I’d like to start this post by relaying that I am a proud member of the Indiana Historical Society (IHS). If you live in Indianapolis and haven’t been there, you’ve made a grave mistake. But you can still fix this. If you live in another part of the state, I highly recommend you make it a point to visit next time you’re in the capital city. It’s a tremendous facility, and there is much to be experienced there.
That said, every Indiana native has undoubtedly contemplated the meaning of the word “Hoosier,” and myriad theories have been offered. I once lived in Wyoming for a few years, and had a coworker from Missouri. She explained to me how the term was used in her home state as an insult to describe someone as being somewhat of a backwoods hillbilly. So naturally, I sabotaged her desk chair and had a good laugh when she fell over… no no, of course I didn’t, that wouldn’t be a very “Hoosiery” thing to do. (I simply and calmy explained to her that in actuality, Hoosiers are the best damn people on earth.)
At any rate, this post on the IHS web site is one of the more comprehensive looks I’ve seen. Which theory do you believe?
How did Indiana get its nickname as “The Hoosier State?” And how did people from Indiana come to be called “Hoosiers?” There are many different theories about how the word Hoosier came to be and how it came to have such a connection with the state of Indiana.
One of the earliest known uses of the term is found in an 1827 letter that states, “There is a yankee trick for you – done up by a Hoosier.” Other early uses provide some clues about the meaning of the word. In 1831, Gen. John Tipton received a proposal from a businessman offering to name his boat the “Indiana Hoosier” if Tipton would give him business in the area. Sarah Harvey, a Quaker from Richmond, explained in an 1835 letter to her relatives, “old settlers in Indiana are called ‘Hooshers’ and the cabins they first live in ‘Hoosher nests’ . . .”
The word “Hoosier” was widely used by the 1830s. Around this time, John Finley of Richmond wrote a poem called The Hoosier’s Nest, which was widely read. He wrote the word as “hoosher” and did not explain its meaning, which leads historians to believe that Finley felt his readers would already know and understand the word. Finley wrote, “With men of every hue and fashion, Flock to this rising ‘Hoosher’ nation.”
So, what does the word mean? In 1848, Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms defined “Hoosier” as “A nickname given at the west, to natives of Indiana.” In John Finley’s poem, the word “Hoosher” seems to refer less to the pioneers of Indiana and more to the qualities he thought they possessed, like self-reliance and bravery.
No one seems to know how the word “Hoosier” came to be. Some people think it was meant to mock Indiana as a rough, backwoods and backwards place. Others think that early settlers used the term with pride to describe themselves as a hearty, courageous group. One historian, Jacob Piatt Dunn, even suggested that the word “Hoosier” originally referred to boatmen who lived on the Indiana shore. We may never know for sure, but research and debate are likely to continue about this mysterious word.
The following theories and stories about the origin of the word “Hoosier” are known to be false:
- It comes from the word Hoosa, which means American Indian maize or corn.
- Hoosier’s Men was a term used for Indiana employees of a canal contractor named Hoosier.
- “Who’s ear?” – Writer James Whitcomb Riley joked that this question, supposedly posed by early Indiana settlers following tavern fights which had resulted in someone’s ear being cut off and left on the floor, eventually became the word “Hoosier.”
- “Who’s yer/here?” – This was supposedly the way early Indiana settlers would respond to a knock on their cabin doors. The story goes that it was eventually shortened to “Hoosier?”
- “Who’s your [relative]?” – Again, legend has it that this question was eventually shortened to “Hoosier?”