March 27, 2008


Stupid Question ™
Sept. 16, 1999
By John Ruch
© 1999

Q: What is a “Hoosier”?

A: You’re in a good company: the future Queen Elizabeth II asked this same question of an American pilot in 1944.

Unfortunately, the answer hasn’t changed in 55 years: no one knows the origin of this nickname for a resident of Indiana.

There is, however, a pretty clever guess.

But first, let’s dispose of the unclever guesses. There’s no evidence that “Hoosier” has anything to do with: variants of the question, “Who’s here?”; a famous person’s last name; various supposed Indian words; various French words; German hussar soldiers; and such real or imagined slang terms as “husher,” “huzza” and “whoosher.”

The earliest written reference to “Hoosier” is an 1832 poem in the Indiana Democrat, supposedly addressed to readers by the paper’s carriers. The word was in its current spelling, which has had remarkably few variants over the years.

“Hoosier’s” popularity as a nickname was cemented by a similar verse, “The Hoosier’s Nest,” written by John Finley for the Jan. 1, 1833 edition of the Indianapolis Journal.

However, “Hoosier” has another meaning. Citations starting about 1840 use it to mean an uncouth rustic, yokel or ruffian. There are even references to hoosier Texans and Connecticut hoosiers. This meaning still survives in middle South slang.

The nickname meaning of “Hoosier” is certainly older than its first written citation. (Why would a newspaper poem use a word nobody understands?)

But the “yokel” meaning is probably older, too. In fact, in the earliest citations of “Hoosier” (all of them of dubious origin, I must note), it’s hard to tell whether they refer specifically to Indianans or to country folk in general.

The “yokel” meaning probably inspired the nickname, as a softened adoption of a derogatory term.

If a Hoosier is a yokel, that still doesn’t tell us what a Hoosier is. In 1919, Jacob Piatt Dunn Jr. of the Indiana Historical Society proposed it was related to the Cumberland, England slang term “hoozer,” meaning anything very large. (Interestingly, there are citations as early as 1832 of “Hoosier” being used in this sense.)

Cumberland immigrants did settle in the Appalachians, producing much of its slang. Dunn figured that the early Kentucky settlers of southern Indiana brought the term with them.

An extremely smart, tight little theory. Unfortunately, its logical power is not matched by any evidence. It’s still pure speculation.

And what no one seems to have puzzled out is the “French connection”—why the word is spelled with the French-y “ier” on the end. (“Hoosier” isn’t a French word, nor are there any particularly similar.) Was it done by a newspaper editor to make the word look fancy? Was there actual French influence? Was it merely an attempt to transcribe the word’s sweeping sound?

We just don’t know.

No comments: