While researching the weird world of demonyms—words used to describe a person from or property of a place, like New Yorker or Indonesian—I came across one that was so weird, so baffling, that I kept it out of the original piece. The word “Hoosier,” which today is the demonym used to describe people from the state of Indiana, is a mystery nearing its second century. It is one of the best-known irregular demonyms for American states, along with “Yankee,” referring to someone from New York (and sometimes expanded from that into the entire Northeast), and “Buckeye,” which refers to someone from Ohio. But if you ask a Hoosier where that word comes from, you’re likely to come away with any number of apocryphal stories. Ask an expert, and they’ll tell you the truth: nobody knows what the word means, or where it came from.
Most irregular demonyms—that is, words that aren’t derived from the actual place name, adding a suffix to turn, say, California into Californian—started out as insults. A scornful name for the residents of a place will often be reclaimed by those people as a source of pride. “Yankee,” for example, comes, most linguists agree, from New York’s Dutch roots; while New York was called New Amsterdam, many residents had names like Jan and Kees. After repeatedly being called a bunch of JanKees, New Yorkers eventually took ownership over the word. Today “Yankee” is hardly a negative term—at least, not in New York.
Hoosier followed a similar path, with the added twist that nobody quite knows where it came from. “It definitely is not settled,” says Kristi Palmer. Along with her colleagues at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Ted Polley and Caitlin Pollock, Palmer used text analysis on hundreds of years of newspapers to create Chronicling Hoosier, a project aimed at documenting and investigating the word.
But the Chronicling Hoosier team concluded that the use of the word Hoosier lies in oral tradition, which means it’s unlikely to show up in print around the time of its conception. (Anyone trying to study profanity runs into the same problem.) “If anybody was to find it, I think it’d be buried in a diary somewhere,” says Palmer.
The earliest confirmed printing of the word was in a column in the Indianapolis Journal, published on January 1, 1833, but that wasn’t the first time the word was used. Both in that article and in other uses around that time, writers did not explain the word, which implies that it was a term that would be understood by the majority of readers. But it gets even weirder: “Really early on, even into the 1840s, you're already seeing people writing in newspapers trying to track down the origin of Hoosier,” says Palmer.
Even earlier than that, in October of 1833, an article originally published by the Cincinnati Republican posed the question. As dug up by Jeffrey Graf at Indiana University:
The appellation of Hooshier has been used in many of the Western States, for several years, to designate, in a good natural way, an inhabitant of our sister state of Indiana. Ex- Governor Ray has lately started a newspaper in Indiana, which he names "The Hoshier". Many of our ingenious native philologists have attempted, though very unsatisfactorily, to explain this somewhat singular term.
At that point, the spelling hadn’t been nailed down (sometimes changing even in the span of two sentences!) As far back as we can see evidence of the word, the question remained: Where does it come from? What is this word?
Indiana bills itself as the “Crossroads of America,” thanks to its junction of several major highways. It’s also one of the 13 states to fall within multiple time zones, and maintains several distinct regions. You can see this pretty easily in its linguistics, which are surprisingly split. Its central and northern reaches boast a typical Great Lakes accent, not dissimilar from neighboring Illinois or Ohio, but in its southern stretches, near the Kentucky border, you’re more likely to find a Southern accent.
In comparison to its Midwestern neighbors, Indiana maintained a frontier attitude even after becoming a state in 1816. Indianapolis, the capital and largest city, was essentially bare land into the 1820s. But by the 1830s, the state’s strategic trade location began to attract attention. Thanks to its extensive border with the Ohio River, Indiana easily connects to the Mississippi River and down through to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico; a series of canals and, later, railroads connected it through the Great Lakes to the East Coast.
