionaries of the time. It does not, for
example, appear in Webster's 1828 American dictionary of the English
Only months after the "Carrier's Address," the
(Macon, Georgia), published, on April 17, 1833, a portion of "The Hoosier's
Nest," reprinted from the Cincinnati Chronicle. The item, entitled
"The Hoosieroons," begins: "The good citizens of our young sister, Indiana,
are pretty generally known throughout the West by the singular appelation
of "Hooshers." -- The following rhymes, from a young Hoosheroon, convey
very graphical picture of Hoosher life on the frontiers of Indiana."
A section of Finley's poem follows:
"The Hoosieroons" also appeared reprinted in Atkinson's Casket
with the May, 1833 issue.
Suppose in riding somewhere West
A stranger found a "Hoosher's" nest,
In other words, a buckeye cabin
Just big enough to hold Queen Mab in.
Its situation low but airy
Was on the borders of a prairie,
And fearing he might be benighted
He hailed the house and then alighted.
The "Hoosher" met him at the door,
Their salutations soon were o'er:
He took the stranger's horse aside
And to a sturdy sapling tied;
Then having stripped the saddle off,
He fed him in a sugar trough.
The stranger stooped to enter in,
The entrance closing with a pin,
And manifested strong desire
To seat him by the log heap fire,
Where half a dozen Hoosheroons,
With mush and milk, tin cups and spoons,
White heads, bare feet and dirty faces,
Seemed much inclined to keep their places,
But Madam, anxious to display
Her rough and undisputed sway,
Her offspring to the ladder led
And cuffed the youngsters up to bed.
Invited shortly to partake
Of venison, milk and johnny-cake
The stranger made a hearty meal
And glances round the room would steal;
One side was lined with skins of "varments"
The other spread with divers garments,
Dried pumpkins overhead were strung
Where venison hams in plenty hung,
Two rifles placed above the door,
Three dogs lay stretched upon the floor,
In short the domicile was rife,
With specimens of "Hoosher" life.
On June 28, 1833 the Salem Gazette (Salem, Massachusetts) printed an
item, "Where is the East." It reports the comments of the editor of the
Portland Advertiser who has just returned from a Southern and Western
The same article, published as "Excursion to Bangor -- The East" appeared in the
New York Spectator on July 8, 1833. The Painesville Telegraph
(Painesville, Ohio) also picked up the story of Mr. Brooks, the Portland
Evening Advertiser editor, and ran it as "Down East" on July 26, 1833.
Some thirty days ago I was inquiring in Cincinnati for the West, and they said
it was among "the Hoosiers" of Indiana, or "the Suckers" of Illinois -- cant
names given the residents of these States.
On August 14, 1833, the American Advocate (Hallowell, Maine) ran
an article under the headline "Opossum Hunting in Indiana." In it the word
"hoosier" does not appear, but "hoosheroon" does.
The New-Orleans commercial Bulletin in a section "By the Western Mail"
ran a small notation on September 3, 1833, taken from the Florence
Gazette of August 23d:
The United States Telegraph (Washington, D.C.)
borrowed from the Pittsburgh Statesman and ran a short piece on September 25, 1833:
James Brown Ray, Esq., late Governor of Indiana, is
about commencing the publication of a newspaper, at Greencastle, Indiana, to be
called "the Hoosier."
The Virginia Free Press & Farmers' Repository on October 24, 1833 also
cites the Pittsburgh paper, paraphrasing the article, but it borrows the item
from an issue of the Baltimore American.
"Hoosier" -- "The Hoosier State -- The good citizens of our sister state
(Indiana) have been called Hoosiers for some time past at home and abroad,
sometimes honorably, and sometimes the reverse -- as the term has become
general, it is high time that its origin and definition should be as
known; before that section of the public lands were regularly surveyed -- many
families located and were called squatters -- the surveyors on finding one of
these, would ask who's here, and place the name on their map --
question became so familiar, that on the first view of the smoke of a cabin, the
exclamation of another "who's here became equally so, until it
in the general term of Hoosier -- Pittsburgh Statesman
References continue to appear the following year. The January 11,
1834 Liberator (Boston Massachusetts) quotes a report from the Indiana
Weekly Messenger on a coming National Convention in Philadelphia, of
"delegates in favor of the abolition of negro slavery." An agent of the
American Colonization Society is to visit Indiana and will impart "... other
important facts to us Hoosiers."
On March 3, 1834 the Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics
(Portsmouth, New Hampshire) reprinted "The Hoosieroons," which had appeared in
the Georgia Telegraph,, taken from the Cincinnati Chronicle. In
this case, though, the Cherokee Intelligencer is cited as the source.
The Baltimore Patriot ran a report under the heading From Washington on
April 4, 1834 in which the correspondent reports:
The Indiana Journal (Indianapolis, Indiana) reported on May 31, 1834 that
"another No. of the Hoosier has been recently received in town, and that
it contains quite a bitter complaint about our remark a week or two ago, that it
has sunk into repose."
The bill will probably
pass -- and the Marylanders, Pennsylvanians, Ohioans, Hoosiers and Suckers as
they call the Indianians and the Illinois people, on the road, may rest easy
-- by the way.
The American Advocate (Hallowell, Maine) ran on June 18, 1834
under the heading "A Peep at Washington" a description of some of the
representatives the reporter saw in the capital. The reporter writes:
On September 13, 1834 the Liberator (Boston, Massachusetts) ran a
with the lead sentence "The Nomenclature of the West." It cites the Illinois
What a people we are! What a county is this of ours! I have asked in my travels, for the West, in the streets of
the Queen of the West -- a fair city, which was but yesterday a wilderness.
They smiled at my inquiry and said it was among the "hoosiers" of Indiana or
"the suckers of Illinois."
September of 1834 also saw the term appear under various headings,
mostly dealing with state nicknames in the American Advocate,
Hallowell, Maine (September 17, 1834); the Pittsfield Sun,
Pittsfield, Massachusetts (September 11, 1834), the Torch
Light, Hagers-Town, Maryland (September 11, 1834; and the
New Hampshire Sentinel, Keene, New Hampshire (September 4, 1834).
gives us the following list of nicknames adopted to
distinguish the citizens of the following states: In Kentucky they are
called Corn Crackers; Ohio, Buckeyes; Indiana, Hoosiers; Illinois,
Suckers; Missouri, Pukes; Michigan, Wolverines; the Yankees are called
Eels. Give us any other name but that which stands for a Missouri
man. The Yankees have reason to squirm under their title.
The term "hoosier" became familiar in newspapers, increasingly appearing
in articles from the mid-1830s on. It also began to appear in
books, works of both non-fiction and fiction. A number of nineteenth
century travel accounts include the word "hoosier." Charles Fenno
Hoffman, poet, novelist and editor set out on a winter
tour of the Midwest in 1833. Hoffman recorded his journey in a series of
letters published in the American Monthly Magazine and gathered
them together in
1835 as A
Winter in the West. In letter headed XVII, Door Prairie, Indiana, Dec. 29,
1833, he writes:
Joseph Holt Ingraham records in his The South-West of 1835:
I am now in the land of the Hooshiers, and find that long-haired race
much more civilized than some of their western neighbours are willing to
represent them. The term "Hooshier," like that of Yankee or Buck-eye, first
applied contemptuously, has now become a sobriquet that bears
nothing invidious with it to the ear of an Indianian.
