The Hoosiers

I’ve never been a huge sports fan – although I played some in my youth. I’ve never really followed professional sports as some men do. I just see it as another creaky branch of the entertainment industry.

I’ve never been a fanatic hero-worshiper of any sort either (actors, politicians, musicians – except maybe Jesus). Take Brett Favre for example: I’m a draftee and veteran; I have my own story to tell. If Brett Favre doesn’t give a crap about my stats – why should I give a crap about his? Anyway . . . .

Wisconsin beat Indiana in a college basketball game the other day. Circumstance had me watch the game – a thing to which I am nominally indifferent and tend to avoid. But as I have friends hailing from Indiana I though to post something cutesy on Facebook like the already clichéd: “Hoosier Daddy?”

“Hoosier Daddy?” is a taunting mash-up of ‘Hoosier’ and the slang expression ‘Who’s your daddy?’ – an expression of dubious parentage to begin with.

Indiana University

Indiana Hoosiers Logo

But then I got completely sidetracked by a most profound, perplexing and fundamental question: “Just what in hell is a hoosier?”

I’ve spent many hours over the past couple of days rooting about the internet looking for the exact meaning and etymology of the term ‘hoosier’. It seems we have a bunch of English majors barking up the wrong tree. I believe it to be of French derivation. I can argue against my own argument but a French derivation comes out on top.

Historically, the current State of Indiana comprises but a small portion of the much greater area formerly known as the Indiana Territory as subdivided further from the Northwest Territory. Although occupied by indigenous peoples, as Europeans go, it was first explored by the French.

Note the mixture of geographic place names being in several native tongues, also in English, but particularly in French. The French got here first.

French missionaries, French explorers, French voyageurs, etc. had long established the fur trade before the English, Scots, Dutch and Irish hacked (or hewed) their way west through the impenetrable primeval forest that was North America at the time. At the same time the term ‘hoosier’ came into popular usage, America, from the eastern shores to the Mississippi River, was one vast forest so thick with trees armies couldn’t move cannon or wagon without felling trees as they went. The aboriginals lived among the trees as did the French trappers and traders; they didn’t cut them down as the later settlers would.

The appellation ‘hoosier’ is fairly localized to the denizens of the current State of Indiana and any derogatory connotations are centered on the then transportation and trade hub of St. Louis, which was founded by French fur traders.

The French word for hoe is ‘houe’, and he who wields a hoe would thus be a ‘houer’.

It appears the origin of ‘hoosier’ boils down to a choice between the English woodcutter or ‘hewer’ and the French ‘houer’ (‘hoer’ in English). Phonetically or linguistically, neither of these terms is a far leap from ‘hoosier’.

The State of Indiana was once heavily forested but flatter than the hills of Tennessee and Kentucky and therefore more amenable to the hoe.

Hewers were everywhere but hoers needed better soil to work in.

For a time the fur trade was far more lucrative than farming and the French fur traders looked down their noses at the farmers and, I suggest, partly blamed them for the collapse of the fur trade; hence the animosity and negative connotations of the day. The good citizens of St. Louis, a major hub of the fur trade, heard the ringing of axes (hewers) and the muffled crunch of the hoes (houers) approaching up-river along the Ohio from the east while their traps came up empty. Hoosiers!

I think it only human to blame others for their own misdeeds or misfortunes; but both the supply and the demand for beaver pelts dried up at about the same time. The fur trade came and went – boom and bust.

When was the last time you saw a beaver in the wild?

Language evolves from a words’ first coinage (oral) with variations of pronunciation, it is further subjected to variations in its hearing (aural) and, often times long after, someone finally decides to write it down and later still it comes into printed form with a great many variations of spelling.

Hoosier's Nest

Marcus Mote

In his poem, “The Hoosier’s Nest” (originally: “The Hoosher’s Nest”) John Finley uses the term ‘hoosieroon’, in context an obvious term of endearment in reference to the pioneers’ children.

"The Hoosher's Nest"

A hoosieroon is the offspring of a hoosier. Until 1927 Indiana State Normal School – Eastern Division athletes (Muncie, Indiana (renamed Ball State in 1929) where known as ‘The Hoosieroons’.

Ball State Hoosieroons

Available On Line

Ball State athletes (The Cardinals, aka Fighting Cardinals) were never officially known as Hoosieroons but some people apparently don’t want to let go of the name.

Ball State

Charlie Cardinal

It seems self-referential for a state Teachers’ College whose student body is comprised mostly of Indiana natives (the descendents of Hoosiers) to have themselves as their own mascots. It is also self-perpetuating despite its unofficial status when one considers that the teachers at the Teachers’ College are hoosieroons and their students are hoosieroons and when the students graduate they will likely go forth to teach yet more hoosieroons.

Ball State Hoosieroons

Available On Line

The suffix or appellation ‘oon’ in the diminutive pet name ‘hoosieroon’ can be traced to the influence of the Spanish ‘cuarterón’, (Latin, ‘quartus’), or more likely, the French ‘quarteron’, or ‘quadroon’, a reference to genus or offspring.

A “Hoosier” then, as derived from the French ‘houe’ (hoe) is an independent, pioneering American subsistence homesteader of the lower Ohio River Valley. Any derogatory connotations stemmed from their predecessors in the fur trade. “Hoosieroons” are their descendants.

When we think of the frontier we generally think of the so-called “Wild West” (west of the Mississippi), but a frontier (yet another French word – frontière) moves – and it is the people who move it. At one point in history the American frontier was located smack-dab (don’t ask) in Indiana. Between the American Revolutionary War and the Industrial Revolution most everything done was done by hand.

I find nothing particularly untoward or pejorative about the appellation “Hoosier”. On the contrary, in thinking about these men and women I have an everlasting admiration for them.

I dare say there is nary a man living today in St. Louis, New York or elsewhere for that matter with the necessary skill-set to throw an axe (a hoe, and of course, a musket) over his shoulder and boldly march into the timbered wilderness, hew down trees, build a log cabin, pull stumps, plant a garden (fend off varmints), fish, hunt, trap and sire and feed a robust passel of hoosieroons. That’s what John Finley meant.

While some Hoosiers may have signed their name with an “X” – it in no wise diminishes my admiration for them. I envy their knowledge and skills.

Given their familiar history, there are many words in English and French that are spelt the same but pronounced radically differently. In mulling over this cryptic etymology of ‘hoosier’, when I see it in print I hear it in an exaggerated non-sibilant French accent pronounced as “ou-yay” (‘houe’) or “ou-yayr” (‘houer’).

It’s no skin off my nose if you reject out of hand my argument for a French origin for the term “Hoosier”. But after all the time and trouble I’ve gone through writing on this subject I think I deserve a reward of some kind. What really I want is an honorary degree from either Ball State or Indiana University.

Who's Your Tailor?

Word Play Adverisement from The Easterner, December 2, 1927

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About The Twentieth Man

Age 66
This entry was posted in Going Bananas, Humor, Observations, Short Stories and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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