What's a Hoosier?

Finally, a place to point your friends when they ask that burning question …


What’s a Hoosier illustration

What's a Hoosier illustration

Originally published July/August 1992

My friend Wendy Citron may have put it best. A native Hoosier now splitting her time between California and Illinois, Wendy thinks Hoosier is a "stupid term" because "nobody knows what it means."

Sure, historians, poets, folklorists, politicians, and plain ol' Hoosier folk have offered plenty of theories. And certainly the term conjures up images as diverse — from Hoosier basketball players to the Hoosier Dome, from smokestacks in Gary to cornfields near Lafayette — as the state's residents themselves.

But the more I've mulled over the various theories, the more I've come to agree with Wendy: nobody knows what the term Hoosier means. Many of the tales of its origin are colorful but unlikely, and the modern-day connotations vary widely.

In fact, the origin of the word is rooted so deeply in the history of the state that its original meaning probably will never be recovered.

"I think people from various disciplines have tried again and again — including historians and people who study names. I decided some time ago we'll never know," says IUB history professor James Madison, MA'68, PhD'72, author of The Indiana Way: A State History and editor of the Indiana Magazine of History. "I can't imagine what it is we could find that would give us a definitive answer."

Even so, Indiana historians take care to review the various theories of its origin, and some hail the term as a defining characteristic of its people.

"In the beginning was the word," begins Howard H. Peckham's Indiana: A Bicentennial History. "And the word was Hoosier."

Local Color

As Peckham states — and most Hoosier historians seem to agree — the historical explanations are "more ingenious than real."

Still, the many theories are fascinating in their diversity. Take the one that has a contractor in 1825 named either Samuel Hoosier or Hoosher. His workers, who helped build a canal on the Ohio River, were predominantly from Indiana. They were called "Hoosier's men" or "Hoosiers."

A more colorful tale has the word deriving from the phrase fearful early settlers called out when startled by a knock on their cabin door: "Who's here?" — a call that over time degenerated into Hoosier.

And then there's the tongue-in-cheek explanation of Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley, who related the term to the roughness and ferocity of the state's early residents. Hoosier pioneers fought so violently, Riley contended, that noses were bitten off and eyes jabbed out during these brawls. Hoosier, said Riley, descends from the question posed by a stranger after entering a southern Indiana tavern and pushing a piece of human flesh with his boot toe: "Who's ear?"

Not nearly so clever but perhaps more plausible is the suggestion by Peckham and others that the term may derive from "hoozer" — a word that in the Cumberland dialect of Old England means "high hills."

"By extension, it was attached to a hill-dweller or highlander and came to suggest roughness and uncouthness," Peckham states. "Thus, throughout the Southeast in the eighteenth century, 'Hoosier' was used generally to describe a backwoodsman, especially an ignorant boaster, with an overtone of crudeness and even lawlessness."

That theory has won the most favor from Warren Roberts, MA'50, PhD'53, an IUB folklore professor who has shown how family surnames may have brought this form of Hoosier from Britain to its Midwest resting place.

A series of letters in The Wall Street Journal in 1987 gave many of these same theories about the origin of the term. The final letter on the subject came from then-Gov. Robert D. Orr, LLD'85, who declared that the origin of the term should remain a mystery. Concluded the governor: "Those unfortunate souls who, for some reason, live elsewhere may continue to speculate as to the origin of our name; and we Hoosiers will continue to enjoy their doing so."

Whatever its origin, historians agree that the nickname for Indiana residents was popularized in the 1800s by novels such as Edward Eggleston's The Hoosier School-Master, by Riley's poetry, and by newspaper articles that used it. As a result, although its historical roots may never be discovered, Hoosier is perhaps the most widely recognized state nickname. But even this modern meaning is ambiguous, and the word's use ranges from complimentary to derisive, depending on who is using it.

Hoosier Pride

"To me, you have to be born into it to be a Hoosier," says Carol Bowers, an IUB senior majoring in psychology and journalism. "If you live someplace else all your life, you can come to Indiana and learn to be a Hoosier, but it will never be a part of you." For Bowers, who grew up in the southern Indiana town of Salem, the term conjures up pleasant images of small-town life. These are the kinds of places, she says, where everybody knows your name and greets you with sincerity.

"I think small-town Indiana is like no other place on earth," she says. "To me, a Hoosier is someone who was born here and lives here and loves it."

Others are more optimistic about the chances of becoming an adopted Hoosier. "To me, it seems like another Midwesterner could be transplanted to Indiana and be fairly relaxed," says Ellen Kessler, an IUB graduate student from Connecticut. "I think people from the East Coast and from the West would have a harder time. Maybe their kids could be Hoosiers."