On October 13, 1852 the word made it to the newly established New
York Times, referring to Indiana, or at least the apparently dull
Here are congregated the primitive navies of Indiana, Ohio,
and the adjoining states, manned (I have not understood whether
they are officered or not) by "real Kentucks"--"Buck
eyes" -- "Hooshers" -- and "Snorters."
A few months earlier the word had appeared in another Times
article, "Kitchen Alchemy," in a slightly different context.
There it carried the meaning of bumpkin, without any direct geographical reference.
I am far away from home-land, and, by the decrees of inexorable fate,
housed up here for a time, in Hoosier-land. As a matter of course, then,
like a true philosopher, I must seize upon every possible expedient as a
time-killer, a "blues"-devourer, and comforter in general.
This story, for example, is told of two Hoosier bloods, at a famous
restaurant in Paris. They shocked the inflated chef, a very
Napoleon of gastronomy with:
"D--n your eyes! Why don't you bring in
the dinner -- and take away that broth, and your black bottle?
Who the devil wants your vinegar, and your dish-water, and your
bibs, too? Bring us, if you have got it, a whole chicken's leg
at once, and not at seven different times! We've been all over
Paris to get a beef-steak, and when we got it, it was a horse's rump!"
"Hoosier" in Use: Ad Astra per Aspera, Sort Of
An item with the title "Central America" in Harper's Weekly of
February 21. 1857 uses the word hoosier and clearly supposes it
to be rightly understood:
Ten years later, in 1867, Harper's Weekly featured eight cartoon
caricatures with the caption "Citizens of the United States, According to
Popular Impressions," illustrations of several regional and racial types:
the Yankee, a South Carolinian, a Hoosier, a Kentuckian, a Pennsylvanian,
a Mississippian, a Californian and the "Everlasting Nigger."
The mid-nineteenth century language offends, and nothing about the
engravings flattered any group. A number of Indianans wrote the
magazine to protest the
stereotype assigned to them, and Harper's made apologies in
November when it published a piece called "Indiana State Fair at Terre
Haute." In the J.
F. Gooking illustrations, however, to the left the bumpkins still linger,
while to the right the artist and editors admitted a more refined group of
"real live Hoosiers."
The manufacturer of Manchester and the banker of New York fraternize and
hob-nob together, and hug each other ad libitum, but the American
democrat and the English aristocrat, the hoosier and the feudal proprietor
agree together like oil and vinegar, like fire and water.
Herman Melville writes vividly of a character in The Confidence Man
It was a rather eccentric-looking person who spoke, somewhat ursine in
aspect; sporting a shaggy spencer of the cloth called bear's skin; a
high peaked cap of racoon-skin, the long bushy tail switching over behind;
raw-hide leggings; grim stubble chin; and, to end, a double-barreled gun
in hand -- a Missouri bachelor, a Hoosier gentleman, of Spartan leisure
and fortune, and equally Spartan manners and sentiments; and, as the
sequel may show, not less acquainted, in a
Spartan way of his own, with philosophy and books, than with woodcraft and
Walt Whitman in a letter to Nathaniel Bloom and John F. S. Gray describes
In 1869 and by then established in the national vocabulary, the
term shows up in a bit of children's literature, under a variant,
In Sophie May's Dotty Dimple Out West, young Dottie is going
out West from Portland, Maine with her father to visit relatives in Indiana.
On the trip, she speaks to a fellow traveler:
I think well of the President. He has a face like a hoosier
Michael Angelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful, with its
strange mouth, its deep cut, criss-cross lines, and its doughnut
Although the term "hoosier" was firmly fixed in the American idiom,
Edward Eggleston fixed it further with the publication of The Hoosier
Schoolmaster. The episodic
novel, published in 1871 but set a generation earlier, describes the
experiences of Ralph Hartsook, a young man in his first year of
teaching in Flat Creek, Indiana. Eggleston's skillful use of dialect
lends a genuine tone to the work, without detracting from the characters, who,
while rustic, perhaps considered crude by outsiders, are in their own
ways rather sophisticated. Nor does Eggleston betray his characters
into stereotypes. He treats them with respect and sensitivity.
"Hoosier" seems to carry a piece of its old meaning, but to Eggleston
countryman does not equal lout. And the term also substitutes for
Indianan, albeit one then living on
the near-frontier. The book, now among the overlooked classics, or near
classics, became a considerable success and made Eggleston's
reputation as a writer.
"I'm going to tell you something. Did you ever go to Indiana?"
"Didn't you? They call it Out West. I'm going there. Yes, I started
to-day. The people are called Hoojers. They don't spect me, but I'm
going. Did you ever hear of a girl that travelled out West?"
"I'm glad not to be a Hoojer," said Dotty, with a severe look at her
cousin Horace. "You don't ever see such bad men in the State of Maine.
The whiskey is locked up; and I don't know as there is any whiskey."
"Down East is a great place, Dotty! Don't I wish I was a Yankee. I
mean a 'Publican."
"But you can't be, Horace," returned little Dotty, looking up at him
with deep pity in her bright eyes; "you weren't born there. You're a
Hoojer, and you'll have to stay a Hoojer."
During the 1930s the Federal Writers Project collected slave
narratives which were later assembled and microfilmed in seventeen
volumes as Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United
States from Interviews with Former Slaves. Among the typescripts is
the interview Samuel S. Taylor conducted with Allen Johnson, then about
82, of Little Rock Arkansas. Mr. Johnson said, among other things:
Johnson's account confirms, providing the transcription is accurate, the
varying spellings and pronunciations of the word "hoosier." (John
Finley, after all, had originally written it as "hoosher.") His crisp
definition also suggests that the term was well-known in the south and
that it applied, if not to a rough mountaineer or backwoodsman, at
least to a lower stratum of white society.
A slave was supposed to pick a certain mount of cotton I have heard.
They had tasks. But we didn't pick cotton. Way back in Georgia that
ain't no cotton country. Wheat, corn, potatoes, and things like that.
But in Louisiana and Mississippi, there was plenty of cotton. Arkansas
wasn't much of a cotton state itself. It was called a 'Hoojer' state
when I was a boy. That is a reference to the poor white man. He was a
'Hoojer'. He wasn't rich enough to own no slaves and they called him a
Robert Morgan, born (1944) and raised in western North Carolina,
also uses the "hoojer" variant in his poem "Man and Machine,
The sense is more or less the same sense as Mr. Johnson, although
Morgan's "hoojer" is a bit more boorish.
In contrast to Johnson and Morgan, Kurt Vonnegut uses the term in its
more contemporary meaning. It carries no heavy baggage, no sense of a unschooled rustic
or loutish, poor white trash. There is no mountaineer left, no boob, no hick, no boatman,
merely a neutral name, one that Hazel bears with (perhaps too much) heartland pride and
gushing exuberance. Indiana's native son writes in
the chapter "Bicycles for Afghanistan" in Cat's Cradle:
Winters Luther lived only for his truck,
banging down the dirt road to Chestnut Springs
for booze and women. But that was just
occasional. Most days he'd brag at the store
about his pickup, or be trading for another
with even thicker tires, more horsepower
and chrome, a gun rack in the window.
At home he'd maybe tune a little,
oil the plates of the planter.
But off the machine he was just
another stocky hoojer, yelling
to make up for his lack of size
and self-esteem, adding fat and blood
Crosby asked me what my name was and what my business was.
