Saturday, May 21, 2011

What Is a Hoosier?

I began writing this blog not long after the new year began and already I have had visitors from Canada, Latin America, Europe, Southeast Asia, and Australia. Whether you're just browsing or looking for some particular piece of information, you have probably asked yourself: What in the world is a Hoosier? Even people from the United States wonder. As anyone from Indiana knows, the debate as to a definition has been going on for almost as long as Indiana has been a state.

The simplest answer to the question "What is a Hoosier?" is that a Hoosier is a person from Indiana. That leads to some problems, though. For example, the official nickname for Indiana is "The Hoosier State." So if a Hoosier is a person from Indiana and Indiana is the Hoosier State, then (by substituting terms) you end up with Indiana as the state of people from Indiana. I think the philosophers call that a tautology. Or how about this: The nickname for the sports teams from Indiana University is "The Hurryin' Hoosiers." Once again, by sticking one definition inside the other, you end up with "The Indiana Hurryin' People from Indiana." Ridiculous.

So, obviously, the word Hoosier has some other definition or origin. Some people think it came from a question asked through the heavily barred door of the frontier home: "Who's there?" Then there's the story that in the rough and tumble days of early settlement, men would ask upon finding an auditory appendage on the floor after a brawl, "Whose ear?" Others say that the term came from questions asked by inquisitive (or suspicious) pioneers: "Who's yer father? Who's yer grandfather?" And so on. "Who's there?" "Whose ear?" "Who's yer. . . ?" These expressions became "Hoosier"? It sounds like they could be authentic frontier gibberish, but the explanation sounds like gibberish, too.

A better explanation is that the word Hoosier comes from a southern expression, Hoozer, meaning, "somebody who was tall and green and gawky, and ripped his side of meat apart instead of using a knife" (as described by Heath Bowman in his book, Hoosiers). That definition may go back into the obscure past, before Indiana was a state or even a territory. Hoosier may simply mean someone from the hills, with the implication that if he's from the hills, he's backward and uncouth as well. In Edward Anderson's novel Thieves Like Us (1937), the bank robbers who are good at what they do describe the amateurs in their line of work as "hoosiers," as in "Those guys are a bunch of hoosiers." Even today, in Missouri, a Hoosier (or hoosier) is someone stupid, backward, incompetent--a lowlife or a guy who has just fallen off the turnip wagon. Not a very good image of the Hoosier as a type.

In Hoosiers (1941), author Heath Bowman probably came closer to the meaning of Hoosier the way Hoosiers from Indiana think of themselves. A fight between a new settler and an Indiana boy who has earned his stripes by making a trip downriver to New Orleans results in a thrashing of the settler. The Indiana boy announces, " 'We don't take no argefying. We're Hushers.' " When asked what that strange word means, he replies: " 'It means we kin "hush" any rip-tail, screamin' scrouger in this-hyar country. We're half-men, half-alligators. We're Hushers.' " They were rough, tough, and full of boast and tall tales (some about themselves). They were strong, resilient, and hardworking. They were pioneers, frontiersmen, flatboatmen, and farmers. They opposed slavery and gave up their sons to preserve the Union. They built roads and railroads, riverboats and landing craft. They made automobiles, airplanes, fine furniture, mother-of-pearl buttons, Coke bottles, and Clabber Girl baking powder. They knew a good thing when they saw it and they stayed put, making the most of some of the richest land on earth. In short, they were Hoosiers.

Hoosiers are proud to call themselves Hoosiers, despite the negative connotations of the word in other parts of the country. And they know what the word "Hoosier" means. A Hoosier is not just a person from Indiana. Hoosiers are people renowned for their hospitality, hard work, and attachment to a place and a way of life. Hoosiers are aware of their history and proud of their accomplishments. Indiana University doesn't have a mascot for its sports teams because you can't make a Hoosier out of foam, fabric, and wire. Hoosiers are made by land and history.

In 1941, Bobbs-Merrill of Indianapolis published Heath Bowman's Hoosiers, a paean to the state and its people. Here are the endpapers, yellowed and stained, but listing some of the Hoosiers who had made a name for themselves in the wider world. John T. McCutcheon (1870-1949) is on that list (No. 4). As front-page cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune, he became the dean of American editorial cartoonists. Kin Hubbard (1868-1930) is also on the list (No. 9). Although born in Ohio, Hubbard became famous as the Hoosier author of Abe Martin, a daily panel of wisdom and humor straight from the hills of Brown County.
Text and captions copyright 2011 Terence E. Hanley

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