Sports teams on the Bloomington campus of Indiana University are known as the ‘Indiana Hoosiers’ or simply ‘the Hoosiers’. Indiana University was often referred to as ‘the State University’ early in its history and the name is borrowed from the State of Indiana’s nickname, ‘the Hoosier State’.
The etymology and even the meaning of the word ‘hoosier’ has been a subject of great debate for well over a hundred years. The Bloomington Post of March 2, 1838 published this account using an alternate spelling of the word:
- Hoosher: - The appellation of Hoosher has been used in many of the Western States, for several years past, to designate in a good natured way, an inhabitant of Indiana. Many of our ingenious philologists have attempted, though very unsatisfactorily, to explain the origin of this somewhat singular term. Mordica M. Noah, of New York, undertakes to account for it upon the faith of a rather apocryphal story of a recruiting officer, not of very brilliant literary attainments, who was engaged during the late war, in enlisting a company of Hussars, whom by mistake he unfortunately denominated Hooshers. 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 the exclamation abbreviated to Hoosher, was, in process of time, applied as a distinctive appellation to the original settlers of Indiana, and finally to its settlers generally. Neither of these hypotheses are deserving of any attention. The word Hoosher is indebted for its existence to that once numerous and unique, but now extinct class of mortals called the “Ohio Boatmen”. In its original acception it was equivalent to “Ripstaver,” “Scrounger,” “Snorter”, “Bulger,” “Hoover,” “Screamer,” “Roarer,” 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 of Hoosher became confined solely to such boatmen as had their homes upon the Indiana shore, and from them it was gradually applied to all Indianans, who now acknowledge it as good naturedly as a New Englander does the appellation of Yankee.
- Whatever may have been the original acception of “Hoosher”, this we know, that the people to whom it is now applied are amongst the bravest, most intelligent and enterprising of the Great West.
Note that the two etymologies dismissed out of hand have maintained some currency to this day. The accepted etymology is no more ‘deserving of any attention’ than the others, although it does hint at the original pejorative meaning of the phrase, and boats and rivers do play a part.
In 1834 a brief article quoting an Illinois newspaper appeared in several Indiana newspapers. It listed nicknames for various states and what was then the Territory of Michigan. The article appeared in the Western Sun & General Advertiser of Vincennes, Indiana on April 12, 1834 and the Indiana American of Brookville, Indiana on August 15, 1834. By September 6, 1834, the story had traveled to Gotham and back and appeared in this longer form in the Indiana Palladium of Lawrenceburg, Indiana:
- The nomenclature of the West is a strange one. It would puzzle us downeasters to detect its origin or its philosophy. The Illinois Pioneer gives the following list of nick-names adopted to distinguish the citizens of the following states: -
- In Kentucky they’re call’d Corn crackers,
- Ohio, Buckeyes,
- Indiana, Hoosiers,
- Illinois, Suckers,
- Missouri, Pukes,
- Michigan T., Woolverines,
- The Yankees are called Eels
- Whether the Missouri folks are self christened, or whether their neighbors have baptized them, we know not. If the former, they are a qualmish set of fellows, and if the latter, their neighbors must have most revolting notions of them. Give us any other name but that which stands for a Missouri man. The Yankees have reason to squirm under their title. N. Y. Times
These names retained currency until at least 1884, as is literally illustrated in a map published by H.W. Hill & Company of Decatur, Illinois.