I told him, and his wife Hazel recognized my name as an Indiana
name. She was from Indiana, too.
"My God," she said, "are you a Hoosier? "
I admitted I was.
"I'm a Hoosier, too," she crowed. "Nobody has to be ashamed
of being a Hoosier."
"I'm not," I said. "I never knew anyone who was."
"Hoosiers do all right. Lowe and I've been around the world
twice, and everywhere we went we found Hoosiers in charge of
"You know the manager of that new hotel in Istanbul?"
"He's a Hoosier. And the military-whatever-he-is in Tokyo..."
"Attache," said her husband.
"He's a Hoosier," said Hazel. "And the new Ambassador to Yugoslavia..."
"A Hoosier?" I asked.
"Not only him but the Hollywood Editor of Life
magazine, too. And that man in Chile..."
"A Hoosier, too?"
"You can't go anywhere a Hoosier hasn't made his
mark," she said.
"The man who wrote Ben Hur was a Hoosier."
"And James Whitcomb Riley."
"Are you a Hoosier, too?" I asked her husband.
"Nope. I'm a Prairie Stater. 'Land of Lincoln,' as they
"As far as that goes," said Hazel triumphantly, "Lincoln was
a Hoosier, too. He grew up in Spencer County."
"Sure, I said.
"I don't know what it is about Hoosiers," said Hazel, "but
they've sure got something. If somebody was to make a list,
they'd be amazed."
"That's true," I said.
She grasped me firmly by the arm. "We Hoosiers got to stick
"You call me 'Mom.'"
Not Quite Useful Sources: Two and a Half Examples
In his column of October 29, 2002, "Stating your Case for the Stupidest
State," Dave Barry wrote under a heading of "state stupidity":
Some ten weeks later he apologizes in his own fashion in a column
entitled "Hey! Hoosier daddy, Indiana?" Aiming to set the record
straight, Barry offers to "clear up this issue once and for all,
here, according to the letters I received..." Seven explanations of the
term, sent to him by
readers, follow. With mock, that's-what-they-said-didn't-they innocence
he combines the information sent him and archly concludes:
For nickname stupidity, no state challenges Indiana, which proudly calls
itself "The Hoosier State," even though nobody has a clue what "Hoosier"
means. It could be a Native American word meaning "Has sex with a
Further following up on the "Stupidest" column, Berry tells us about a
letter pointing out that New York has an official state muffin. It
does, effective August 10, 1987. Title 6, Section 84 of the New York
Code decrees: "The apple muffin shall be the official muffin of the
state of New York."
So from now on, when you hear people proudly refer to themselves as
"Hoosiers" you will know exactly what they are referring to: an
inquisitive, one-eared, hill-dwelling Ohio River contractor, large for
his kind, who has a lot of trouble with pronunciation but does NOT have
sex with caribou. Who WOULDN'T be proud?!
Mike Royko, the Chicago columnist, enjoyed poking fun at Indiana. He
has a lot of fun in his June 3, 1982 piece, "Hicks Get Their Licks." In
reply to objections to his comments on the Indianapolis 500, he writes,
Royko, of course, is only warming up. He happily mocks the "defenders of
the faith," meaning those with a higher opinion of Indianapolis (and Indiana)
his. And naturally he gets around to the word "hoosier," by way of the
Hoosier Dome. He almost can't wait.
I quite accurately said: "For most males in Indiana, a real good time
consists of putting on bib overalls and a cap bearing the name of a farm
equipment company and sauntering to a gas station to sit around and
gossip about how Elmer couldn't get his pickup truck started that
Bill Bryson confesses in his Notes from a Big Country that he
has begun to read license plates while driving. He particularly enjoys
the state slogans. Seeing "You've got a friend in Pennsylvania," he
to his companions and asks, "Then why doesn't he call?" About Indiana
Do you know why they're called Hoosiers?
There are two explanations. One is the one they prefer, and it's not
accurate. The other is accurate and they don't like it.
The Hoosiers will tell you that the word "hoosier" came from the
tendency of early Indiana settlers to say "Who's here?" when somebody
rapped upon their cabin door.
Over the years, their habit of saying "Who's here?" evolved into
something that sounded like "Hooshere?" And finally "Hoosier."
(That could explain why so many settlers kept going west when they got
to Indiana. Who'd want to stay in a place where everybody was yowling:
"Hooshere? Hooshere? Hooshere?"
The most reputable scholars, which are the only kind I deal with, say
the word "hoosier" came about this way:
The early settlers of southern Indiana were mainly unwashed,
uncouth mountain folk from Kentucky.
They were usually referred to as "a hoojee" or a "hoojin." As in:
"Quick lock up the girls and the livestock -- there's some of them
hoojees and hoojins comin'."
As years passed, the words 'hoojee" and "hoojin," meaning a dirty
person," according to one reference book, evolved into "hoosier."
Indiana, meanwhile calls itself the 'Hoosier State' and has done for 150
No one has ever satisfactorily deduced (possibly because who after all
cares?) where the term comes from, though I can tell you from experience
that if you mention this in a book 250 people from Indiana will write to
you with 250 different explanations and the unanimous view that you are
The Usual Suspects
"Who's here?" (or its variants, "Who's yer?" or "Who's yere"
or "Who's 'ere?" or "Who's heyer" or "Who's there?") is the most popular theory
explaining Indiana's nickname. It seems travelers in Indiana
hailed rustic cabins with "Who's here?" Or the residents of the
cabins called out to voyagers, sometimes arriving at night,
In some accounts the travelers are surveyors. In others the travelers
are Hoosiers themselves, always curious to know who is in the cabins they
encounter. Occasionally they try the latch and inquire of those inside
who they are. "Who's here?" asked from inside or out, naturally slid into
"Hoosier" and hence Indianans became known as "Hoosiers."
Most reference sources record this theory. Some, like Allan Wolk's
The Naming of America, buy it completely. Mr. Wolk states without
discussion of alternatives that the nickname of Indiana "came about,
according to folklore, when the early pioneers used to greet night
by saying, 'Who's yere?'" Basil Freestone, apparently uninterested in
research, perpetuates the error in Harrap's Book of Nicknames and
their Origins. This "comprehensive guide" states that the term derives
from the "demand by early settlers to night callers: Who's yere?" and
cites Allan Wolk as its authority.
The World Book Encyclopedia rather unkindly begins its entry for
Indiana with "Indiana is a small state with a large population." It
continues to explain that it is called the Hoosier State, although
"Historians do not know the origin of this famous nickname" which "may
come from 'Who's here?' -- the Indiana pioneer's traditional greeting to
visitors -- or from husher -- a slang word for a fighting man who
could `hush' all others with his fists." Thus does the World Book
enlighten the reader.
Samuel Hoosier, Sam Hoosier or just plain a man named
Hoosier (in one account Howsier), it is said, built the canal at
the Falls of the Ohio near Louisville. He preferred to hire men from
the Indiana side of the river, because he found them to be harder
workers than those from Kentucky. These men became known as "Hoosier's men"
or "Hoosier men." Eventually the term shortened to "Hoosier" and "Hoosiers"
and generalized into a term for all residents of Indiana.
That no such canal builder has ever been found (and Dunn searched
vigorously for him) in no way discourages those who prefer this explanation.
