Dear Word Detective: I graduated from Kokomo High School, in Kokomo Indiana. In my junior year, I took a class in Indiana History. We were taught that the nickname “Hoosier” came from soldiers standing guard, when they heard somebody coming they would yell out “Who’s there, who’s there.” Due to their accent it sounded like “Who’s thar,” hence came the word “Hoosier.” Anyway this is what was in our history book. Thought I’d let you know. — Jackie Johnson.
Readers who have actually been reading this column (as opposed to forwarding it directly to their parakeets, for instance) will remember that a few months ago I received a letter from a woman asking about a word origin story she had heard on Martha Stewart’s TV show. I noted at the time that “colorful word origins” were cropping up in the oddest places these days, and that the only problem with this was that no one ever seemed to check whether the colorful stories were, in fact, true. This one about “Hoosier,” for instance, is not even remotely true, yet it makes it into a history textbook. Your tax dollars at work yet again, folks.
For the benefit of those readers whose dogs ate the paper the day I explained “Hoosier” a while back, here is the generally accepted origin of the word: “Hoosier” first appeared in the early 19th century, when Indiana was still considered “the frontier.” Throughout what was then “the West,” any man who could outrun, out-drink and outfight any opponent was known as a “husher,” from his ability to silence his foes. “Husher,” in fact, was a common synonym for “bully” throughout the Western Territories. The bargemen of Indiana who plied their trade up and down the Mississippi were known as an especially combative breed, often turning their visits to ports such as New Orleans into impromptu mass boxing matches. It is said that the reputation of these bare-fisted ambassadors of pugilism earned the nickname “husher” for their home territory of Indiana. By the mid-19th century, the word had mutated to “Hoosier,” the fistfights were forgotten, and Indiana has been the Hoosier State ever since.