Tuesday, February 5, 2008

the origins of "Hoosier"

An interesting article from Bob Hill in the C-J on research about the origins of the term...

While others have dabbled in lesser questions such as the meaning of life and how many angels can balance on the head of a pin, Hanover College English professor Jonathan Clark Smith has zeroed in on The Really Big One: The genesis of the word "Hoosier" as applied to residents of the great state of Indiana.

"I just thought," he said, "it was a mystery that could be solved."

Which he did, at least to some extent -- or, until more research surfaces that could prolong the discussion another 177 years.

Smith has been teaching at Hanover in Southern Indiana since 1974. A Shakespearean scholar with a strong interest in word history, he had accepted the general theory that "Hoosier" was first a southern term for rough, rustic and awkward country types who did fall off turnip wagons.

The theory was that the word migrated to Indiana -- and golly-gee shucks, you can almost hear Jeff Foxworthy becoming a multi-millionaire belting out, "You know you're a Hoosier if. …"

The key to Smith's work was finding the time frame when the word "Hoosier" first appeared.

Previous research indicated it was as "hoesiers" in an 1826 letter written by a man in Missouri to his uncle in Indianapolis. It said, in part, "… the Indiana hoesiers that came out last fall is settled from 2 to 4 milds (miles) of us. …"

The letter indicated Indiana residents were being identified with the "H" word in 1826. Except curators at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis later confirmed the letter was written in 1846.

That information energized Smith -- who began looking for the first time the word Hoosier had appeared in print.

He pulled up a chair at the Indiana State Museum and went to work for weekends at a time.

He found a letter written on Feb. 11, 1831, by a G. S. Murdock in Cincinnati to Gen. John Tipton, an Indian agent serving at Logansport, Ind.

Murdock was looking to win a bid to ship salt, tobacco, iron and steel to Logansport. He promised to do it on his new steamboat, "The Indiana Hoosier."

The letter remains the earliest known reference to "Hoosier." Smith's interpretation was that if the word had been a term of contempt common in the South, Murdock would not have used it. Instead, said Smith, Hoosier must have been a term of pride.

Smith found an editorial in an 1833 Cincinnati newspaper in which the word "Hooshier" was used to describe the "now extinct class of mortals called the Ohio Boatman … and by some caprice which can never be explained, the appellation Hooshier became confined solely to such boatman as had their homes on the Indiana shore …"

Ah yes, the Hoosier Boatman. Yet Smith explained that due to the statewide controversy over building a canal from the Wabash River to Lake Erie -- and the boatman and river connections -- the word "Hoosier" went from little usage to common usage in just three years, 1830 to 1833.

So Smith's research does set the time frame for the first usage of Hoosier -- even if its etymology is still up in the air.

The possibilities are endless. Smith leans to the theory that the boatmen were great fighters, could "hush up" people, were thus called "hushers" -- only a short step to Hoosiers.

If he's right, who could have imagined all of farmland Indiana being historically linked to riverboats?

Hoosier was a word born of pride -- not stereotype.

Smith couldn't find any negative connotation until 1836 -- apparently about the time the first "Who's yer mother?' question was raised.

But at least the word, itself, appears to be home grown.


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