Others define the word with a list of values that seem part of the Hoosiers they know: traditional, conservative, family-oriented, relatively self-sufficient, and hard-working. It doesn't take the conscientious newcomer very long to learn the nuances. Blaise Cronin, dean of the School of Library and Information Science, grew up in Ireland and lived in England and Scotland before moving to Indiana last year.

"In the year I've been here, the term has been used frequently and always seems to strike a chord, a resonance," Cronin says. He believes the word conveys pride, a powerful sense of community, a lack of pretense, and a sense of the seasons.

Hoosier Hick

But while most Indiana residents speak of being Hoosiers with pride, it's not unanimously a compliment. Some of the negative connotations traced by Peckham to "hoozer" seem to have survived. Some Indiana natives, in fact, say they dropped the term after moving out of state, finding that their new friends associated Hoosiers with roughness and stupidity.

"People think of Hoosiers as a little backwards — as not quite out of the woods — but that's not right," says Velma Carmichael, assistant for special projects for IU's Folklore Institute.

As a U.S. senator in 1987, former Vice President Dan Quayle, JD'74, assailed the negative images of the word. As Quayle and Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) bickered playfully on the Senate floor about which state's basketball team would win the NCAA championships, D'Amato quipped that the dictionary definition of Hoosier proved IU would bungle the job and allow Syracuse to triumph.

Quayle quickly fired off a letter to William A. Llewellyn, president of Merriam-Webster Inc. According to the definition in Webster's Third International Dictionary, Hoosier means not merely a native or resident of Indiana but also "an awkward, unhandy, or unskilled person, especially an ignorant rustic" and "to loaf on or botch a job." Surely, Quayle urged, the dictionary should reflect the more flattering side of the term — its suggestion of widespread friendliness and hospitality — or at least the long debate over its history.

Llewellyn responded that dictionary editors don't choose definitions but only reflect usage. And he assured Quayle that the term shouldn't "be taken to mean that inhabitants of the state are inherently awkward or rustic or anything like that." Quayle clearly considered the Hoosiers' last-minute win over Syracuse the best answer to D'Amato. After the victory, he introduced a non-binding resolution in the Senate defining a Hoosier as "someone who is quick, smart, resourceful, skillful, a winner, unique, and brilliant."

A Mixed Heritage

But non-binding resolutions aside, the term still struggles for respect.

"One interesting thing I've noticed in my undergraduate classes is how people from the southern part of Indiana call themselves Hoosiers and claim it with pride," says John McDowell, chairman of the IU Folklore Institute. "People from the northern part of the state often don't call themselves Hoosiers, and they're embarrassed by the term."

McDowell notes that the term's connotations correspond with other differences — topography, climate, settlement patterns — that differentiate northern and southern Indiana. "What I've found is that for the people from the northern part of the state, the term means images of the backwoods — sort of 'redneck' — the southern bumpkin stereotype or the Brown County kind of rural character, and they don't identify with that. They see themselves as being more cosmopolitan and urban," McDowell observes.

"On the other hand," he continues, "the kids from the southern areas talk about being a Hoosier — and with pride. To them, it means 'grassroots,' 'down home,' and 'good community.' It's more about values."

Patrick Furlong, professor of history at IUSB, agrees with McDowell. "To those in northern Indiana, the term does not come naturally," says Furlong, the author of Indiana: An Illustrated History. "I am not comfortable with the term Hoosier except historically. It just doesn't feel right to me."

Jokes about Hoosiers can be fun — as long as they are made from one Hoosier to another, Madison notes.

"I claim to be a Hoosier," he says. "I've lived here almost half my life. I get upset when outsiders make derogatory comments about Hoosiers. I think that may be a good operational definition of whether you're a Hoosier."

What's a Hoosier?

What's a Hoosier? It's clear the mystery is a long way from being solved, but before I give up for good, I turn to my secret source.

Donald F. Carmony, MA'31, PhD'40, is an IU professor emeritus of history — and my grandfather. Journalistic objectivity aside, I'd believe my grandfather if he told me he'd cracked the Hoosier dilemma.

But instead, my grandfather talks about the virtue of not knowing. The word Hoosier, as McDowell notes, is itself a part of our folklore. How we define it, own up to it, and mock it is a fascinating picture of ourselves. The legends we have created to explain it are more Hoosier than reality ever could be.

And my grandfather, named Hoosier historian by the Indiana Historical Society, knows when to leave a good mystery alone.

"When I chaired the state sesquicentennial convention from 1959 to 1967, I was asked that question many times by people," he says. "And I learned something very interesting. I soon learned they didn't want me to tell what I thought. So I'd pause and I'd hesitate and they'd tell me what they thought, which is exactly what they wanted to do.

"To pin it down as having a particular origin or meaning — I think that discussion is likely to go on forever and ever. In fact, I kind of hope so."

Diane Carmony, BA'85, MA'95, is assistant director for communications for IU's School of Education.