Transcript of Hoosier: A Brief Overview
Written by Lindsey Beckley
Produced by Jill Weiss Simins
[Sound of television channels changing with various commercials with the word “Hoosier” in them]
Lindsey Beckley: People from Florida are called Floridians. People from Maine are called Mainers. People from Washington are called Washingtonians. And people from Indiana are called…Hoosiers? On this episode of Talking Hoosier History, we’ll explore the history of what is probably the most famous demonym of any state in America.
I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History
Beckley: One of the most common questions we’re asked here at the Indiana Historical Bureau is “What is a Hoosier,” and that’s followed quickly by “Where did that word come from?” As it turns out, people have been asking just that question for nearly two centuries.
Hoosier, spelled in the now ubiquitous “H-O-O-S-I-E-R” spelling as well as several other phonetical versions, can be traced back to the American South, where it was used as a derogatory term for uneducated, uncouth people. But just when the word began to be used specifically to refer to people from Indiana is hard to know.
According to Indiana University Archives, the earliest known written use of the word can be found in a letter dated February 11, 1831. In the letter, written by G.L. Murdock to John Tipton, Murdock replied to an advertisement and offered to deliver goods by steamboat to Logansport, Cass County. In closing, he mentioned,
Voice actor reading from letter: Our boat will be named the Indiana Hoosier.
Beckley: The earliest known printed instance of “Hoosier” can be found in a letter to the editor of the Vincennes Gazette, just 8 days after the Murdock letter was penned. In the letter, the author, who identified themselves as Rackoon, noted the increasing population of Indiana, saying,
Voice actor reading from the Vincennes Gazette: The ‘Hoosher’ country is coming out, and the day is not far distant, when some states which have hitherto looked upon us as a kind of outlandish, half-civilized race, will have to follow in our train. Let the ‘Half-horse, half-alligator’…country look to it.
Beckley: It’s pretty obvious by the lack of explanation that the authors of both of those passages expected that their readers would already be familiar with the word “Hoosier” so it’s safe to assume that the word was in use, at least locally, before 1831. Throughout the early 1830s, usage increased significantly, but it was still mostly found in traveler’s accounts and local documents. That changed with the publishing of ex-state Representative John Finley’s poem “The Hoosher’s Nest” in 1833. It’s quite a long poem – 155 lines, in fact, so we can’t recite it all here, but this excerpt should give you a good feel for it:
Voice actor reading excerpt:
The emigrant is soon located-
In Hoosher life initiated:
Erects a cabin in the woods,
Wherein he stows his household goods.
Erelong the cabin disappears,
A spacious mansion next he rears;
His fields seem widening by stealth,
An index of increasing wealth;
and when the hives of Hooshers swarm,
To each is given a noble farm.
Beckley: This version of a “Hoosier” lacks the negative connotations associated with the original usage in the southern United States. Gone is the uneducated, uncouth backcountry man, and he’s replaced by an industrious farmer who is moving up in the world. It’s likely that the moniker was first used as an insult towards people from Indiana but they took it and made it their own, much as colonial Americans had done with the term “Yankees” in the 1700s.
The publishing of “The Hoshiers’ Nest” cemented the use of the word on a national scale, as it was picked up by other papers and published far and wide. And it wasn’t long before the first article examining the origins of this most “singular” term appeared. Just 10 months after poem was published, the Cincinnati Republican ran a piece simply titled “Hooshier.”
Voice actor reading from Cincinnati Republican: “The appellation of Hooshier has been used in many of the Western States, for several years, to designate, in a good natural way, an inhabitant of our sister state of Indiana. Ex- Governor Ray has lately started a newspaper in Indiana, which he names “The Hoshier” [sic]. Many of our ingenious native philologists have attempted, though very unsatisfactorily, to explain this somewhat singular term.”
Beckley: It goes on to list two unsatisfactory explanations of the etymology of the word before getting to the “real” root of the word.
Voice actor reading from Cincinnati Republican: “The word Hooshier is indebted for its existence to that once numerous and unique, but now extinct class of mortals called the Ohio Boatmen. — In its original acceptation it was equivalent to “Ripstaver,” “Bulger,” “Ring-tailroarer,” and a hundred others, equally expressive, but which have never attained to such a respectable standing as itself. By some caprice which can never be explained, the appellation Hooshier became confined solely to such boatmen as had their homes upon the Indiana shore, and from them it was gradually applied to all the Indianians, who acknowledge it as good naturedly as the appellation of Yankee — Whatever may have been the original acceptation of Hooshier this we know, that the people to whom it is now applied are amongst the bravest, most intelligent, most enterprising, most magnanimous, and most democratic of the Great West, and should we ever feel disposed to quit the state in which we are now sojourning, our own noble Ohio, it will be to enroll ourselves as adopted citizens in the land of the “HOOSHIER.”
