Most people know that a Hoosier is a native of Indiana. But where does the term come from and what does it mean? The answer is an unsatisfying “origin unknown.”
The earliest known use of the term dates to 1827, in a diary entry from 14 July:
There is a Yankee trick for you—done by a Hoosier.
The diary entry was published in the Samuel J. Cox’s 1860 Recollections of the Early Settlement of the Wabash Valley. Given the difference in dates between the original diary and the 1860 publication, there is some doubt as to the accuracy of the citation. The earliest clearly attested use dates to 11 February 1831 in a letter from a G.L. Murdock:
Our Boat will [be] named the Indiana Hoosier.1
Hoosier also has the sense of an uneducated, rural yokel, a rustic. Some believe that this is actually the original sense and that it later specialized to mean someone from Indiana. But this rustic sense can only be unambiguously dated to 1836, after the appearance of the Indiana sense. From Spirit of the Times, 15 October of that year:
After waiting almost as long as the Hoosier did for salt river to run by that he might pass over dry, I at last caught an opening.2
Both the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition and the Historical Dictionary of American Slang reference a 1949 article in the Chicago Tribune that reprints an 1826 letter that uses the term, but this is in error. The letter is actually from 1846 and the Tribune “corrected” the spelling the word, which was hoesier in the original letter.3
In 1919, historian J.P. Dunn proposed that Hoosier came from a Cumberland dialectical term hoozer, meaning something large or big—literally a big hill. This explanation is often repeated, but it is almost certainly false. There is only a single attestation of the British term, in an 1899 word list of the Cumberland dialect, well after the term was established in the US. There are no known uses of hoozer in America.4
1Fred Shapiro, “Correction of ‘Hoosier’ First Use in OED,” ADS-L, 1 Feb 2007.
2Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 2, H-O, edited by J.E. Lighter (New York: Random House, 1997), 148.
3Shapiro, “Correction of ‘Hoosier.’”
4HDAS, v. 2, H-O, 148.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton