By Anatoly Liberman
Last week I promised to look at my files and perhaps write about the origin of the word hobo. As I expected, I discovered no revelations in my database, except for one reference that cannot be known to many. But this oversight by lexicographers is of little consequence, because our best dictionaries prefer to play safe and say only: “Origin unknown,” with an occasional variation: “Origin uncertain.” This variation means: “Several conjectures exist, but we cannot choose the best one.” “Origin unknown” leaves no hope whatsoever.
Only two things are “certain” and “known” about hobo: the word was noticed around 1890, and it emerged in American English. Hobos were migratory workers in the western (perhaps, to be more precise, in the northwestern) parts of the United States. The cruelest definition of hobo appeared in the 1893 edition of The Standard Dictionary (Funk and Wagnalls) and stayed in this reference work for decades: “An idle, shiftless wandering workman, ranking scarcely above the tramp.” However, in this case the ranking is important: hobos worked, tramps worked only when made to, while bums did not work at all (quite a hierarchy). As usual, the word emerged suddenly, spread far and wide, and became the object of endless folk etymological speculation. Nowadays, it is enough to Google for “hobo: etymology,” to see some of the conjectures that have circulated for years. Before we enjoy tramping the road that leads nowhere, I would like to make a few introductory remarks.
Hobo is slang, which makes the task of discovering its origin especially hard. To complicate matters, it is American slang; consequently, it need not be of English descent. A word for “migratory worker” must have been coined either by such workers (then it was a facetious or self-deprecating term) or by those who despised and persecuted them (then the term was derogatory). Words synonymous with hobo are many. Richard Thornton, the author, among others, of An American Glossary, quotes from the New York Evening Post (August, 1910): “It puzzles [the ordinary citizen of N.Y.] to have the country cousin clutch his arm and enquire whether that rough-looking customer coming out of a Chatham Square saloon is a dip, a yegg, a stall, a moll-buzzer, a Fagin, or a gun.” Those who think they know the origin of hobo may occupy themselves with yegg and the rest. Hobos are in good company, etymologically speaking and otherwise.
We will see how easy it is to invent some etymology of hobo, but the person who claims that the riddle has been solved should be able to answer two questions: “What evidence, rather than the author’s resourcefulness, supports the hypothesis?” and “Why did the word become widely known in California (just there) by the early nineties (just then)?” Those are the minimal requirements for the theory of any linguistic change. Unless we can explain why the phenomenon under investigation arose where and when it did, we have no right to speak up. Since etymology habitually attracts the attention of lay people, they often believe that any ingenious suggestion has the right to exist or that one can guess the origin of a word by developing a feel for it. This is a dangerous illusion. Tracing words to their sources is a scholarly pursuit. Let us suppose that we are trying to find out the origin of the word devil. Here are a few excellent possibilities. 1) There once was a vicious man called Deville. The crimes he committed were so terrible that his name became synonymous with Satan. 2) The devil is evil, and this is how the word arose (letters come and go, so never mind initial d: compare Ned from Ed and whilst from while; a school teacher I knew—his name was Ned—used to send his students to the room acrosst the hall). 3) The devil makes people deviate from the straight and narrow path of virtue. Devil is, obviously, dev- (from deviate) plus ill. 4) The devil is resilient but ugly. His color is livid, for he has been beaten and bruised innumerable times. Devil is livid pronounced from right to left and slightly altered (people have many reasons to avoid the use of the word devil: compare Old Nick and other euphemisms like it). Hypotheses of this type (of course, not with regard to devil) circulated widely in the Middle Ages. Some etymologies of hobo are not much better than those of devil offered above. I will list them briefly. Some look respectable, others are downright ridiculous.
“…as a tramp begs for food or money and uses a wheedling voice to obtain it, the word may represent hoboe, a variant of hautboy…, a wind instrument”; “hobo is only a vulgarized hello beau and was first applied to the knight of ‘side-door Pullmans’ by brakemen who were used to hearing them say to each other ho, beau!”; “perhaps derived from hoe boys, an early name for migratory agricultural laborers”; “according to some, the word is from the Latin homo bonus, or good man; others say that the word was first used after the Civil War in the United states, where soldiers walking home through the country replied, ‘Homeward bound,’ when questioned as to their destination. From homeward bound to hobo seems a far cry, yet is scarcely more involved than that given by some lexicographers who assert that the strolling musicians who played on the hautboy were the first hoboes”; “ [t]he mail carriers on the Oregon Short Line used to call ‘ho, boy!’ when they were delivering mail. Gradually these men came to be called hoboys. Then those who traveled along the tracks, not carrying mail, came to be so called. In its final stage of development, the -y was dropped and the word used indiscriminately to designate vagrants”; “[i]n the course of my study of the Japanese language for military purposes, I came upon the word hobo. In the Japanese, hobo is plural form of ho ‘side’. In the plural it takes the meaning ‘all sides’ or ‘everywhere’. As the meaning seemed to fall in so closely with the current American idea of hobo, I at once felt that here was the original form of the word…. The word originated on the western coast of the United States. This lends further color to the theory of its Japanese origin…” (note the phrase I at once felt).
Others trace hobo to Engl. dialectal hawbuck “country bumpkin” and hawbaw “clumsy or coarse fellow, lout, which may be forerunners of hobo.” Then there are derivations from the Manhattan intersection of Houston and Bowey, where itinerant people used to congregate; from Hoboken, NJ, a terminus for many railroad lines in the 19th century; from hopping boxcars, homeless body, and even homeless bohemian. The last batch reminds me of the derivation of hijack from hi, Jack! Even if hobos greeted one another with ho, bo’ or something similar, it does not follow that this is how hobo came into being, for once hobo emerged, it could have been dissected to produce a jocular greeting. Hobo is such a convenient word, with its two rhyming syllables, a word like hobnob, ragtag, kowtow, and so forth! Its -bo might have become a kind of suffix (compare the use of present day Engl. -gate for any political scandal, however minor, and -burger for foods) and thus contributed to the rise of jazzbo, understood as jazz boy.
Above, I mentioned a work on hobo, not widely known to etymologists and dictionary makers. I meant an article by Massimo Poetto (Acme 27, 1974, 273-78). Acme is a journal published in Milan, and the article is in Italian. Poetto suggests that hobo is hob “rustic” with the suffix -o. Even though this is hardly a satisfactory solution (hob does not seem to be among the common American synonyms for hillbilly), Poetto may have been right in looking on hobo as both hob-o and ho-bo and aligning it with words like weirdo and kiddo. Certain factors are not strong enough to effect the birth of a new word but they may go a long way toward expediting its appearance. Perhaps hobo is hob-o. However, apart from the fact that in this etymology hob remains unexplained (or so I think), we are left with our main questions: why in the western part of the United States and why around 1890.
This post failed to clarify the history of hobo, but perhaps it cured some hotheads of offering nonsense dished up as wise musings. If I succeeded in this moderate endeavor, my essay has not been written for nothing.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”