The Writers' Program compilers of Indiana: A Guide to the Hoosier State
insist, after dismissing other theories, that "perhaps the most likely
version springs from the fact that in 1825 there was a contractor on the
Ohio Falls Canal at Louisville named Samuel Hoosier." Like
other sources that find this theory attractive and term it "probable"
or "most likely," the writers offer no proof of the builder's existence,
and in their case, after ending the single paragraph on Indiana's nickname,
they move swiftly on with their narrative.
Politicians in particular like the theory of hard-working Indianans.
Governor Evan Bayh used it on a quiz show ("Bayh Shows he's a Hoosier Quiz 'Kid'")
where he explains the term "hoosier" as deriving from the canal builder,
Samuel Hoosier, who "favored workers in Indiana and they became known as Hoosiers."
With state pride in his heart and politics in his mind, Bayh continued, "We'd like
to think it's synonymous with good workers."
Senator Vance Hartke also favored the Samuel Hoosier story and introduced it into the Congressional Record, where it appeared with the heading "Hoosiers Wear Name With Pride."
To be fair, Richard Hudnut, Mayor of Indianapolis, bravely bit the
bullet in his autobiography Minister/Mayor. While discussing the
building of the Hoosier Dome (later the RCA Dome, after the sale of
naming rights, and still later demolished), Hudnut concedes
that the term has a pejorative meaning, "implying country bumpkin or
Governor Robert Orr ("First Hoosier' Gets in Last Word") avoided taking a
position on the origin of the term "hoosier" by stating that "even Webster
doesn't deign to delve too deeply into the meaning."
The Governor further wishes the term "remain a mystery," because
"that is far more exciting." He seems to find it more exciting still to
extol "Hoosier hospitality" and to inform the world that Webster's defines
hospitality in an excellent fashion.
The name of Colonel John Jacob Lehmanowky (or Lehmanowski) usually
attaches to the "Hussar" theory. Lehmanowsky, a veteran of the Napoleonic
wars, lectured on his wartime experiences, and as he did, he pronounced the
word "Hussar" as "Hoosier." A variant has it that those listening to his
"Wars of Europe" talks heard "Hoosier" when the Colonel uttered "Hussar."
A second variant proposes that those repeating the word "Hussar,"
while boasting of their prowess as fighters, mispronounced the word as
"Hoosier." The Reverend Aaron Wood buys the into Lehmanowky tale and
records it as absolute truth:
The Reverend may have been there, as he says, but he fails to take into
account that Lehmanowsky did not settle in Indiana until 1833, and that
the term "hoosier" was in use before his arrival. (Dunn, 1907)
The name "Hoosier" originated as follows: When the young men of the Indiana
side of the Ohio river went to Louisville, the Kentucky men boasted over them,
calling them "New Purchase Greenies," claiming to be a superior race, composed
of "half horse, half alligator, and tipped off with snapping turtle." These
taunts produced fights in the market-house and streets of Louisville.
On one occasion a stout bully from Indiana was victor in a fist fight, and
having heard Colonel Lehmanowsky lecture of the "Wars of Europe," who
always gave martial prowess to the German Hussars in a fight, pronouncing
hussars "hoosiers," the Indianian, when the Kentuckian cried "enough,"
jumped up and said: "I am a Hoosier," and hence the Indianians were called
by that name. This was its true origin. I was in the State when it
Most accounts of the "Hoosa" theory merely mention "Hoosa" as "an
Indian word for corn," that precise phrase, and never identify which Indians
or cite any authority. Other accounts add the detail that boatmen
carrying corn downriver were called "hoosa men," hence hoosier. Mike
Lessiter in The College Names of the Games cites Governor Wright's
claim (although other sources place the Governor in the "Who's here?"
camp) that "the term was derived from the Indian word, hoosa, which
meant corn and that the Indiana flatboaters utilizing the Ohio and
Mississippi rivers came to be known as hoosa men." Often the Hungarian
patriot Louis Kossuth appears in the "Hoosa" story, because, apparently, he was
told while visiting the state that "Hoosier" derived from "Hoosa."
The English dialect work "Hoose" means "roundworm," a disease of
cattle which gives the animals a peculiar look. Many sources cite this
explanation, and Dunn in his Indiana and Indianans gives a concise
description: "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." Dunn does not believe it for a moment, though, and
moves on to other matters.
Dunn (1907) quotes the poet James Whitcomb Riley as saying
in a conversation, "These stories commonly told about the origin
of the word 'Hoosier' are all nonsense. The real origin is found
in the pugnacious habits of the early settlers. They were
vicious fighters, and not only gouged and scratched, but
frequently bit off noses and ears. This was so ordinary an
affair that a settler coming into a bar room on a morning after a
fight, and seeing an ear on the floor, would merely push it aside
with his foot and carelessly ask, 'Who's year?'"
Many sources credit Riley with making up the story himself,
because he had tired of explaining the origin of "Hoosier" to the
curious. Dunn merely reports the tale and adds, bemused, that
"this theory is quite as plausible, and almost as well sustained
by historical evidence, as any of the others."
In later years the story transferred to football. Murray Spurber writes
that Knute Rockne, the legendary football coach of Notre Dame, when asked
about the origin of "Hoosier," replied in terms of his team and its fighting
spirit: "After every game, the [Notre Dame] coach goes over the field,
picks up what he finds, and asks his team, 'Whose ear is this?' Hence
Hoosier." Coach Forrest "Phog" Allen gives the same sort of story:
"When scrimmaging these Indiana boys would grind their opponents' heads
into the earth with disastrous results. After the scrimmage, players
would go about picking up the loose ears of their opponents and
saying, 'Whose ears?' Ever since, Indiana teams have been known as
The best sources on "Hoosier" give at least a passing mention to the
suggestion that the term may derive from the French word meaning "holly
plantation" or "bushy places." Since the ending -ier is rare in
English and common in French, the reasoning must have run, it would only
be sensible to look to the language of those who pioneered the wilds
beyond the British colonies. Even a French source, however, cannot credit
"houssière." Etienne and Simone Deak in their Grand
Dictionnaire d'Américanismes define "Hoosier" as a "mauvais ouvrier
(ou ouvrier incompétent)" or a "sabot (quelqu'un qui travaille comme un
sabot)." Four other definitions follow: "Gardien de prison; Visiteur dans
une prison; Rustre, pequenot." In translation the terms are familiar: poor worker
(or incompetent worker); someone who works very badly; prison guard; prison visitor; rustic, hick.
Under the entry "Hoozer" in William Dickinson's A Glossary of the
Words and Phrases Pertaining to the Dialect of Cumberland appears the
phrase: "Said of anything unusually large." This Cumberland dialect
interested Dunn, who states "Although I had long been convinced that
'hoosier' or some word closely resembling it, must be an old English
dialect or slang word, I had never found any trace of a similar
substantive with this ending until in this publication, and, in my
opinion, this word 'hoozer' is the original form of our 'hoosier.' It
evidently harks back to the Anglo-Saxon 'hoo' for its derivation. It
might naturally signify a hill-dweller or highlander as well as something
large, but either would easily give rise to the derivative idea of
uncouthness or rusticity." (Dunn, 1907)
Dunn attempts to strengthen his case by citing the number of
Cumberlands (plateau, mountain, river, gap, Presbyterians) in the South
and by noting that many of the settlers of the Cumberland Plateau came
from Cumberland County, England. "Thence," he says, "it was probably brought to us by
their migratory descendants, many of whom settled in the upper Whitewater
Valley -- the home of John Finley." Most serious works cite Dunn, and they
include the "hoozer" possibility. Dunn many be right, but his opinion
should not lead the Morrises in their Morris Dictionary of Word and
Phrase Origins to state baldly, without discussion, that
the word comes from the "Cumberland dialect word hoozer, meaning
anything unusually large."