Beckley: Again, this examination totally lacks any negative connotation with the word, instead it highlights the virtues of being a Hoosier. The next serious look into the word comes from historian Jacob Piatt Dunn, who wrote and rewrote his article entitled “The Word Hoosier” to near perfection – in fact, the monograph that came from his articles, published in 1907, is still seen as one of the most thorough and accurate studies on the topic. It’s not often that academic treatises stand the test of time like that. So, what did he have to say on the subject?
Well, basically, he said that we don’t know exactly where we got the word Hoosier, but dismissed many of the existing explanations as utterly ridiculous. He did, however, put forward three options which he thought plausible. First he theorized that the word migrated up from the South as a slang term used for uncouth countrymen – this is the theory with the most evidence and seems to be the one Dunn favored. He included a multitude of examples of this usage in the book. Second, he proposed an English root to the word. There are some similar terms found in early English dictionaries, such as “hoose,” “hoors,” and “hoozy, that could conceivably have been corrupted into Hoosier. His third proposal sounds rather improbable on the surface. He conjectured that “Hoosier” came to America from India by way of England. According to Dunn, the Indian word “huzur” is “a respectful form of address to persons of rank or superiority.” He admitted that it seems like quite a stretch but gave some examples of other words, such as Khaki, that made the same etomological journey.
But as soon as he finished reciting these possibilities he was quick to assure the reader that he wasn’t claiming that these were definite answers, just that they were possibilities,
Voice actor reading from Dunn: It is not my purpose to urge that any one of these suggested possibilities of derivation is preferable to the other, or to assert that there may not be other and more rational ones.
Beckley: The one thing he was sure about was that the word existed before it was used to describe a native Indianan…man, as a born and bred Hoosier, it feels downright blasphemous to use that word.
Beckley: Although many many people have discussed, debated, and disputed the true origin of the word “Hoosier” in the years since Dunn’s 1907 essay, the only work to rival that of Dunn is Jeffrey Graf’s article “The Word ‘Hoosier,’” written for the Indiana University Libraries. He examines Dunn’s work as well as many subsequent scholars who followed in Dunn’s footsteps. Graf’s 100 plus page article is as thorough as it gets – if you want to pursue all the many various theories of the word Hoosier, you can find a link to his article, and all of our sources, in the shownotes. We could probably have a whole podcast dedicated exclusively to exploring the outlandish “Hoosier” theories people have come up with. But, unfortunately, we don’t have time to do that. But we do have time to cover a few of the more…colorful origin stories to come about, though.
Beckley: Frontier Indiana was a rough place that produced rough people. Rough but strong. Some of those rough, strong people found that the daily work of cutting down trees, farming, building houses with their hands, and chopping fire wood didn’t do quite enough to prove their strength to their fellow man. So they fought. They fought at house-raisings and log-rollings. They fought in the fields and in the woods. Those who were particularly adept at this so-called “wrastlin” were referred to as hushers, for they could quell their opponents into silence. One such husher found himself in New Orleans working as a boatmen when he felt the urge to demonstrate his rather remarkable strength. So, he fought not just one, but four men…all at once. And he bested them all. In his enthusiasm, he sprang up, shouting “I’m a Hussher!” But with his accent, it came out sounding more like “I’m a Hoosier!” The story goes that this episode was picked up by some of the New Orleans newspapers and the “Hoosier” pronunciation came to refer to all boatmen from Indiana, and later all people from Indiana.
This next one is my personal favorite theory of how the term Hoosier came into use – in fact, I included this version in a report I did for my 4th grade Indiana history class – it comes to us from the Hoosier poet himself, James Whitcomb Riley. His version of the story includes the same stereotype of a bunch rough frontiersmen fond of fighting as did the “Hussher” theory.
Beckley: These settlers often congregated in taverns to share the news…and maybe a drink or two. When they got a bit into their cups, they always fell to fighting. And what fights they were – so vicious that participants routinely lost bits or their noses and ears. The morning after these ferocious rows, the barkeep would walk through the bar room and, seeing a stray ear on the floor, push it aside with his foot with a careless “Who’s ear?” This became so commonplace that it slowly morphed into “Whose year” and then to “Hoosier.”
