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Hobo

Q From Reba-Jean and Chris: We’re kinda curious as to where the term hobo came from.

A The flip answer is “aren’t we all?”, because this is yet another of those troubling expressions for which there’s no obvious origin.

The word in its modern form was first recorded in the north-western US. Here’s the first example I know about, which comes from the Ellensburgh Capital in Washington State, in November 1889: “The tramp has changed his name, or rather had it changed for him, and now he is a ‘Hobo’ ”. Note the initial capital letter, which also turns up in other early examples, and which has led many writers to conclude that it was a proper name, or at least the hoboes own name for themselves.

Incidentally, though many writers equate hobo and tramp, they themselves made a careful distinction, in that a hobo travelled to find work while a tramp travelled to avoid it. (A bum was worse than either.)

As to where it came from, there are several theories. One writer has pointed out possible parallels with English dialect words hawbuck and hawbaw for a coarse or clumsy fellow, but there seems to be no clear evidence for its movement from Britain to the north-west of the USA. A more common explanation is that it derives either from a greeting “Ho, Bo!” (or “Ho, Beau!”) of one migrant to another, or a challenge or greeting used by railway workers: “Ho boy!”.

This origin may be supported by a sentence that Barry Popik of the American Dialect Society found in the New Orleans Picayune of 19 August 1848: “A year’s bronzing and ‘ho-boying’ about among the mountains of that charming country called Mexico, has given me a slight dash of the Spanish”. But the Random House Dictionary of American Historical Slang carefully notes that the big gap between this and the next appearance of the word leaves a lot of questions unanswered, as is so often the case.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 1 May 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 1 May 1999.