Among the tales Irving Leibowitz recounts in My Indiana is
that of Ohio River boatmen who liked to "jump up and crack their heels
together and shout 'huzza!'" on levees in Southern cities. Baker and
Carmony mention the theory, too, in their Indiana Place Names, but
they refer to the cry as "an exclamation of early settlers." Mencken,
commenting on the "Huzza!" suggestion, writes that "in 1851, when the Hon.
M. Murray, the English novelist, visited Indianapolis, she picked up the
story that the term originated in a settler's exclaiming 'Huzza!' upon
gaining victory over a marauding party from a neighboring state, but Dunn,
in 1907 dismissed this as 'moonshine.'"
Bartlett's 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms suggests
that "the word 'hoosier' developed in New Orleans from the
western slang expression 'husher,' a ruffian whose deeds or
violence could silence his foes."
For his Hoosier Folk Legends Ronald L. Baker drew on the
manuscript files of the WPA files of the Federal Writers Project for
Indiana and from the Folklore Archives at both Indiana State University
and Indiana University. He presents nine stories under the heading
"Hoosier: Origin of the State Nickname." The first story involves
Kentuckians returning with accounts of the new land available in Indiana.
"Many of their listeners were the Pennsylvania Dutch, who had always lived
in a mountain region." They regarded the stories as exaggerations and
said, "Well, he's a hoosher (meaning a husher, a silencer)." The second
concerns flatboat men where "were big enough to hush any man," hence
In The Family Cyclopaedia of Useful Knowledge F. M. Lupton does
not give much of a tale. He simply states that "the word is a corruption
of husher, a common term for bully throughout the West."
Ross F. Lockridge cites "hushers" as Ohio rivermen who could
still or "hush" their opponents. He also recalls the "Who's yere?" query
to cabin callers. "Whichever its origins," he concludes, "the term
Hoosier was meant to describe the rough and sturdy backwoodsman of early
Indiana..." Similarly, John S. Farmer in his Americanisms Old and
New notes that husher "was a common term for bully throughout the
West." Boatmen from Indiana," he goes on, "enjoyed fighting on the
levee at New Orleans." One victor in a fight "sprang up, exclaiming in a
foreign accent, 'I am a hoosier, I am a hoosier.'" New
Orleans papers reported the case and "transferred the corruption of the
epithet 'husher' (hoosier) to all the boatmen from Indiana, and
from thence to all citizens." Although the story seems to amuse him,
Farmer finds this theory "hardly more satisfactory" than the others.
Chapter One of Heath Bowman's Hoosier opens with the heading
"What's in a Name?" Bowman explains in story. He begins with the Ohio
River and embroiders the adventures of Indiana boatmen in New Orleans,
where the men hear hurled at them the taunt "Hoozers!" from loafers on
the docks. "The boys from Indiana took their measure. They knew what
'hoozer' meant: it was a common term throughout the South, whence most of
them originally had come. It meant somebody who was tall and green and
gawky, and ripped his side of meat apart instead of using a knife --
things like that." The story continues, dramatically, with a brawl. When
one of the Indiana boys returns home, he finds himself in another fight.
Victorious, he says, "We don't take to no argefying. We're Hushers." He
explained further, "It means we kin 'hush' any rip-tail, scrouger in
this-hyar county. We're half-men, half-alligators. We're Hushers."
A number of letters concerning the term "Hoosier," prompted by the
NCAA basketball tournament, appeared in the Wall Street Journal in
the spring of 1987. One of them, from Carter Eltzroth, declared that the
term "hoosier" is "of course, a corruption of the French huissier,
a minor magistrate in 18th century Vincennes." Huissier -- or
Hoosier -- first applied to the magistrate, then to "any Frenchman, and
finally any non-Indian. As Americans settled in Indiana, the name was
applied to them..." The "huissier" explanation, another attempt to
explain the -ier ending, is extremely unusual and seems belong to Mr. Eltzroth
Glen Tucker offers his own explanation for the term "hoosier." "The
Hoosiers were," he writes, "those who wore hats made by the Hosier
Brothers" in Clarksburg, now Rockland, in Johnson County. Mr. Tucker
refers to other possible derivations, but for him, he will "take for the
present the chapeau route." Mr. Tucker seems the only person going in that direction.
Hauser, Hooser, Hoosier
Randall Hooser promises to chronicle the "migration of the Hausers
(pronounced Hooser) of the seventeenth century America to 1833." He does,
in some detail. Along the way he notes that the "au" in the family surname is
pronounced in their Alsatian dialect as "oo." Some of the Hoosers, he
continues, who had originally settled in North Carolina, "began
migrating into Indiana starting in the 1820s." After a discussion of
Moravians and slavery and Hoosers
moving west, he reviews the various theories about Indiana's nickname.
He proposes a new theory: "The Hauser-Hooser/Hoosier Theory"
Hooser follows up with an online document, "Does Anyone Want to End the
Hoosiering of Hoosier?" He castigates Dunn for dismissing the family
name possibility as the origin of the term "Hoosier." He is unhappy
"chose not to accept any spelling derivations of the family name of
notes that Dunn did revisit the issue, but the new information he had received
led him nowhere. "For the record," he explains a "little
Adam Hoozer of Yadkin County North Carolina." At birth Adam was a Hauser,
but later anglicized his name. "Due to Anglicization, four
predominant versions of the Hauser name evolved: Hooser, Hoozer, Houser
and Hoosier." He also mentions, italicized and in brackets:
It is my assertion that the original term Hoosier was first
coined to tease North Carolinians from Hausertown willing to follow
the migration of the Hoosers into Kentucky and more importantly
Martin Hauser (Hooser) as he pioneered a family name into the state
He is kidding. Isn't he?
[Our standing Hooser family question has been the same for most of this
decade: Does the extra "I" in Hoosier stand for INDIANA??]
Anatoly Liberman cites the present writer and two other relatively
recent contributors to "hoosier" lore. He does so because, "all three authors,
though extremely well-informed, missed a work that, in my opinion, deserves
attention. Before revealing the deserving effort, Liberman reviews the
literature, the usual commentary on the origin of "hoosier."
Then the moment is at last at hand. The work in question is the article
by Randall Hooser in Eurasian Studies Yearbook.
While Liberman wishes to draw attention to Hooser's assertions, to make
it "part of the debate," he does not take sides. And if others wish to
demolish, as he puts it, "his cautious defence of the Hooser
theory, this is fine; etymology is a battleground."
In his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable Brewer finds that Hoosier
"probably [derives] from hoosier, a mountaineer, an extension
of hoojee, hoojin, a dirty person or tramp. The south of
Indiana was mainly settled by Kentucky mountaineers."
It is unclear what Brewer means by "an extension of hoojee,
hoojin." Does he have it backward? The Dictionary of American
Regional English records
variants of hoosier as hoosher, hoogie, hoojy, hoodger, hoojer, hushier,
and hooshur, not the other way around. But if Brewer's hoojee and
hoogie are equivalents, a new vista opens in the use of hoosier and its
The Random House Historical Dictionary of
American Slang has an entry for hoogie and explains:
[perh. a phonetic spelling of a var of HOOJAH; perh. directly an alter.
of HOOSIER] Black E. a white person -- usu. used contemptuously.