The word Hoosier is connected around this time to riverboat culture, men working on boats to move products and equipment around the country. “We absolutely saw this in the data visualization,” says Palmer. “You can see along the rivers the use of the word Hoosier is pretty heavy.” The riverboat men, says Palmer, “were rough, they were uncouth.” Many of the folk tales of the origin of Hoosier come back to a sort of rural toughness and grit—at least, that’s the positive view. The more negative view would be that Hoosier is often explained as coming from some scornful cousin of words like redneck or hillbilly.
The Dictionary of American Regionalism, in 1965, said that Hoosier is regularly used to mean “a countryfied person.” Around this time, the word sometimes referred specifically to those from Indiana, but not always; often, especially for Southerners, it was simply a derogatory word for someone from the country. A hick.
Most of the stories proposing to explain the origin of Hoosier make sense from this point of view. One story, which Palmer, a Hoosier herself, said she heard growing up, was about backwoodsmen squatting in cabins in the country. When surveyors came around, the person in the cabin, not wanting to explain the illegal living situation, would shout out the front door: “Who’s ‘ere?”
Another, similar one: A group of riverboat men are out at a bar. There’s a fight, and somebody bites someone else’s ear off. This was such a common occurrence that the next day, someone might walk into the bar, nudge the ear with a toe, and casually inquire: “Whose ear?”
Or there’s the one that says Indiana men were so tough that if there was a bar fight, they’d be the ones to call to “hush” the problem. They were the “hushers.” Hoosier was often spelled “hoosher” in the early days, to add some verisimilitude.
Other explanations are more etymological in nature. Perhaps it comes from the Cumbrian word “hoozer,” meaning something unusually large (and often a hill). The fact that Indiana’s average elevation is 760 feet above sea level, and that its tallest peak is 1,257 feet above sea level, makes it seem unlikely that anyone would think of hills in Indiana.
One columnist recently proposed that the word is a mangled form of the French word “rougeur.” It does sound sort of similar! That proposal suggested that the word, which signifies redness, might be some sort of sister word to “redneck.” The French were the first European settlers in what would become Indiana, though by 1763, when France handed over Indiana to the British in the Treaty of Paris, few French settlers remained, and the French presence in Indiana is not especially strong.
In 1995, history professor William Piersen suggested that the name might come from the Reverend Harry Hosier, alternately spelled as Hossier or Hoosier. The Reverend was a traveling preacher, praised as one of the great orators of the late 1700s, and moved throughout the Northeast and Midwest. Piersen suggests that Harry Hosier’s influence on the word Hoosier is largely unknown and undocumented as the Reverend was black, and thus his history on the 90 percent white state of Indiana hushed. The Chronicling Hoosier researchers say there’s not much evidence for this theory, but that the lack of evidence also sort of reinforces the entire theory. If evidence was swept under the rug, the fact that you can’t find it is hardly surprising.
By the mid-19th century, there’s evidence that the word was already being reclaimed by Hoosiers. Local politicians would identify as “proud Hoosiers.” Around the turn of the century, an Indiana furniture maker began marketing “Hoosier cabinets,” a distinctive three-part cabinet with a table surface and a hutch. They were extremely popular all around the country, which probably helped remove the earlier, negative connotations of the word to people who knew it. For people who’d never heard the word, in the major cities of the East and West, it might have been their first introduction to Hoosier culture: a handsome, sturdy, useful piece of furniture.
The Indiana University sports teams named themselves the Hoosiers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and went on to become some of the most successful college sports franchises nationwide. Basketball, in particular, has become the state’s calling card; despite the fact that cities disproportionately produce basketball players, when adjusted for population, Indiana has one of the highest rates of NBA players per million of any state, and all without a city ranking in the top 10 in population. That brings us to 1986, and the movie Hoosiers. The story of a small-town Indiana high school basketball team was a huge hit, regularly ranked among the best sports movies ever made. It was even selected for preservation, as an essential American movie, by the Library of Congress.
That movie, and the success of proud Hoosier Larry Bird around the same time, gave the U.S. yet another association for the word Hoosier. Small town, sure. Rural, white, with everything that came with it. But proud, too, and tough. And weirdly good at basketball.