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Hooligan

Pronounced /ˈhuːlɪɡən/Help with pronunciation

In the distinctive language of British journalism, the English football fans who caused so much trouble in Marseilles in June 1998 “went on the rampage”, “ran amuck”, were guilty of “thuggish behaviour”, or “caused mayhem”. They were described in news stories as louts, yobs, thugs and ruffians, but the word that was universally employed was hooligan.

Its origin may lie in one or other of several popular sources that led to this version of an ancient Irish family name becoming a byword, initially for comedy and latterly for violence. A music-hall song, The O’Hooligan Boys, was first mentioned in a London newspaper, The Era, in October 1891 as forming part of a new programme at the Elephant and Castle Theatre. It had been written by Messrs Sinclair and Davis and featured the doings of a rowdy Irish family. A comic routine, The Hooligan Musketeers, demonstrating their humorous attempts at marching, was performed in December by a man named Wilkinson at The Windsor Castle, a music hall at Plumstead, south-east London. A series of cartoons about a family named Hooligan began in 1892 in a periodical called Nuggets. Half a world away, in 1888 the Sydney Morning Herald noted the song Miss Hooligan’s Christmas Cake, which is known to have been widely performed in the UK a few years later; it may be a relative of A Slice of Mike Hooligan’s Cake, which was reported in London in early 1885. Another song, The Hooligans, was known to have been performed by the Irish comedians Jim O’Connor and Charles Brady to great success as two roistering boys named Bill Jinks and Bob Buster at the Theatre Royal Hull at the end of 1891:

Oh, The Hooligans! Oh, the Hooligans!
    Always on the riot,
    Cannot keep them quiet,
Oh, The Hooligans! Oh, the Hooligans!
    They are the boys,
    To make a noise,
    In our backyard.

Their act had reached London by March 1892, with them performing it four times a day at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster and the Imperial Theatre. (It was common for successful performers to rush from theatre to theatre to appear in several shows.) It seems to have been extremely successful.

We can’t prove it, but the timing suggests it was this last use of the name that caused it to be taken up by gangs in London. Geoffrey Pearson wrote in Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears in 1983: "It seems most likely ... that it was a word like ‘Teddy Boy’ or ‘Mod’ or ‘Skinhead’ which, coming out of the popular culture of working-class London, had been adopted by youths in some localities in order to describe themselves and what they took for their common identity."

The first indication of this came two years later in the report of an incident at the South London Palace of Varieties:

It was stated at the Southwark Police-court during the hearing of a charge against Charles Clarke of assaulting the police that the person was the king of a gang of youths known as the “Hooligan Boys,” who paid to a secretary 2d. per week towards settling fines inflicted upon the members of the gang for assaults upon the police. The members were fined 2d. by the secretary if they were found without a belt or stick.

Daily News (London), 24 Apr. 1894.

Several other reports followed, including one of a death in the Borough, on the south side of the river, that had been caused by what a witness called “one of the Hooligan gangs about the district that rob people.” The Hampshire Chronicle wrote in October that the Hooligans were “a race of Southwark Hottentots with a mission to make the lives of respectable people unbearable.” Sporadic reports continued in the following years.

What brought it powerfully to wider public attention was the hot summer of 1898, which led to a substantial increase in minor violence and theft, particularly in Southwark and nearby around August Bank Holiday, a public holiday on the first Monday of the month. This led to headlines such as “Ruffinism in South London” (Daily News) and “Savages in South London: Uncaged Yahoos” (Reynolds’s Newspaper). The press instantly adopted hooligan as a catchword for any group of abusive or violent youths. Several compounds appeared in newspapers within weeks (a sure sign of popularity and acceptance), including hooliganism, hooliganesque, hooliganic, and the verb to hooligan, of which only the first has survived. The Daily Graphic wrote in a report on 22 August that year, “The avalanche of brutality which, under the name of ‘Hooliganism’ ... has cast such a dire slur on the social records of South London”.

It may be that a real family Hooligan contributed to the popularity of the term in Southwark at this time. Clarence Rook’s book of 1899, Hooligan Nights, mentioned a Patrick Hooligan, a bouncer and small-time thief who lived in the Borough. With his family and a small gang of followers he frequented the Lamb and Flag public house in Southwark. Hooligan murdered a policeman, was put away for life and died in prison. Another writer, Earnest Weekley, said in his Romance of Words in 1912: “The original Hooligans were a spirited Irish family of that name whose proceedings enlivened the drab monotony of life in Southwark about fourteen years ago”. The evidence is that spirited and enlivened are euphemisms.

The word not long after reached literary works; Conan Doyle employed it in The Adventure of the Six Napoleons in 1904: “It seemed to be one of those senseless acts of Hooliganism which occur from time to time, and it was reported to the constable on the beat as such”, and H G Wells used it in his novel Tono-Bungay in 1909: “Three energetic young men of the hooligan type, in neck-wraps and caps, were packing wooden cases with papered-up bottles, amidst much straw and confusion”. Around this time the press frequently referred to suffragettes as female hooligans.

The 1998 newspaper reports showed that it continues to serve its purpose as a shorthand way to identify abusive and violent young people.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 20 Jun. 1998
Last updated: 15 Mar. 2014

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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.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/topicalwords/tw-hoo1.htm
Last modified: 15 March 2014.