There are two related entries in Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of
African-American Slang, edited by Clarence Major:
The citation to "White Rat" (1977) is to a widely reprinted short story
by the Kentuckian Gayl Jones (yes, Gayl), in which a light-skinned Black
man speaks of his
Hoogies n. (1940s) white people; same as "honky"; (CM, CW Gayle Jones,
"White Rat," p. 375.) Kentucky use.
Hoosier; Hoogie n. (1940s-1950s) a word sometimes applied to white
racists in the midwest; redneck; hillbilly; filthy, uncouth person;
rustic person (FGC, DARE, p. 1091.) SU, MWU
A similar use appears in Truth Crushed to Earth: The Legacy of Will
Parker, a Black American Revolutionary by Harry W. Kendall, although
case the reference may be more akin to Mr. Johnson's statement in
Narratives. Based on an incident in Pennsylvania in 1851, Kendall's
historical novel has as its protagonist Will Parker, a fugitive slave.
Part of the dialog includes the exchange:
"I don't like to walk in no place where they say, 'What's that
doing in here.' They probably say 'yap' -- that the Kentucky word for honky.
... and when we go to some town where they don't know 'White Rat'
everbody look at me like I'm some hoogie ..."
And Kendall spells the word "Hoojie," surely the first cousin of
"A hoojie?" Charles said.
"Mean white folks like that one. He'd turn us over to the patrerrollers
quick as he'd look at us if he knew we was running."
Dunn noted the existence of a Hindustani word huzur, "a respectful
form of address to persons of rank or superiority." It appears in the
Oxford English dictionary as: "huzoor hAzu.r. Also 8 huzzoor,
huzur. [a. Arab. hudur (pronounced in India as huzur) presence (employed
as a title), f. hadara to be present.] An Indian potentate; often used as
a title of respect." The trouble with this etymology is that
there were very few potentates or persons notable for rank or superiority
in southern Indiana (New Harmony perhaps excepted) in the early nineteenth century.
The suggestion that "hoosier" derives from "hoosieroon" illustrates how
a reference work (if that is what it is) can sometimes go preposterously
wrong. The entry under "Hoosier" in Albert Barrere and Charles G.
Leland's A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon and Cant cites Bartlett who
cites the Providence Journal, which contained the husher theory. That,
the authors say, "has the appearance of being an after-manufacture
to suit the name." It continues, again citing Bartlett, with the "who's
yere?" theory. Here the entry takes a peculiar turn:
However, the word
originally was not hoosier at all, but hoosieroon, or
hoosheroon, hoosier being and abbreviation 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
(Charles G. Leland).
Occasionally stories link the origin of Indiana's nickname to "Hoosier
Bait" ("a kind of gingerbread," according to Dunn) or "Hoosier cake" ("a
Western name for a sort of coarse gingerbread," again according to Dunn,
"which, say the Kentuckians, is the best bait to catch a hoosier with, the
biped being fond of it."). In some tellings a Louisville baker named
Hoosier baked the treats that so pleased Indianans. Moonshine is
probably too generous a term to describe this theory.
Who's Your Daddy?
Ronald Baker includes "Who's Your Daddy?" in his Hoosier Folk
Legends: "Do you know how Indiana got the nickname Hoosier? When it
was first settled everyone ran around saying, 'Who's your daddy? Who's
your daddy?'" Baker offers no comment on the entry, and rightly so. The
less said about it, the better.
Under his entry for "Hoosier" Richard Thornton offers the use of the word
from Florio and Torriano's 1659 dictionary: "Ninnatrice, a rocker, a
stiller, a luller, a whoosher or a dandler of children asleep." It
is hard to see a relationship between the "whoosher" and "hoosier," and Mencken observes
"there was obviously no connection between this whoosher and
hoosier, especially as "the earlier American etymologies all sought
to connect the term with some idea of ruffianism."
Although Dunn rejects derivation from a patronymic, he did
explore the possibility that "Hoosier" came from "Black Harry" Hoosier.
In a 1995 article in the Indiana Magazine of History William D. Piersen
of Fisk University again raised the question and pleaded the case for the
Piersen reviews the common theories about the origin of the
word "hoosier," beginning with those in Bartlett's 1848 Dictionary of
Americanisms. He gives each its due and rightly dismisses most of them.
That task completed, Piersen gets down to his real work, attempting to
prove that the term came eponymously from Harry Hoosier, a black
"who accompanied the Reverend Francis Asbury and other Methodist preachers on their traveling rounds." He gives what details he can of Hoosier's
life and says, "Before his death in 1806, Hoosier's homiletical
gifts had made him a renowned camp meeting exhorter, the most
widely known black preacher of his time, and arguably the
greatest circuit rider of his day."
Hoosier, he continues, was particularly disliked by Virginia Baptists
for preaching against Calvinist predestination. He links that thought to
attitudes towards frontier Methodists who "were also denigrated for
calling into question the virtues of racial slavery." "Therefore," he
deduces, "it does not seem at all unlikely that Methodists and then other
rustics of the backcountry could have been called 'Hoosiers' -- disciples
of the illiterate black exhorter Harry Hoosier -- as a term of opprobrium
and derision. In fact, this would be the simplest explanation of the
derivation of the word and, on simplicity alone, the Harry Hoosier
etymology is worth serious consideration."
Piersen then backtracks to take into account the use of the
term "hoosier" meaning "redneck" throughout the South. He links
Methodists and rednecks, proclaiming "Methodists would have been
equally likely targets for such scorn, and connecting them to
Harry Hoosier, even if he had preached in the middle and northern
states, would have been considered funny in 1800." Piersen is
hopeful that his explanation "would explain several problems
that the other etymologies cannot." He goes on, trying to pile
up the evidence more in the fashion of a persuasive speech than
scholarship. The article concludes in peroration "Such an
etymology would offer Indiana a plausible and worthy first
Hoosier -- 'Black Harry' Hoosier -- the greatest preacher of his day,
a man who rejected slavery and stood up for morality and the
There is more, although you sense the author has never quite believed his
own arguments: "It is also likely that in improving the reputation of Hoosiers in
general, the citizens of Indiana have brought the meaning of "hoosier" back closer to its worthy origin."
Stephen H. Webb, a Wabash College professor, supports Piersen's thesis,
ending his article, "Without even knowing it, Indiana has preserved Harry Hoosier's name; it is one that does them honor." Earlier, however, he had to admit "... the evidence for the connection between his name and Indiana's nickname is circumstantial, which leaves room for skepticism."
A Bit More about Harry
In his Harry Hosier: Circuit Rider Warren Thomas Smith attempts
to reconstruct "from countless sources" the life of Black Harry Hosier,
a "horseman for the Lord." That Harry was black there is no doubt. "He
was small," Smith quotes a source, "very black, keen-eyed, possessing great
volubility of tongue." That as a preacher he was eloquent is beyond
question. Of him Benjamin Rush, among other things a signer of the
Declaration of Independence, observed, "Making allowances
for his illiteracy, he was the greatest orator in America." The
spelling of his name is less certain. While Smith uses Hosier throughout
his volume, he notes the variants: Hoosier, Hoshur, Hossier. He also
draws from the unpublished journal of William Colbert (1764-1835),
who writes the name as: Henry Hoshur, Harry Hoshur, Hanry Hoshure, Black
Harvey, Henry Hersure and Henry Hosure.
