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Hoosier // is the official demonym for a resident of the U.S. state of Indiana. Although most Americans typically adopt a derivative of the state name (either "Indianan" or "Indianian"), these derivatives are not in official use or proper within Indiana. The origin of the term remains a matter of debate within the state, but "Hoosier" was in general use by the 1840s, having been popularized by Richmond resident John Finley's 1833 poem "The Hoosier's Nest". Indiana adopted the nickname "The Hoosier State" more than 150 years ago.
"Hoosier" is used in the names of numerous Indiana-based businesses and organizations. "Hoosiers" is also the name of the Indiana University athletic teams and seven active and one disbanded athletic conference in the Indiana High School Athletic Association have the word "Hoosier" in their name. As there is no accepted embodiment of a Hoosier, the IU schools are represented through their letters and colors alone.
In addition to "The Hoosier's Nest", the term also appeared in the Indianapolis Journal's "Carrier's Address" on January 1, 1833. There are many suggestions for the derivation of the word, but none is universally accepted.
In 1900, Meredith Nicholson wrote The Hoosiers, an early attempt to study the etymology of the word as applied to Indiana residents. Jacob Piatt Dunn, longtime secretary of the Indiana Historical Society, published The Word Hoosier, a similar attempt, in 1907. Both chronicled some of the popular and satirical etymologies circulating at the time and focused much of their attention on the use of the word in the Upland South to refer to woodsmen, yokels, and rough people. Dunn traced the word back to the Cumbrian hoozer, meaning anything unusually large, derived from the Old English hoo (as at Sutton Hoo), meaning "high" and "hill". The importance of immigrants from northern England and southern Scotland was reflected in numerous placenames including the Cumberland Mountains, the Cumberland River, and the Cumberland Gap. Nicholson defended the people of Indiana against such an association, while Dunn concluded that the early settlers had adopted the nickname self-mockingly and that it had lost its negative associations by the time of Finley's poem.
Johnathan Clark Smith subsequently showed that Nicholson and Dunn's earliest sources within Indiana were mistaken. A letter by James Curtis cited by Dunn and others as the earliest known use of the term was actually written in 1846, not 1826. Similarly, the use of the term in an 1859 newspaper item quoting an 1827 diary entry by Sandford and Son was more likely an editorial comment and not from the original diary. Smith's earliest sources led him to argue that the word originated as a term along the Ohio River for flatboatmen from Indiana and did not acquire its pejorative meanings until 1836, after Finley's poem.
William Piersen, a history professor at Fisk University, argued for a connection to the black Methodist minister Rev. Harry Hosier (c. 1750–1810), who evangelized the American frontier at the beginning of the 19th century as part of the Second Great Awakening. "Black Harry" had been born a slave in North Carolina and sold north to Baltimore, Maryland, before gaining his freedom and beginning his ministry around the end of the American Revolution. He was a close associate and personal friend of Bishop Francis Asbury, the "Father of the American Methodist Church". Dr. Benjamin Rush said that, "making allowances for his illiteracy, he was the greatest orator in America" and his sermons called on Methodists to reject slavery and champion the common working man. Piersen proposed that Methodist communities inspired by his example took or were given a variant spelling of his name (possibly influenced by the "yokel" slang) during the decades after his ministry.
Humorous folk etymologies for the term "hoosier" have a long history, as recounted by Dunn in The Word Hoosier.
One account traces the word to the necessary caution of approaching houses on the frontier. In order to avoid being shot, a traveler would call out from afar to let themselves be known. The inhabitants of the cabin would then reply "Who's here?" which – in the Appalachian English of the early settlers – slurred into "Who'sh 'ere?" and thence into "Hoosier?" A variant of this account had the Indiana pioneers calling out "Who'sh 'ere?" as a general greeting and warning when hearing someone in the bushes and tall grass, to avoid shooting a relative or friend in error.
The poet James Whitcomb Riley facetiously suggested that the fierce brawling that took place in Indiana involved enough biting that the expression "Whose ear?" became notable. This arose from or inspired the story of two 19th-century French immigrants brawling in a tavern in the foothills of southern Indiana. One was cut and a third Frenchman walked in to see an ear on the dirt floor of the tavern, prompting him to slur out "Whosh ear?"
Two related stories trace the origin of the term to gangs of workers from Indiana under the direction of a Mr. Hoosier.
The account related by Dunn is that a Louisville contractor named Samuel Hoosier preferred to hire workers from communities on the Indiana side of the Ohio River like New Albany rather than Kentuckians. During the excavation of the first canal around the Falls of the Ohio from 1826 to 1833, his employees became known as "Hoosier's men" and then simply "Hoosiers". The usage spread from these hard-working laborers to all of the Indiana boatmen in the area and then spread north with the settlement of the state. The story was told to Dunn in 1901 by a man who had heard it from a Hoosier relative while traveling in southern Tennessee. Dunn could not find any family of the given name in any directory in the region or anyone else in southern Tennessee who had heard the story and accounted himself dubious. This version was subsequently retold by Gov. Evan Bayh and Sen. Vance Hartke, who introduced the story into the Congressional Record in 1975, and matches the timing and location of Smith's subsequent research. However, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been unable to find any record of a Hoosier or Hosier in surviving canal company records.
The word "Hoosier" is still used in St. Louis, Missouri, to denote a "yokel" or "white trash". The word is also sometimes encountered in sea shanties such as Shanties from the Seven Seas in reference to its former use to denote cotton-stowers, who would move bales of cotton to and from the holds of ships and force them in tightly by means of jackscrews. "To hoosier" is sometimes still encountered as a verb meaning "to trick" or "to swindle".
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 and the name derives from the largest of them, the Hoosier Manufacturing Co. of New Castle, Indiana. Other Indiana businesses include Hoosier Racing Tire and the Hoosier Bat Company, manufacturer of wooden baseball bats.
These last three points seem to carry the implication that "hoosier" may have been used as an insult in other parts of the country.
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, Geoffrey Nunberg, 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."—Jeffrey Graff, "The Word Hoosier"