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What is the Origin of the Term "Hoosiers"?

By Dayo Akinwande
Updated May 23, 2024
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Hoosiers is a term used to refer to residents of the state of Indiana, further popularized by the award-winning 1986 basketball movie "Hoosiers." The term, however, has been used since the early 1800s; it was then that Indiana started using the nickname The Hoosier State. Despite its popularity, the origin of the term Hoosiers has always been the subject of debate, its etymology enriched by several wild and fascinating theories.

According to Jeffrey Graf, a librarian at Indiana University, the word Hoosier most probably originated as a derogatory term in the upland South – comprising states such as North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, and West Virginia – used for a clumsy, ungraceful person of low economic status, not unlike the terms cracker, redneck, hick, and white trash. From there, Hoosier moved to the Ohio Valley region, where it was used for people in Southern Indiana presumed to be uncouth in manner and appearance. Eventually, the term expanded to the entire state and shed its original derogatory meaning.

Another notable theory was from Jacob Piatt Dunn, a historian who specialized in Indiana history. He suggested that the word Hoosier can trace its origins to the Saxon word "hoo." It was used for cliff, ridge, hill, or a rocky elevation and he believed that it was still used in England. In fact, such a theory gave birth to the idea that Hoosier came from people of the upland South because they were largely of British ancestry.

Several other theories exist, albeit minor. Pugilistic Indiana rivermen became known as "hushers" because they were extremely successful in silencing their foes with fisticuffs. Construction workers responsible for the Louisville and Portland Canal in Louisville, Kentucky, were called "Hoosier's Men" after their supervisor, Samuel Hoosier. "Hoosa" was an Native American word for corn, "Hoose" was an English term for a cattle disease, and "Hussar" was a term for light cavalry of Serbian origin used widely in Europe and Latin America during the 19th century. There is also the proclamation "Huzzah!" uttered after claiming victory in a fight.

Of all the theories that exist for the origin of Hoosiers, however, one of the more amusing ones is the slurring of frontier banter. Someone attempting to identify an approaching visitor from afar in the olden days usually shouted "Who's there?" which eventually sounded like "Who'sh 'ere?" Due to this word slurring, such country folk came to be known as Hoosiers. Another hilarious explanation came from the Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley, who joked that brawls in Indiana involved so much ear biting and severing that the phrase "Whose ear?" became commonplace.

Whatever its origin, Hoosiers first appeared in print in 1833, and the term stuck. From basketball teams and sports mascots to businesses – both within the state and outside of it – the term is intrinsically linked with the state of Indiana. Despite the popularity of other state nicknames in the United States, arguably few can rival the The Hoosier State.

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Discussion Comments
By anon999756 — On Mar 09, 2018

I'm the only one who knows. I worked there in a retail store for a couple years. I'd done retail in Chicago and New York as well. I mention this because I had never heard the question I was asked in Indiana, anywhere else.

The repartee went something like this:

Customer: "You got anymore of these doll heads in the back?"

Me: "No ma'am, there's no back-stock on any of these items."

Customer: "You sure?"

You sure? I only became keenly aware of the connection when a horde of Hoosiers descended on the town during a yearly yokel-fest. They all asked me this!While my first thought was, "Why are these jerks questioning my competence?" until it dawned on me that this is where hoosier came from. Their German (?) ancestry was one of distrust, or perhaps laziness on my part, or just to make sure that I hadn't slighted myself on a sale. Perhaps all of the above. Regardless, I'm sure it originated from some old-world ethnic marketplace jargon. It drove people nuts back then and continues to drive people nuts to this day. Simplicity is complexity, and I'm afraid all the other far-fetched explanations are missing the most obvious answer. Dutch? I don't know, but let's just say enough people said "you sure", until the label stuck. And yes, I'm sure.

By turquoise — On Apr 18, 2014

@bluedolphing-- But if that's what hoosier meant, why would people from Indiana adapt that term for themselves? It doesn't make sense.

By discographer — On Apr 17, 2014

@bluedolphin-- There is another theory about the origin of the term hoosier. It is said that hoosier came from "hoozer" which apparently means "large" or "front." It might either refer to the large physicality of Indian residents, or it might refer to Indiana as a frontier state at that time. I actually think that hoosier means "residents of the frontier state."

So the term is not derogatory in origin as some people think.

By bluedolphin — On Apr 17, 2014

Some of the latter theories mentioned in the article are very funny, especially the one one about biting ears.

I think that Jeffrey Graf's explanation of the origin of the term makes most sense, although obviously this meaning no longer applies. But considering that very different groups of people settled in the US and that each state sort of formed its own character and identity, this explanation is not unlikely. Residents of other states might have found the then residents of Indiana clumsy or poor in comparison to themselves.

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