The name aside, Hosier, it seems, did preach in Virginia and North
Carolina to both Black and White gatherings, in the company of White
representatives of Methodism like Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke It
also seems he spent more time in the middle states: Delaware, Maryland,
Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, with tours of New England.
Smith never suggests any connection between the circuit rider’s name
and Indiana or frontier congregations or any other eponymous group,
not even as an interesting side light to the primary story. And Hosier's
activity, especially in his prime, seems to have been beyond the area
from which the early settlers of southern Indiana came. Harry Hosier died
in Philadelphia in 1806.
Along the River
"The Jolly Flatboatmen" by George Caleb Bingham
Many of the stories about the word "hoosier" contain the common
thread of the Ohio. Samuel Hoosier constructs his canal to allow navigation
around the Falls of the Ohio at Louisville. "Hoosa men," run their corn
downstream to market. Along the banks "Hushers" still brazen taunts with brawny fists. Brawls, resulting in the victorious "Huzzah!" occur between Hoosiers and Kentuckians, each from across the water. Fights, again resulting in "huzzah" or
even "Hussar," continue all the way to New Orleans.
The river tales reinforce the idea that the term "Hoosier" belonged
in the early nineteenth century to the rough men (and women) of the Ohio Valley, notably those in the newly settled areas to the West of Kentucky, meaning southern Indiana. Accepting the term, as Finley did, Indianans adopted it as its
own, and it spread to mean residents of the state.
Southern Scorn, Local Pride and River Culture
In his article "Not Southern Scorn but Local Pride" Jonathan Clark
Smith questions the idea that "the word [hoosier] had been term of
contempt in general use in the South before it became specific to
Indiana." He notes the incorrect date of 1826 on the letter often cited as the first
written appearance of the word and discovered no evidence
of the term before February 11, 1831, a fact significant in his attempt
to link the word Hoosier to the river trade.
Dunn had dismissed the speculation that rough-looking boatmen had
acquired the "insulting nickname"
during their travels in the south. In fact, Smith writes, Dunn "may have had the origin
and the effect reversed." He links the term to "pride and river transport" and finds connections
the Wabash, the Wabash and Erie Canal ("Canal Hoosier") and the name of a new steamboat ("The
Indiana Hoosier"). He further cites an article from the Wabash
of July 8, 1831 mentioning the "Hoosiers (as the boatmen term them)", which, he concludes, "not
only identifies the original meaning as a farmer-boatman from Indiana
but also the word's origin
in the Ohio River commerce culture."
Dr. Smith's suggestion seems to be that the term somehow grew up in Indiana around 1830 and spread
outward from the state rather than being imposed from outside, the vehicle of dissemination being
the tough boatmen making their way down to New Orleans. (Although not mentioned, Abraham Lincoln
in 1828 was among the flatboat sailors.)
Smith, "challenging the conventional paradigm of a southern insult," does point out the lack of
early documentary evidence of "hoosier" as a derogatory term. He does
not, however, in considering
pride discuss the possibility that his raw boatman (ripstaver, scrounger, screamer, Bulger,
ringtailer) might exhibit pride of a different kind by embracing an insulting term and proudly
tossing it back into the face of any taunter. "Yeah, I'm a Hoosier.
Want to make somethin' of
Down the River to Saint Louis
While "hoosier" may still be heard in areas of the south in its
original, disparaging meaning of "uncouth rustic," the term seems to be
slowly loosing currency. One important pocket of linguistic resistance,
however, remains. Thomas E. Murray carefully analyzed the use of
"hoosier" in St. Louis, Missouri, where it is the favorite epithet of abuse.
"When asked what a Hoosier is," Murray writes, "St. Louisans
readily list a number of defining characteristics, among which
are 'lazy,' 'slow-moving,' 'derelict,' and 'irresponsible.'" He
continues, "Few epithets in St. Louis carry the pejorative
connotations or the potential for eliciting negative responses
that hoosier does." He conducted tests and interviews
across lines of age and race and tabulated the results. He found the term
ecumenically applied. He also noted the word was often used with a
modifier, almost redundantly, as in "some damn Hoosier."
In a separate section Murray speaks of the history of the word and
cites Baker and Carmony (1975) and speculates on why Hoosier (in Indiana a
"neutral or, more often, positive" term) should remain "alive and well in
St. Louis, occupying as it does the honored position of being the city's
number one term of derogation." A radio broadcast took up where Murray left
off. During the program, "Fresh Air," Jeffrey Lunberg, a language commentator,
answered questions about regional nicknames. He cited Elaine Viets, a
Post-Dispatch columnist (also quoted by Paul Dickson),
as saying that in St. Louis a "Hoosier is a low-life redneck, somebody you
can recognize because they have a car on concrete blocks in their front
yard and are likely to have just shot their wife who may also be their
In his What it Takes: The Way to the White House, Richard Ben Cramer writes about Richard Gephardt's
early political success in Saint Louis, where he was an alderman between 1971 and 1976. Gephardt was one of a group of
younger politicians challenging the old order, and apparently they mocked the "old farts" using the favored local term of disrespect:
After Board meetings, the other Young Turks would sit down to lunch, plan
next weeks's mischief. They'd laugh about the old "Hoosiers" on the Board.
(South to a certain line, those people had been in the city for years -- they
were the Hoosierocracy; a bit further out lived the Hoosieosie; and way out,
with the pickups and three wheelers, were the Hoositariat.) Those Friday
lunches were cackling self-congratulations for all they'd put over on the old farts ... hah!
Never knew what hit 'em! (Cramer, p. 680)
Hussars Ride Again
John Ciardi states the origin of "hoosier" must most probably remain
"forever in doubt." Dunn comes to nearly the same
conclusion. Raven McDavid observes in an article with the provocative
title "Would You Want Your Daughter to Marry a Hoosier?" that
"Unfortunately there is little solid evidence on hoosier before it
was transplanted to North America." The lack of a definitive derivation
means the old stories never quite die. They linger in state folklore. They survive in family
lore. They appear in letters to the editor anytime a newspaper publishes an account
concerning the word. They rise as amusing frauds meant to entertain or as
favorites to be repeated when an occasion arises or as opportunities to
satisfy some personal or political agenda.
In his search for a mascot for Indiana University athletic teams,
Professor Eugene Eoyang of IU went looking for an answer to "What's a
Hoosier?" in Kosciusco County. He found that "the most plausible
explanation" for the word hoosier lies in its connection with Thaddeus
Kosciuszko, the Revolutionary general for whom the county is named, and
somehow by extension with hussars, European regiments of light cavalry.
Kosciuszko, though, did not have much to do with hussars or with cavalry
of any kind. Trained as an engineer, he achieved distinction by building
fortifications and arranging defensive lines. He was so successful at his
job that no one, including George Washington, wanted to risk him in a
The hussar story has been around for a long time. Most researchers
have identified it with Colonel John Jacob Lehmanowky, rather than
Kosciuszko and dismiss the idea of hussar giving birth through
mispronunciation to hoosier. Professor Eoyang, though, is untroubled by
other opinion. He also rejects all but his favored definition of the word
"hoosier" by lumping them together with James Whitcomb Riley's "Whose
Ear?" comment. Riley jested, and everyone knew it.
