There but for fortune.

Dear Word Detective: I was asking a co-worker what costume her kids were choosing for Halloween and she mentioned how costumes are more complex today compared with the past when a kid could just put on old clothes and tie a bundle on a stick and go as a “hobo.” I commented that she was dating herself with that term and we discussed the more politically correct terms, from “homeless” to “outdoorsman” (that euphemism sounds like someone who reads “Field and Stream”). I looked at the dictionary for hobo and it says “origin unknown” and it is not in your archives. I hope you have more than just “origin unknown.” Any theories? — Martin Celusnak.

Well, if it’s theories you’re looking for, you’ve hit pay dirt. We have bushels of theories about all sorts of things, from why cats stare at blank walls (they’re messing with your mind) to why so many Americans drive like morons these days (NASCAR is the one sport many couch potatoes are, unfortunately, equipped to emulate).

As for “hobo,” there are quite a few theories about its origins as well, but I must admit from the git-go that certainty on the question remains, shall we say, elusive. Incidentally, I had never heard “outdoorsman” as a euphemism for “homeless.” I think whoever came up with it (no doubt in a warm, dry place) should spend a week sleeping under a highway overpass and then reassess his or her obnoxious invention.

A “hobo” is, of course, a homeless person, specifically one who travels or wanders in search of work or odd jobs. (The traditional explanation of the difference between a “hobo” and a “tramp” is that the former travels to find work, the latter to avoid it.) The classic “hobo” who travels by hopping rides on freight trains first appeared in the US after the Civil War, and the “hobo” population exploded during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The term “hobo” is first attested in print in the late 1800s in the Pacific Northwest, and almost immediately theories arose as to its origin. The English dialect terms “hawbuck” and “hawbaw,” meaning “an unmannerly lout” (Oxford English Dictionary) have been proposed as sources, but England was a world away from the Northwest US in those days. A more logical local source may have been the greeting shout “Ho, boy!” apparently common among railroad workers at the time. There’s also a suggestion that “hobo” is short for “hopping boxcars,” and some maintain that “hobo” is short for Hoboken, NJ, where many rail lines converged in the 19th century, making the city a natural gathering point for vagabonds.

While we may never pin down the origin of “hobo” with absolute certainty, my money is riding on that “Ho, boy!” shout, which was verifiably in use by railway workers at the time and could easily have been adopted as a name for their vagabond passengers.

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