All of these names were considered pejorative or vulgar, some more obviously than others. Those beyond the pale were abandoned, others rehabilitated with various degrees of success. ‘Buckeye’ seems to have put its shady past entirely behind it. This did not occur without protest, some of it fortified by Latin phrases, the royal ‘we’ and the promiscuous use of commas, semi-colons and dashes. The Standard of South Hanover, Indiana (a newspaper whose masthead indicated that all proceeds benefited the Theological Seminary of South Hanover) published the following on November 19, 1835:
- The Cincinnati Mirror, it seems, has assumed a new title, with its new Editor, Mr. Jas. E. Marshall is hereafter to appear as the Buckeye and Mirror. We have been accustomed to regard the “Mirror” as one of the ablest conducted literary journals in the Western country. With the new Editor we have not the honor of an acquaintance; – we should presume, a priori, that the ex-proprietors would have a proper solicitude for the future character of their paper, and this ought to be regarded as a pledge that the “Buckeye and Mirror,” shall sustain the character of the “Cincinnati Mirror.” – We may be regarded as fastidious, but we have a suggestion to make. We are not indebted to the Poet for the feeling of “the magic of a name.” To our mind, the adoption of the name “BUCKEYE” augurs badly for the paper in question. Whatever charm there may be in the citizen of Ohio, in the name ‘Buckeye’ it cannot be regarded as elegant, chaste or classical, at the head of a literary journal. The epithets “Buckeye,” “Hoosier,” “Sucker,” “Pukes,” and the genus omne of such nicknames, are regarded as vulgar in genteel colloquial intercourse; how much more so do they appear at the head of a public journal. They might be tolerated as the bandied epithets of schoolboys and draymen, but even here they would not be approved by people of good taste. We do not, to be sure, regard the use of such words as very heinous transgressions, but there is not such a paucity in the English vocabulary, as to demand from literary men the sanction of vulgar parlance.
However obscure the original taint associated with ‘buckeye’, that of ‘hoosier’ is readily apparent. The New York Times did not rely entirely on Illinois newspapers to form its opinion of Hoosiers. On October 10, 1835 The Rising Sun Times of Rising Sun, Indiana, quoted a Times article about legendary bartender Orsamus Willard at the City Hotel on Broadway:
- There are a thousand anecdotes told of Willard of the City Hotel, but we can add another that has never appeared in type: A Hoosier from Indiana, walked into the hotel one day, and stepping up to the bar, called for a glass of brandy and water. Willard, with his customary suavity, immediately handed him the decanter and a tumbler. He filled the tumbler nearly full of ‘strong water,’ with but a small sprinkle of Manhattan, and emptied the whole at a draught. Willard looked aghast. The Hoosier forked up his shilling, and was astonished when Willard returned him sixpence and three cents change.
- “Hello, stranger! You don’t go to pretend to say, they only charge three cents a glass for liquor, at the City Hotel?’
- “No,” answered Willard, “we retail it at a shilling a glass, but when we sell it wholesale we make a discount!”
- The Hoosier wilted like a baked apple and evaporated in a cold sweat. N. Y. Times
A more general explanation of the 'genuine hoosier' appeared in the Times-Picayune of New Orleans on September 15, 1844:
- An original character is your genuine hoosier. By genuine we mean such a one as has all the attributes that peculiarly belong to the backwoodsmen of the West – one whose manners have suffered neither change nor modification by connection or association with men of more conventional habits; one, in a word, who, like the trees of native forest, had no other culture than that bestowed on him my nature. He may well be called a genuine hoosier. There is an originality in his phraseology, which, being the imitation of no other know idiom, by none can it be successfully imitated; and there is a primitive freshness in his manner and appearance, which show that while the fetters of fashion and etiquette enchain their millions among what is called the “enlightened classes,” he, disdaining all such artificial incumbrances of both limb and language, dresses as he willeth, and talks as he pleaseth. Indeed, with the future antiquarian, it must be a matter of mystery, to account for the noble stand taken by the hoosier against the effeminate frivolity of our times, when almost all of those who pique themselves on being more refined than their fellows, are the victims of its enervating embraces.
The lower case use of the word ‘hoosier’ in the article above is not un-important, as its original meaning was not limited to the State of Indiana. This is made explicit in the following untitled article from the Time-Picayune of September 1, 1841, critiquing another newspaper’s ‘hoosier’ article:
- The editor of the New Hampshire Gazette, a paper published at Portsmouth, has undertaken to describe our friends the Hoosiers. In the main, the description is not bad, as the reader may see.
