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What is a Hoosier

Hoosier is the official demonym for a resident of the U.S. State of Indiana. Although residents of most U.S. states typically adopt a derivative of the state name, e.g., Indianan or Indianian, natives of Indiana never use these demonyms. In St. Louis, Missouri, the word is used in a derogatory fashion in similar context to "hick" or "white trash". The State of Indiana adopted the nickname "Hoosier State" more than 150 years ago. "Hoosiers" is also the mascot for the Indiana University athletic teams and the title of an award-winning 1986 movie Hoosiers starring Gene Hackman, based on the story of the Milan High School basketball team and its road to winning the state championship. The word Hoosier is sometimes used in the names of Indiana-based businesses. In the Indiana High School Athletic Association, seven active athletic conferences and one disbanded conference have the word Hoosier in their names, the conferences names are Hoosier Athletic, Hoosier Crossroads, Hoosier Heartland, Hoosier Heritage, Hoosier Hills, Mid-Hoosier, and Northeast Hoosier with Northwest Hoosier being the disbanded conference.
In other parts of the country, the word has been adapted for other uses. “Hoosier” also refers to the cotton-stowers, both black and white, who moved cotton bales from docks to the holds of ships, forcing the bales in tightly by means of jackscrews. A low-status job, it nevertheless is referred to in various sea shanty lyrics. For example, Shanties from the Seven Seas includes lyrics that reference hoosiers. There are several other references to hoosiers throughout the book.
Some people think the name Hoosier comes from the question "Who's here?" but there are other interpretations of the word that may be more valid.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology of the word is unknown, but it has been in use since at least 1826. According to Bill Bryson, there are many suggestions for the derivation of the word "Hoosier," but none are universally accepted. Historian Jacob Piatt Dunn theorized that the word has roots in the Anglo-Saxon "hoo," which refers to high ground. "Hoozers" might refer to hill people, and would evolve into a term for less cultured people of the American frontier.

One of the earliest written references to an Indiana "Hoosier" is from a personal letter by Sandford Cox dated 14 July 1827. The term came into general usage in the 1830s. John Finley of Richmond, Indiana wrote a poem, The Hoosier's Nest, which was published in 1833 and was used as the "Carrier's Address" of the Indianapolis Journal, January 1, 1833. It was generally accepted as a term for Indiana residents by the 1840s, and as it came into common usage, the debates about the term's origin began.

In 1900, author Meredith Nicholson wrote The Hoosiers, an early attempt to study the origins of the word as applied to Indiana residents. Jacob Piatt Dunn published The Word Hoosier in 1907, a serious study into the origin of the term "Hoosier" as a term used to describe the citizens of Indiana. Nicholson and Dunn both chronicled some of the popular, satirical origins of the word. Nicholson, however, had also defended against an explanation that the word "Hoosier" was applied to Indiana because it referred to uncouth country folk. Dunn, by contrast, concluded that Indiana settlers adopted the word as a humorous nickname, and that the negative connotation had already faded when John Finley wrote his poem.

Some folkloric etymologies

Frontier banter

This idea suggests the term was a greeting. When approaching a man's home in those early frontier days, you shouted from afar, "Hello, the cabin!" to avoid being shot. The inhabitants would then shout back "Who'sh 'ere?" (who's here). As it became slurred together over time, the country folk came to be called Hoosiers.

A variant of this story combines "Who's" and "your", such as in "Who'sh yer 'pa?". Additionally, the poet James Whitcomb Riley facetiously suggested that the fierce brawling that took place in Indiana involved enough ear biting that the expression "Whose ear?" was common enough to be notable.

Pugilistic boatmen

Indiana rivermen were so spectacularly successful in trouncing or "hushing" their adversaries in the brawling that was then common that they became known as "hushers."

Mr. Hoosier's men

A contractor reportedly named Samuel Hoosier preferred to hire workers from Indiana during the construction of the Louisville and Portland Canal (1826-1831) in Louisville. His employees became known as "Hoosier's men" and finally just "Hoosiers".

This story is reported by Dunn (1907:16-17) as being told in 1901 by a man who heard this story from a Hoosier family member while traveling in southern Tennessee. However, Dunn’s research could find no-one in southern Tennessee who had heard the story, nor could he find any family of that name in any directory in the region. In spite of Dunn's skepticism, this version has been accepted by Evan Bayh, who has served as Indiana governor and senator, and by Senator Vance Hartke, who introduced this story into the Congressional Record (1975), according to Graf.

A similar story involves the National Road, which began in Cumberland, Maryland, and slowly extended westward, reaching Indiana in 1829-1834. As plans were made to extend the highway to Richmond, Indiana, the call went out for laborers. Knowing that the federal government would pay "top dollar", the employees of a contractor in the Indiana Territory reportedly named Robert Hoosier asked their boss if they could go work for this higher wage in the neighboring state of Ohio. Mr. Hoosier gave his consent, asking them to return to work for him when this section of the road was done.

Just as in the Sam Hoosier story, the crew of Indiana workers proved to be industrious, conscientious, and efficient. The federal foreman referred to the group as "Hoosiers" meaning they were workers that Robert Hoosier had allowed to join the national work crew. It wasn't long before people along the National Road used the term to describe the folks living in the territory to the west.

This story is not mentioned in Dunn’s or Mencken’s research, but if there were such a contractor and such events, they would have taken place after the term "Hoosier" was already well established in Appalachia and was becoming attached to Indiana.


In this story, a veteran of the Napoleonic wars, Col. John Jacob Lehmanowsky, settled in Indiana later in life and gave lectures on the "Wars of Europe" in which he extolled the virtues of the hussars, which his audience heard as "hoosiers". Young men wishing to identify with these virtues called themselves Hoosiers, enough of them that eventually all people of Indiana were called Hoosiers.

Weaknesses of this story include the unlikely mispronunciation of hussar as Hoosier and the fact that Lehmanowsky did not come to Indiana until 1833, by which time the term was already well established.

Other uses

A Hoosier cabinet, often shortened to "hoosier", is a type of free-standing kitchen cabinet popular in the early decades of the twentieth century. Almost all of these cabinets were produced by companies located in Indiana. The name is derived from the largest of them, the Hoosier Manufacturing Co. of New Castle, Indiana.

Other Indiana businesses use Hoosier in the name of their companies:
1) Hoosier Racing Tire, manufacturer of racing tires; 
2) Hoosier Bat Company, manufacturer of wood baseball bats.

As the mascot of Indiana University, the Hoosier is the subject of debate, primarily concerning the term's meaning and origin. As there is no physical embodiment of a Hoosier, IU is represented through their letters and colors alone.

The RCA Dome, former home of the Indianapolis Colts, was once known as the Hoosier Dome before 1994, when RCA paid for the naming rights. The RCA Dome was replaced by Lucas Oil Stadium in 2008.

 Hoosier In Missouri

In St. Louis, Missouri, the word is used in a derogatory fashion in similar context to "hick" or "white trash".

Thomas E. Murray carefully analyzed the use of "hoosier" in St. Louis, Missouri, where it is the favorite epithet of abuse. "When asked what a Hoosier is," Murray writes, "St. Louisans readily list a number of defining characteristics, among which are 'lazy,' 'slow-moving,' 'derelict,' and 'irresponsible.'" He continues, "Few epithets in St. Louis carry the pejorative connotations or the potential for eliciting negative responses that hoosier does." He conducted tests and interviews across lines of age and race and tabulated the results. He found the term ecumenically applied. He also noted the word was often used with a modifier, almost redundantly, as in "some damn Hoosier."

In a separate section Murray speaks of the history of the word and cites Baker and Carmony (1975) and speculates on why Hoosier (in Indiana a "neutral or, more often, positive" term) should remain "alive and well in St. Louis, occupying as it does the honored position of being the city's number one term of derogation." A radio broadcast took up where Murray left off. During the program, "Fresh Air," Jeffrey Lunberg, a language commentator, answered questions about regional nicknames. He cited Elaine Viets, a Post-Dispatch columnist (also quoted by Paul Dickson), as saying that in St. Louis a "Hoosier is a low-life redneck, somebody you can recognize because they have a car on concrete blocks in their front yard and are likely to have just shot their wife who may also be their sister."

"Old timers" from southwest St. Louis County have their own history for use of the term. In the mid-1950s, Fenton, Missouri was at the then-rural southwest rim of the county. It was during this time that Chrysler Corporation built a large automobile assembly plant in the city of Fenton and closed a plant it had been operating in Indiana. Many former employees of the closed Indiana plant moved to Fenton for employment; so many, in fact, that entire subdivisions of new homes (with streets named after Chrysler models such as "Fury" and "Belvidere") sprang up south of the plant, near what was then US Route 66.

It became something of a local joke to refer to the new arrivals from Indiana as "hoosiers", and before long, anyone from the rural edges of St. Louis County was considered such.

Famous references

  • The fellowship felt among Hoosiers was referred to in Kurt Vonnegut's book, Cat's Cradle, where it is said that this fellowship is an example of a granfalloon. Vonnegut was himself a Hoosier and a graduate of Shortridge High School in Indianapolis.

  • Serial killer Carl Panzram's last words were reportedly, "Hurry it up, you Hoosier bastard! I could kill 10 men while you're fooling around!"

  • The word hoosier is also mentioned in the Jesse Jaymes song "College Girls Are Easy" (from the album "Thirty Footer in Your Face"), where he said "he knocked it like a Hoosier"

  • The word hoosier is also mentioned in the song "Bad Side"(Lil Wayne & Juelz Santana), where Lil Wayne says "around here we wear red, like a Hoosier bitch"

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