With just 65,000 people living Indiana in 23 million acres of Indiana, many people saw Indiana as a land of opportunity in the early years of the state. The opportunity to own land, the opportunity to make a decent living, and the opportunity to start over…all drew people to the state. Families made their way from all parts of the country to settle on the fertile soil of Indiana. And as they traveled those roughhewn roads, those families would sometimes come across a lone cabin in the wilderness.
Beckley: Weather they were looking for shelter, company, or both, often they would approach the cabin with a shout of “Who’s here?” to let the occupants know someone was coming. At this, the door would be opened and the guests welcomed. This scene played out again and again throughout the southern part of the state. Eventually, “Who’s here?” slowly morphed into “Whosere” and later to “Hoosier.” In the course of time, “hoosier” came to describe all people from Indiana.
[“Back home again in Indiana”]
It seems like there is an endless line explanations, each more amusing than the last, all claiming to be the origin of the word Hoosier. All of these theories have one thing in common – they’re almost certainly apocryphal. I mean, the “Whose Ear” theory was said as a joke by Riley and picked up and repeated so often that people began to think of it as a real possibility… and it doesn’t even make sense that you would walk up to someone else’s cabin asking “Who’s here?” Like…the owner of the cabin is there, who else would it be? And when you really think about it, how likely is it that one man yelling something that sounded a bit like Hoosier 700 miles away in New Orleans became a nickname for every single person from Indiana? Seems rather improbable to me.
[Sound of television channels changing with various commercials with the word “Hoosier” in them]
It’s unlikely that we’ll ever know with any certainty exactly where the word “Hoosier” originated, but from the 1986 film “Hoosiers,” widely considered to be one of the best sports movies ever made, to the Indiana University Hoosiers, to the 4,500 businesses with the word “Hoosier” in their names in the state, it’s safe to say that it’s here to stay – in fact, in January, 2017, after a bipartisan effort by Indiana Senators Joe Donnelly and Todd Young, it became official – the U.S. Government Publishing Office updated their Style Manual and changed the demonym of Indiana so that there are, officially, no Indianans in Indiana….only Hoosiers.
Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. We’re proud to announce that THH has been awarded an Award of Merit winner by the Leadership in History awards committee of the American Association of State and Local History. It really is an incredible honor.
Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. The voice of newspapers on the show is Justin Clark. To see the sources for this episode, and all of our episodes, go to blog.history.in.gov and click on Talking Hoosier History at the top. Keep up with us on Facebook at Talking Hoosier History or on Twitter at @TalkHoosierHist. Subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening!
Show Notes for Hoosier: A Brief Overview
Episode Fourteen Show Notes
Dunn, Jacob Piatt. The Word Hoosier. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1904. https://books.google.com/books?id=bgPVAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=The+Word+Hoosier+Indiana+Historical+Society&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiF8KWzqoraAhWG7YMKHbuGAfAQ6AEILTAB#v=onepage&q=The%20Word%20Hoosier%20Indiana%20Historical%20Society&f=false
Graf, Jeffrey. “The Word ‘Hoosier.” Reference Services Department Herman B. Wells Library, Indiana University Libraries – Bloomington. Accessed: https://libraries.indiana.edu/sites/default/files/The%20Word%20Hoosier-Revised-and-Expanded-2018.pdf
Haller, Steve. “The Meanings of Hoosier: 175 Years and Counting.” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, Vol. 20, Number 4, Fall 2008. Accessed: http://images.indianahistory.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p16797coll39/id/4805/rec/47
Piersen, William D. “The Origin of the Word ‘Hoosier’: A New Interpretation.” Indiana Magazine of History, Vol. 91, Issue 2, June 1995. Accessed: https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/imh/article/view/11454/16618
Chronicling Hoosier, accessed May 5, 2018: http://centerfordigschol.github.io/chroniclinghoosier/index.html
Indiana Historical Bureau Website, accessed Mary 1, 2018: https://www.in.gov/history/2612.htm.
Jill Weiss Simins is the producer and sound engineer for Talking Hoosier History. She records the audio, chooses the music and samples, and engineers the mix.
Justin Clark, project assistant with the Hoosier State Chronicles newspaper digitization project, lent his voice to Lincoln’s neighbors and other “extra’s” in the episode.