- Hoosiers. – Particularly the people of Indiana, and generally the emigrants from the southern States who settle in any of the free States of the north-west. The Hoosiers are as peculiar in their habits and customs as the Yankees.
- In the fall and spring the west, particularly the Ohio, Tennessee, Wabash, Illinois, and the Mississippi are covered with Hoosiers, in their flat-boats (or green-horns) floating with the stream, for thousands of miles, down to New Orleans, to market. The flat-boats are built large and stout, about fifty or sixty feet in length, and thirty or forty wide. They are filled with such produce as the country has to export – such as beef, cattle, hogs, fowls, whiskey, corn, pork, tobacco, flour, &c. They have a little cabin built at one end of the boat, in which they live while floating down the river – also while in New Orleans. They are usually two or three weeks in going down, and perhaps spend two or three months, or more, at New Orleans, in trading out their cargo, which sometimes brings them two or three thousand dollars. In the winter the Levee in New Orleans is lined with these Hoosiers, and some of them are objects of great curiosity. They are original characters. They usually wear Kentucky Jane for pants, and a large frock-coat, called a Hoosier’s coat. This coat is made of coarse, shaggy cloth, sometimes entirely white, sometimes green, and sometimes striped and of different colors.
- The Hoosiers, after selling their cargo, and also their boat, usually jump upon a steamboat, and return home. They are sometimes a week in returning, and usually amuse themselves by playing Euchre, Brag, Poker, &c.
- The writer, like most other writers, has fallen into some amusing blunders; for instance – he has dubbed the old-fashioned broad-horns green-horns: that is very bad. As for his flat boats “thirty or forty feet wide,” we imagine them to be rather scarce, even in Hoosier-land. It is seldom that flat-boats, or “green-horns,” as wide as they are long, are seen floating upon the Mississippi. But the “Kentucky Jane!” Where did she come from?
Historic Treasures, compiled and published by Forest M. Hall of Bloomington in February of 1922 contains an unattributed article about Harrodsburg, Indiana, about 12 miles south of Bloomington, which includes the following:
- Beginning about 1853, the firm of Sutherland & Jones did a large business in packing pork and shipping the same, along with grain, in flatboats down the creeks to markets of the south. They sent from eight to twelve boat loads during a season, and employed from forty to fifty men.
A Times-Picayune article of July 13, 1842 entitled “A Canebrake” illustrates the popular conception of a hoosier. Note that at that time even a Kentuckian could be a hoosier.
- “A-ah are you what is called a hooshu-ah (hoosier)?” said a young gentleman, with a small glass clutched tightly in the muscles of his optic.
- “Yes, I’m a hoosier,” said the raw Kentuckian, in a lively manner. “Look at me,” said he, in a humorous way, turning all around.
- Considerable of a laugh arose here, for it was on the boiler deck of a steam boat, and she under full head of steam for the West.
- “What do you think of me, for a four year old?” said the light-hearted fellow. “Did you never see one before?”
- “N-not alive!” said the young gentleman, “but a-are you at that infantine age of four years?”
- “That all, but wait till I’m a man.”
- “A-ah! and what will you do then?”
- “Then I’ll lick my daddy!”
- “Ah-a! and how big is your daddy?”
- “Five feet and a half higher than all outdoors!”
- “My! There step aside, good creature, there is an odor about you.”
- “A what?”
- “An odor.”
- “What’s an odor?”
- “Poor thing! it is very ignorant. Odor is a pleasant scent, used by the polite instead of that horrid word smell.”
- “O, yes, I’ve got an odor of home, and you’ve got a scent of a canebrake.”
- “A what?”
- “A canebrake.”
- “What’s a canebrake?”
- “Why you poor motherless innocent! where did you get your schooling?”
- Here a tremendous roar burst from the passengers, who were standing about highly amused.
