The History and Mystery of The Word 'Hoosier'

What is a 'Hoosier?' People have pondered this question for years and years, many have attempted answering this question but few have succeeded. The definition to 'Hoosier' is not like math class, there is not one correct answer. Rather than me trying to explain what I think a 'Hoosier' is, instead I have gathered some rather interesting explanations and historic facts about the word 'Hoosier,' I hope my discoveries shed some light on this relentless question.

1. First the broad definition Google provides is pictured below.

While this definition may hold truth, I believe a 'Hoosier' is much more than that. A 'Hoosier' can be anybody, but not just anybody can be a 'Hoosier.'

2. According to the Indiana Historical Bureau some popular theories of how the word 'Hoosier' came about are:

  • When a visitor hailed a pioneer cabin in Indiana or knocked on its door, the settler would respond, "Who's yere?" And from this frequent response Indiana became the "Who's yere" or Hoosier state.
  • That Indiana rivermen were so spectacularly successful in "hushing" their adversaries in the brawling that was then common that they became known as "hushers," and eventually Hoosiers.
  • There was once a contractor named Hoosier employed on the Louisville and Portland Canal who preferred to hire laborers from Indiana. They were called "Hoosier's men" and eventually all Indianans were called Hoosiers.
  •  "The Hoosier Poet," James Whitcomb Riley claimed that 'Hoosier' originated in the quarrelsome habits of our early settlers. They were earnest and barbarous fighters who gouged, scratched and bit off noses and ears. This was so common an occurrence that a settler coming into a tavern the morning after a fight and seeing an ear on the floor would touch it with his toe and casually ask, "Whose ear?"

3. The Urban Dictionary suggests:

4. Jacob Piatt Dunn, Jr., Indiana historian and longtime secretary of the IHS noted that 'Hoosier' was frequently used in many parts of the South in the 19th century for woodsmen or rough hill people. He traced the word back to "hoozer," in the Cumberland dialect of England. This derives from the Anglo-Saxon word "hoo" meaning high or hill. In the Cumberland dialect, the world "hoozer" meant anything unusually large, presumably like a hill. It is not hard to see how this word was attached to a hill dweller or highlander. Immigrants from Cumberland, England, settled in the southern mountains (Cumberland Mountains, Cumberland River, Cumberland Gap, etc.). Their descendants brought the name with them when they settled in the hills of southern Indiana. 

5. Another early usage of the work 'Hoosier' was in John Finley's poem "The Hoosier Nest." Below is one stanze from the 10-stanza poem by Finley.

I’m told, in riding somewhere West,
A stranger found a Hoosier’s nest—
In other words, a buckeye cabin,
Just big enough to hold Queen Mab in;
Its situation, low, but airy,
Was on the borders of a prairie;
And fearing he might be benighted,
He hailed the house, and then alighted.
The Hoosier met him at the door—
Their salutations soon were o’er.
He took the stranger’s horse aside,
And to a sturdy sapling tied;
Then having stripped the saddle off,
He fed him in a sugar-trough.

The painting above, by Marcus Mote, is a depiction of the one stanza in "The Hoosier's Nest."

6. You may also know 'Hoosiers' as this...

While there may not be a definitive answer to "What is a 'Hoosier?'" one thing is certain, 'Hoosiers' sure are proud, and honored to be a 'Hoosier.'

Please comment below your idea of what a 'Hoosier' is and what it means to be a 'Hoosier.'

Check out these interesting blogs about Indiana University traditions:

About The Author
Rebecca GieselmanContributing Writer

Spirited Junior of Indiana University seeking a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism with a specialization in Public Relations and Advertising, and a minor in Theatre and Drama. Film fanatic, television aficionado, accredited pogonophile, emerging wordsmith, are few ways I describe myself.

Lover of all things fine & good