Eoyang finds proof of the word's origin in a Civil War anecdote. By then,
however, the term had been in common use to designate an Indianan for thirty years. Still, he insists that an incident involving an Indiana
regiment moving a "massive rock" while a "splendid Massachusetts regiment
disdains to soil their hands" confirms his point. If anything, the
account suggests another explanation, the Samuel Hoosier theory, which
turns on a Hoosier's willingness for hard work. The modest appearance of
the burly Indiana commander "wearing a common soldier's blouse and slouch
hat" also brings to mind the definition of a "hoosier" as a mountain man,
countryman or rustic. If anything it is the natty Bay Staters and their
lieutenant who seem best to fit the usual image of hussars.
The Ax, not the Saber
Why did Indianans accept the "self-reference" as Hoosiers? Eoyang
asks, before wandering off into comments about poor grammar, with the
unspoken suggestion that the name might just have been less than
flattering. He might have asked the Methodists or the Quakers. Both
groups took what began as a term of derision and embraced it as their
own. He might have consulted Jacob Dunn or John Finley, the "Hoosier's
Nest" poet himself, who wrote:
The word hoosier has a no martial or aristocratic past. Serious sources,
like the Dictionary of American Regional English, record its usage
to designate a rustic, rube or hick. In the nineteenth century a stock
Hoosier character, outfitted in laughable rural fashions, is a standard
butt of humor. (Occasionally, though, the unsophisticated fellow
a biting observation of his own, exposing with country smarts big city
hypocrisy and foolishness.)
With feelings proud we contemplate
The rising glory of our state
Nor take offense by application
Of its good-natured appellation.
More than a century ago Dunn concluded, after considerable research,
that hoosier had obscure but certain Anglo-Saxon roots, and he did not shy
from its definition as a rough countryman. Why, then, did Professor
Eoyang invent a Hoosier hussar and propose it as a university mascot? To
be fair, Eoyang slickly transforms his soldier into common "grunt" with
true Midwestern values, but he then turns him back into a mounted
and calls for experts to dress him in splendid uniform.
Why deny "hoosier's" origin in a one-time term of opprobrium, accepted with good
nature, probably because it was once mostly true and cast by those who weren't much better?
Of course Professor Eoyang may be teasing. He may be guying poor,
gullible Hoosiers with a tall tale of exalted descent, humorously
imitating those genealogical hucksters who offer a coat of arms to anyone
with a family name. If he is serious, though, one wonders why he cannot
accept the worthy Hoosier without frogs, braids and epaulettes.
Why not honestly honor the one who swung the ax, not the saber?
Why not investigate thoroughly enough to discover Raven McDavid's statement
that "hoosier" was "a term suggestive of the raw strength of the frontier,
of the yeoman farmers in contrast with the alleged refinements of
and mercantile society."
Koscioszco, engineer that he was, would not have appreciated Eoyang's
feeble foundation. As a fervent democrat and egalitarian, he would have
deplored Eoyang's promotion of hoosier to a rank it did not
deserve and never needed.
The State Seal
Lovers of the hussar story might have
done well to consult the Indiana
State Seal which features a man with an ax. Part of the Indiana Code.
Section 1-2-4-1 (Acts 1963, ch. 207, section 1) states:
The woodsman is wearing a hat and holding his ax nearly perpendicular
on his right. The ax blade is turned away from him and is even with his
While state law defined the seal in 1963, "the earliest recorded use
of a seal for the Indiana Territory is on court documents signed by
Governor William Henry Harrison in January 1801." (Bennett and
January) That seal and later seals also consistently portray a
woodsman and his ax.
Screwin' cotton in Mobile Bay and Rednecks and Wool
The term hoosier turns up in a sea shanty, "Lowlands or My Dollar an'
a Half a Day"
A white man's pay is rather high.
Ch: Lowlands, lowlands, away my John!
Five dollars a day is a hoosier's pay,
Five dollars a day is a hoosier's pay.
A black man's pay is rather low,
Ch: My dollar an' a half a day
According to Stan Hugill in his
collection Shanties from the Seven Seas
southern dock workers sang the shanty while "a-screwin' cotton all
day." (Hugill, p. 69) The word "screwin'" refers to the "screws
used to ram tight bales of cotton down the holds of cotton traders."
Hoosiers in this case are the rough, working class whites laboring at a
difficult task beside their black counterparts.
Music also interests Patrick Huber in his
masters thesis "Rednecks
and Woolhats, Hoosiers and Hillbillies: Working-Class Southern Whites,
Language and the Definition of Identity." Before discussing country
songs he observes:
No group of Americans, except perhaps African-Americans, have had more
derogatory terms heaped upon them than rural, southern white working
people: Arkie, clay eater, conch, corn-cracker, cornpone, cracker,
dirt-eater, hillbilly, hoosier, low-downer, mean white, Okie,
pea-picker, peckerwood, pinelander, poor buckra, poor white, redneck,
ridge-runner, sandhiller, tacky, tar heel, wool hat and perhaps the
most opprobrious slur, poor white trash. This, of course,
does not exhaust the list. (Huber, p. 5)
It turns out he concentrates on the word hillbilly, but he has made the
point that all the terms, including hoosier, are contemptuous
references to Southern white working people.
Usage of the term was not limited to whites themselves. It crosses
racial lines as in quotation taken from Susan Tucke's Telling
Memories among Southern Women: Domestic Workers and their Employers in
the Segregated South:
Althea Vaughn, a Southern cook and maid, bitterly recalled her while
employer's daughter-in-law. "I couldn't stand her for nothing in
the world. She [was an] old redneck hoo'ger, those kinds that
were't used to nothing."
Don't Stop Them
If Eoyang's hussars can ride again, settlers will continue to call
"Who's here?" from their cabins, and visitors will ask the same question
of the house. Sam Hoosier's men will dig his canal, and hushers will tromp
their opponents, sometimes shouting "Huzza!" to mark their victories.
Boatmen will deliver corn down the river. Ears will be picked up from
barroom floors and playing fields. People will wander through bushy places
or holly plantations, perhaps with a wild look about them. Bakers will
offer gingerbread to those hungry for the sweet. Preachers will preach the
Methodist gospel to their backwoods congregations. Bailiffs, hatmakers,
dirty tramps, Indian potentates and Spanish hoosieroons will populate
Indiana's hills, hollows and flatlands. Ninatrices will lull babies to
sleep, and young children will inquire about their fathers. You cannot
stop them, and sometimes, although not always, you may not want to.
Would You Rather Be a Puke?
During the first decades of the nineteenth century, states
acquired popular nicknames. Whatever the reason for this
particular mania, those nicknames achieved a measure of
acceptance. Walt Whitman used them in his poetry to evoke the
strength and variety of the hearty men and women who made up a
growing nation. They tumbled from his pen more than once, not as
words of fun, but as words of admiration. Many of the names,
like "Tarheel" or "Tar Heel" (itself capable of two interpretations), fell
victim to local boosterism and often survive without negative
connotations or much context as names of college and university
Whitman and boosters aside, the nicknames did not always
suggest the finer qualities of the states. Ohioans are
"buckeyes," which sounds innocent, but would one want to be a
"leatherhead" (Pennsylvanians) or a "sucker" (Illinoisans) or a
"clam catcher" (New Jerseyans) or a "beethead" (Texans) or a
"weasle" (South Carolinians) or a "bugeater" (Nebraskans)? And
who would want to be a "puke" -- the nickname for Missourians? By
contrast, "hoosier" seems, if not exactly historically flattering,
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