- “A canebrake’s a thicket of sticks, green one; I don’t charge for the information,” said the hoosier.
- The little man with the eye-glass grew much incensed, and he superciliously said, that if there a canebrake near, he would have the Captain put the hoosier ashore.
- “Why there is one, mighty near,” said the Kentuckian, with an ominous side leer.
- “Where?” was the reply.
- “Here!” said the sturdy fellow, coolly taking a delicate gold-headed stick out of the other’s hand, and with a swift blow shattering it into slivers across his head. “That’s a canebrake!”
- The young gentleman from London walked away to his state-room, followed by an explosion from the boiler-deck of inextinguishable laughter!
Articles describing interactions between ‘downeasters’ and Westerners sometimes took on the air of a cultural anthropology expedition, as in this unattributed example from the Indiana American of Brookville, Indiana on March 27, 1835 entitled ‘Humorous Extract”:
- I traveled by stage, last fall, from Dayton to Cincinnati. I had but one companion – an eastern gentleman – and much of our conversation was upon the history, resources, people and peculiarities of the West. At Hamilton, a third person joined us. This was a Kentucky drover, who was returning from “a jaunt just over into Illinois and Indiana.” He was rude – but as frank and whole souled a fellow as you will meet with once in a long time.
- …Perceiving that I knew something about matters and things in the backwoods, he addressed himself to me.
- “May be you’ve been over in Hoosher land in your day, stranger?”
- “Yes – once.”
- “Well – ain’t they cautions out thar, any how?”
- The eastern gentleman smiled. He had before him a visible illustration of one topic of our previous conversation.
- “Rough exteriors; but generous hearts.”
- “You may well say that, stranger… Well- may be you’d like to hear how I became as lean as a Jersey pig. You see, I was down in the Wabash country and the Fever and Ague cotch me there… They kep me down for four weeks... Well we had our bout – that is I, and the rascally Fever and Ague –at a worthy old Hoosher farmer’s, in the Wabash country. I was kept there five weeks; and when I asked for my bill, if you’ll take my word for’t, the kind old codger wouldn’t take a shilling. “I hadn’t been much trouble – was welcome to what I’d had – might make the young’uns a present, if I chose – never charged a stranger for a night or two’s lodging – couldn’t think of turning his house into a tavern.” So the old man stepped out and I began to look about for the urchins that were not big enough to be at work… I gave Ruthy my breast pin, and Japhet my pen-knife, and Ham (who was a school-boy) my everpoint pencil, and Shem (the eldest) my watch; and such a bobbing of heads, and scrapping of feet, and glistening of eyes, as there was among the little flock, I never see before; and when I stooped down to kiss little Ruthy, my heart, I tell you, fluttered about every which way, and felt entirely too big for its cage. – What’s o’clock, stranger, seeing as I’ve no time-teller now?”
- “Almost four.”
- “We shall get in late. Whoop, driver – halloo – Reckon your team’s taking a nap?”
- “Guess your tongue isn’t troubled much in that way,” muttered the driver. ‘Twas well the Kentuckian did not hear him.
- And so we rolled along into the city, much pleased with the company of the jolly hearted Kentuckian.
In the popular imagination hoosiers were warmhearted and hospitable as well as uncouth. The poem ‘Hoosher’s Land’ by John Finley appeared in the Bloomington Post on September 9, 1836.
- Oft times in riding through the West,
- A stranger finds a “Hoosher’s nest,”
- In other words a buckeye cabin,
- Just big enough to hold Queen Mab in;
- Its situation low, but airy,
- Close on the borders of a prairie.
- And fearing he may be benighted,
- Hailing the house, has now alighted.
- The “Hoosher” meet him at the door,
- Their salutations soon are o’er;
- He takes the stranger’s horse aside,
- Which quick is to a saplin tied,
- Then having strippe’d the saddle off,
- He feeds him in a sugar trough.
