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Q From Jolene Gurrola: I am interested in finding out where the term Hoosier comes from, as a term for people who come from or live in the state of Indiana.

A I’ve been dodging this question for several years but it seems inescapable. There are four good reasons why I’ve been reluctant to get involved: a) it’s an iconic American term that perhaps I ought not to be meddling with from this side of the Atlantic; b) the origin is uncertain; c) it generates more controversy than any other American demographic term; and d) lots of vociferous people in Indiana believe they know the answer and won’t be afraid to tell me so.

Facts first. This term for the inhabitants of Indiana is recorded for the first time in a letter of 1831 that wasn’t published until much later (the Oxford English Dictionary’s first entry, from a letter of 1826 that was reproduced in the Chicago Tribune in 1949, has since been shown actually to date from 1846). Its first public sighting was in a poem called The Hoosier’s Nest by John Finley that was printed in the Indianapolis Journal on 1 January 1833.

The inhabitants of Indiana have been upset in the past to learn that the word is also known in other states with the meaning (I quote the Dictionary of American Regional English) “A hillbilly or rustic; an unmannerly or objectionable person”. The same work also records it among black speakers as a “white person considered to be objectionable, especially because of racial prejudice” and as a term for someone inexperienced or incompetent. By a splendid exhibition of inverted self-regard, the inhabitants of Indiana proudly continue to use the name for themselves. The efforts of Dan Quayle in 1987 to persuade the editors of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary to change the meaning to “someone who is smart, resourceful, skilful, a winner, unique and brilliant” got a polite but uncompromising refusal.

More people have had a go at finding its source than you can easily count. It has variously been explained as hoozer, a dialect word from Cumberland that means something large or a dweller in the hills; from a canal foreman named Samuel Hoosier who would only hire men from Indiana; from the family name Hooser; from “Black Harry” Hoosier, an African-American Methodist evangelist of the early 19th century; from the exclamation huzza! after some victory; from Hussars, European cavalry; from hoosa, an Indian word for corn; from hoose, a British term for a disease of cattle; from husher, a bullying vigilante, a roughneck river bargeman, or anybody who could outfight his opponents (and so “hush” them). Others argue that it derives from the days when ear-biting was all the rage; when torn-off ears were found on a bar-room floor after a brawl, people would ask “whose ears?”. It’s also asserted that when a visitor knocked on a cabin door Indiana people would say, “Who’s there?” in a rustic accent that sounded like Hoosier. Or Indiana people would stand on the riverbank and shout to people on boats, “Who is ya?”

There are excellent objections to all of these, which I will spare you. I hate to end on a downbeat note, but the Oxford English Dictionary’s cautious “origin unknown” just about sums it up. Don’t write to me about it, please, unless you have copper-bottomed evidence to back up your beliefs!

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Page created 20 Nov 2004; Last updated 03 Feb 2007