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.

14 comments on this post.
  1. bxdanny:

    I had always heard that “hobo” derived from “hoe boy”, meaning an itinerant agricultural worker (who typically used a hoe in his labors). I thought it was pretty much settled – certainly I am surprised that you didn’t even mention this theory.

  2. waco_huber:

    I, too, have heard that the term is derived from “hoe boy”. I believe this was in a story on NPR one to two years back.

  3. junglebum:

    I’ve recently heard the term “outdoorsmen” used in place of “homeless person” on local talk radio. I didn’t hear the whole conversation or where they got it, but they are using it regularly now to talk about the homeless on the streets of Chicago. I have heard the that “hobo” is derived from “homeward bound”.

  4. jplant:

    Having grown-up “behind the tweed curtain”… in Victoria, BC, Canada, I can assure you that more than a wee bit of “Olde England” was thriving in the Pacific Northwest during the 1800’s. I would place my bet on ‘hawbaw’ as being the origin of Hobo.

  5. tubby:

    I didn’t hear the NPR segment and those people are generally right on but I always understood hobo to suggest a more aimless, somewhat work adverse wandering person. How many people were there making short work with hoes? How much hoe work was needed such that there were so many people making short term work out of it? And in a much less mobile time, how many people observed hoe work occuring? Sickles maybe but hoes? I think it is simpler than that: homeless body

  6. Fox:

    Such as they are, I propose HOmeless BOdy as a government term crassly appointed to one of countless epidemics spawned out of their own choices made to promote capitalism.

  7. Reva:

    “why cats stare at blank walls (they’re messing with your mind)” Everyone should know when cats stare they are looking at Muskies…a type of creature that humans can’t see, but, can, in fact, smell.
    If you suddenly get a whiff of bacon, coffee or cow manure for no discernible reason…you are near a Muskie.

  8. Phil:

    HoBo is a term for free traveler’s out of HOBOKEN, NJ train yards, my grandfather, born in 1878 was very familiar with those terms as he grew up in Newark and they would knock on his parents door for handouts and his mom would give them bread and soup and he asked them what it meant!! They told him it was were they started their life on the road !

  9. Yael:

    Interesting theory, but how does that add up the following quote from the article?

    >>The term “hobo” is first attested in print in the late 1800s in the Pacific Northwest

    Okay, with your grandfather having been born in the late 19th century, the time fits more or less, but why would a term originating from a specific spot in NJ first be recorded all the way across the country? That doesn’t make sense to me.

  10. Amber:

    I am a hobo. And you guys are silly. “Hobo” is “Homeward Bound”.

  11. Chris O'Meara:

    Amber is correct in that “Hobo” is short fro “homeward bound”. The word get it original following the end of the Civil War when the government issues free tickets to all of the men to go home. In many cases the men had no real home to go to, which is why in part that many of them joinhed the war efforty as a means to get fed and clothed. As these men used their free tickets, many of them would often just stay on the train and trvale back and forth across the country. In short….they had nowhere else to go, and no real home to go too. Sad but true…….these trains became their only real sanctuary until which time the railways began kicking them off the trains and telling them that their “free ride” was over.

  12. jim:

    I was raised in a railroad town and was always told that hobo was short for homeless boys who “rode the rails” from town to town.

  13. Lindsay:

    Hoboken was also made famous in the John Candy movie where the trains stopped play every time they passed over his Baseball park. What was the name of that movie?

  14. Candace E. Smith:

    I was told in the 1950s that the term became widespread during the Great Depression;
    It was not a term for lazy drunks, but people who travelled looking for work wherever
    available, & thus these men were “homeward bound”when they had money for family or a job there.Thus, hobo. Dont know the province since this came from the generations that lived it, so could have been an adaption of an older term.

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