Jeffrey Graf published, on the website of Indianan Notes and Queries, an exhaustive survey (revised in February, 2007) of the surmises about the nickname Hoosier. In 1995 William D. Piersen, and in 2007 Jonathan Clark Smith devoted articles to Hoosier’s early days (both appeared in the Indiana Magazine of History), and I am returning to this chestnut mainly because all three authors, though extremely well-informed, missed a work that, in my opinion, deserves attention.
The starting point for everyone interested in the history of Indiana’s nickname is a brochure with the title The Word Hoosier By Jacob Piatt Dunn and John Finley By Mrs. Sarah A. Wrigley (His Daughter). Indiana Historical Publications, volume IV, number 2. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1907, 29pp. John Finley was the author of the poem The Hoosier’s Nest (1833) that seems to have made the soubriquet recognized by a wide audience. The poem takes up three pages of small print. The painstaking research was carried out by Dunn, who knew most of the silly conjectures, as well as the few plausible hypotheses, on the etymology of Hoosier and offered an explanation of his own. He had a healthy attitude toward etymological folklore, for he realized how little trust can be put into stories of the type “I was there and know the facts.” Thus, in 1929 Oscar D. Short brought out his recollections in the Indiana Magazine of History (volume 25) that begin so: “There has been a tradition in our family, which I have known since boyhood, that Aaron Short, an older brother of my grandfather, gave to the inhabitants of Indiana the name ‘Hoosier’.” The story appeared four years after Dunn’s death, but, if he had read it, he would have found nothing new for himself in it: a very strong man, so Short recounts, was victorious in a fight, jumped up, and shouted: “Hurrah for the Hoosier” (perhaps he tried to say: husher or hussar). Both versions—of Hoosier going back to husher or being a “corruption” of hussar—were familiar to Dunn. The editors of the Indiana Magazine of History had no illusions about the verisimilitude of Short’s recollections; yet they decided to add a new piece of legendary material to the Hooseriana. The authors of fibs like Short’s believe in them wholeheartedly, but such is all folklore. Even the storytellers who know the most fantastic fairy tales, when asked whether they think that enchanted castles and boys becoming ravens at the will of an evil stepmother exist, tend to answer evasively that, of course, such things do not happen here, but at one time and elsewhere…
Smith accords Short’s story a measure of respect. However, Hoosier, as far as we can judge, has always been pronounced with the vowel of hoo. For this reason alone, the suspicious word husher “stiller” (a person so strong that he can “hush, still” anyone) is an unlikely etymon (source) of Hoosier, and could hussar have been such an active word in the man’s vocabulary that he would recall it in midair? It is also Smith’s contention that Hoosier reflects “local pride” rather than “southern scorn.” The OED quotes from a letter allegedly written in 1826, the first extant text believed to have the word in question. As it seems, the date is wrong, and we have to accept Smith’s conclusion that there is no documented use of Hoosier prior to the thirties. But his other contention, namely, that Hoosier emerged with reference to the Indiana boatmen and, far from being a “slur,” showed how people reveled in being called Hoosiers, is harder to accept.
The traditional theory has it that Hoosier originated in the South as a term of contempt, a word like yokel, hayseed, rube, bumpkin, hillbilly, clodhopper, jake, backwoodsman, and dozens of others; that in Indiana it lost its offensive connotations; and that it retained its negative sense outside the state. This reconstruction agrees with what we know about such situations. Peripheral areas usually preserve archaic features, be it phonetics, grammar, or vocabulary. The adoption by political parties and religious groups of the opprobrious names that in the beginning their enemies and denigrators coined in contempt has often been recorded: such is the history of Tory, Whig, and Quaker. The ties of Hoosier to the rest of the South are too numerous to be ignored, and outside Indiana references to those who are called Hoosiers are never complimentary.
Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) treats the word in depth, and Graf has, naturally, consulted this work. Hoosier can mean “a rustic, especially in such combinations as country hoosier and mountain hoosier; an unmannerly or objectionable person; a White person considered to be objectionable, especially because of racial prejudice; an inexperienced or incompetent person among those skilled in a particular field, especially logging.” The verb hoosier “to be a farmer” and hoosier up “to work incompetently; to slow down or shirk on a job, usually on purpose” also exist. According to Smith, Hoosier came to mean “an inept person, a bad worker, etc.” later, and it is true that the word’s pejorative uses in written and printed documents do not antedate 1836. Yet the time gap is minimal, and slang makes its way into books and letters sporadically. Also, the connection between Hoosier and “Indiana boatman” will appear strong only if we disregard all other contexts. On the whole, it is easier to accept the fact of late attestation than of the development from “a doughty boatman” to “hillbilly; jerk.”
Several times those who investigated the origin of Hoosier have mentioned a similarly sounding family name and made it responsible for the rise of the Indiana nickname. Their hypotheses (Piersen is among the most recent advocates of one of them) do not go far and carry little conviction. But in 1999 R. Hooser published an article in Eurasian Studies Yearbook, pp. 224-231, and this is the article even Graf missed. The author documents the history of his extended family. The Hausers came to the United States from Alsace. In their dialect the diphthong designated in spelling by au had the value of Engl. oo in hoo. Consequently, Hauser and Hooser are variants of the same name. According to R. Hauser, the Hoosers migrated to Indiana from Salem, NC and were mocked for their beliefs and customs. He does not explain under what circumstances the nickname was extended to the rest of the inhabitants of the state, why the meaning of the slur was forgotten exactly where it should have been best remembered, and why such an obvious origin did not occur to the people who wrote about the subject in the thirties of the 19th century, but all etymologies of Hoosier are marred by similar inconsistencies (hence the never-ending debate). Especially baffling is the circumstance that even in Finley’s days no one knew why Hoosiers are called this, unless we “buy” the husher theory. Nicknames are invented to belittle or tease their bearers, even when applied to kings: consider such cognomens and Harald Bluetooth and Charles the Bald. The case is certainly not closed, but, if the first Hoosiers were the Hausers and “foreigners,” we begin to understand why there was no love lost between them and their new surroundings, why they chose Indiana as their place of residence, and why other southerners stick to what seems to be the word’s original meaning.
It is not for an outsider to solve the question that puzzled so many specialists in Indiana history, but if this publication makes R. Hauser’s article part of the debate, it will have served its purpose. I will add only a few phonetic details. DARE records the following spelling variants of Hoosier: hoogie, hoojy, hoodger, hoojer, hushier, and hooshur; from older sources hoosher has come down to us. They reflect two pronunciations: hooser and hoosier (-sier as in hosier). If the etymon is Hooser, a third variant emerges. All three can be reconciled. The use of sh for s is old in the history of English. The roots of banish, nourish, bushel, and so forth had final s in French, but they were borrowed with sh. This alternation can also be observed in living speech. In Minnesota, people say groshery for grocery. The same alternation affects the voiced partners of s and sh. For instance (drawing on what one hears in Minneapolis), Fraser is pronounced Frasier (we have Fraser Hall on campus, so that Fraser is a high frequency word where I live). It takes an effort to convince students that the name of Sir James Frazer, the author of The Golden Bough, should rhyme with razor. Hooser, that is, Hoozer, would have become Hoosier, as Fraser became Frasier.
Dunn’s attempt to derive Hoosier from a word recorded in Cumberland, with the resulting meaning “a large man,” has little to recommend it: the connection is tenuous, and the original Hoosiers hardly got their name for their physique. The other explanations rarely go beyond exercises in folk etymology. I very much hope to get numerous responses to this blog. They will probably attempt to demolish my cautious defense of the Hooser theory. This is fine; etymology is a battleground. But, if I dare, I would like to ask my prospective opponents not to write anything before they have read the articles mentioned above. The easiest way to find Graf’s survey is to Google Hoosier (the work will appear at once) or to use the website of the journal Indiana Notes and Queries: http://www.indiana.edu/~/librcsd/internet/hoosier.html (this journal, I believe, is an occasional online publication).
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 protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”