- The stranger stoops to enter in,
- The entrance closing with a pin,
- And manifests a strong desire,
- To seat him by a log heap fire,
- Where half a dozen Hoosheroons,
- With mush & milk, tin cups and spoons,
- White heads, bare feet and dirty faces,
- Seem much inclined to keep their places.
- But Madam anxious to display
- Her rough and undisputed sway,
- Her offspring to the ladder leads,
- And Cuffs the youngest to their beds.
- Invited shortly to partake
- Of venison, milk, and Johnny-cake,
- The stranger makes a hearty meal,
- While round his anxious glances steal,
- One side is lined with divers garments,
- The other spread with skins of varmints,
- Dried pumpkin over head is strung,
- And venison ham in plenty hung;
- Two rifles placed above the door,
- Three dogs are stretched upon the floor.
- The Host, who centres his affections
- On game and range and quarter sections,
- Talks to his weary guests for hours
- Until he yields to Somnus’ powers.
- No matter how the story end -
- The application I intend,
- Is from the famous Scottish Poet,
- Who seems to feel as well as knows it,
- That “bonnie chiefs and clever hizzies,
- Are bred in such a way as this is.”
This poem appeared in newspapers throughout the nation and had appeared previously in the Indianapolis Journal on January 1, 1833.
Jacob Piatt Dunn, Jr., historian, state librarian, and recording secretary of the Indiana Historical Society from 1886 until his death in 1924, without the aid of digitization, optical character recognition or the Internet, considered this poem likely to be the first appearance in print of the word ‘hoosier’.
He was not off by much. The rehabilitation of ‘hoosier’ began at least a year or two earlier. In 1831 two Indiana newspapers contained the word hoosier. Two letters to the Richmond Palladium were signed ‘Hoosier’, one on April 9th and one on June 25th. The Wabash Herald of Rockville on July 2nd ran a story about race horses in Indiana which included a reference to a horse of questionable nativity and pedigree that the writer said should be considered a Hoosier due to the care taken for it in Indiana. The same newspaper on June 25th referred to ‘a respectable Indiana hoosher’ in an article about canal building.
Unlike ‘buckeye’ the rehabilitation of ‘hoosier’ has never been complete and has required maintenance. To this day, Wiktionary contains the following definition of hoosier:
- ‘(slang, Missouri) An uneducated, tasteless Caucasian person.’
Perhaps the sting of the Show-Me State's original epithet has left a mark upon her vocabulary. Whatever the cause, that vocabulary has been a burden on the Hoosier State's U. S. Senate delegation for years. Indiana Senator Dan Quayle wrote to William A. Llewellyn, president of Merriam-Webster, in April of 1987 asking that a pejorative definition of the word ‘hoosier’ be expunged. In this he was no more successful than in his debate with fictional television character Murphy Brown. Senators Vance Hartke in 1966 and Homer Capehart in 1949 introduced into the Congressional Record an article proposing etymologies. In 1975 Hartke introduced into the Congressional Record a Chicago Daily News article that omitted attributions ‘not fit to be printed in a family newspaper’.
The ultimate compendium of the history of the word hoosier was compiled by Jeffrey Graf of Indiana University Libraries - Bloomington . Available in PDF format by clicking here, it contains everything one could hope to know about the word, and at 100+ pages perhaps a great deal more.
No article about the word ‘hoosier’ is complete without a newly proposed etymology. To that end, please note the 4th definition of ‘hoshen’ in the Dictionary of the Scots Language:
- “A term of abuse applied to one considered of not much account, a worthless character.”
This suggestion should in no way be interpreted as a comment upon the character of residents or natives of the State of Indiana. Nevertheless, it would conform to linguist Raven McDavid’s view that the American pattern of distribution of the word ‘hoosier’ “suggests an origin in the north of England, Lowland Scotland or Ulster—the areas from which came the pioneer stock of Western Pennsylvania and the Southern uplands.”