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What's a 'Hoosier'?

July 5, 2016

In today's superhero movie-driven world, origin stories are all the rage, but superheroes' histories aren't the only stories attracting attention. A team of University Library employees is on a quest to learn more about the origin of the word "Hoosier."

It's never been clear how Indiana natives came to be called "Hoosiers." Many have speculated, and the question has given rise to some tall tales and misleading notions. But it also sparked an interest by a Digital Scholarship team to track the information as it developed over the years, publishing it on a website called Chronicling Hoosier. Kristi Palmer, the associate dean of digital scholarship for the library, leads the IUPUI team, which includes Caitlin Pollock and Ted Polley.

Hoosier wedding

One of the renderings included in the Chronicling Hoosier website is "A Hoosier Wedding," featured in the book Yankee Notions, or "Whittlings of Jonathan's Jack-Knife, Volume 1". The image also contains text that is similar to other writings connected to uses of the term "Hoosier." | IMAGE COURTESY OF CHRONICLING HOOSIER SITE

The project began as a technology-driven hunt for the earliest appearance and the original meaning of the word. But ultimately, the team has discovered a variety of meanings, often driven by time and geography.

"We believe, as many before us, that the origin of 'Hoosier' lies in oral tradition," Palmer said. Stories published in newspapers, books, literature and pamphlets mention the term, but it seems likely those uses came after the word had entered pioneering Americans' vocabulary.

Palmer said an 1833 or 1834 article in The (Pittsburgh) Statesman floated the theory that tied the term to Indiana. The article's author wrote that the "good citizens of our sister State (Indiana) have been called Hoosiers for some time past at home and abroad." The story also noted that "Hoosier" has been used both positively and negatively, and it explored the possibility that the word might stem from a common exclamation among people visiting neighbors: The call "who's here?" might have played a role.

Other theories?

  • Poet James Whitcomb Riley joked that a particularly vicious brawl ends in one man asking, "Whose ear?"
  • A scrap among flatboat men that included an Indiana man resoundingly thumping his opponents, or "hushing" them.
  • Historian John Piatt Dunn Jr. suggests the word stems from "hoozer," meaning something unusually large in the Cumberland dialect of England.
  • A more recent interpretation from Stephen H. Webb poses that the 19th-century preacher Black Harry Hoosier was the word's namesake.
  • The wares of a bread peddler named Hoosier were particularly popular among Indiana men working on the canals.

The Chronicling Hoosier introduction mentions that the search included sources from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including digitized and searchable databases. But for lay people curious about the state's heritage, that creates drawbacks.

"Many are contained within subscription databases more readily available to university scholars," Palmer said. Paper archives also exist, and likely will continue to be a source of interest for "Hoosier" origin seekers.

Other university databases contain books and journals that feature early "Hoosier" references. But for the University Library team, the best resource is the digitized newspapers available through the National Digital Newspaper Program, a partnership between the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress.

That partnership offers massive datasets of machine-readable text from newspapers across the United States from 1836 to 1922. Palmer acknowledges that it would be interesting to see what post-1922 stories would convey to us about the word, especially in light of the adoption by Indiana University of "Hoosiers" as its mascot name. But those newspaper issues are protected by copyright access laws.

Nevertheless, the Chronicling Hoosier team's quest continues. The website offers "preliminary findings" and "what's next" sections for those interested in the team's search.

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