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What Does The Word ‘Hoosier’ Mean? Indiana Researchers Find Out

An Indiana University student wears an IU Hoosiers shirt.

Photo: James Vavrek

An Indiana University student wears an IU Hoosiers shirt.

The word “Hoosier” can refer to Indiana residents, the Indiana University sports teams or even used to describe the state of Indiana itself. It’s a descriptor given to anyone or anything coming from the state of Indiana.

But what does the word Hoosier actually mean?

Rohan

“To me, I guess a Hoosier means someone who is willing to be friendly to everyone, kind of introduce themselves, get to know people.” – Rohan Mathew

Rohan Mathew was born and raised in Illinois, but he’s living in Bloomington as a student at Indiana University. He considers himself a Hoosier because of the values he’s gained while living in Indiana, but technically, the description might not be accurate.

The only real definition of a Hoosier we all seem to agree on is somebody who lives in Indiana. Could the Hoosier meaning go any deeper than that? Is it someone who’s friendly? Is it a farmer, a student, a redneck? Who even came up with the term?

“I mean the first time you hear it, if you’re not from Indiana: What’s a Hoosier?” says Dawn Bakken, editor for the Indiana Magazine of History. “And if you don’t know anything about IU basketball, you know, really, what’s a Hoosier?”

The magazine’s bicentennial issue showcases the Hoosier word and its different uses in writing. Articles written as early as 1905 use the word Hoosier, but Bakken says she’s seen it pop up in writings that date as far back as the 1830s.

Bakken says the more you investigate this issue, the more you find out that Hoosier wasn’t exactly a term of pride for Indiana folks in the beginning.

“This woman said, ‘Well of course I’m a Hoosier,’” Bakken says. “And they all say, ‘No! No, shhh! Don’t let anybody hear you say that! It’s not good to be a Hoosier in the city, just keep it to yourself.’”

Caroline

“I would say both someone from Indiana, as well as someone who goes to Indiana University or a University here.” – Caroline Cunniff.

Many of the early usages are a nasty nickname given by travelers to describe rustic settlers found in deep-rural Indiana. The word soon became a negative stereotype of the country folk working on farms in rural Indiana, looked down on by their city-dwelling neighbors.

“It took Indianapolis a long time to really grow up into a city since it was basically created by the general assembly,” Bakken says. “It was the 1840s before it was kind of a respectable, full-sized city. East-coast people would come and visit and not just entirely turn up their east-coast noses at it.”

The discovery continues in Indianapolis, where researchers at IUPUI’s University Library are using big data to pinpoint the word’s origin. This time, it’s on an interactive map providing loads of information, again dating back to the 1830s.

Kristi Palmer is part of a team that molds different departments of the university into a number-crunching powerhouse. Their research also shows that the word originated with outsiders coming from the Ohio and Wabash rivers.

Kacey

“I think definitely a Hoosier does qualify as someone who went to IU as well, but yeah, someone who is born in Indiana or someone who’s lived in Indiana for most of their life.” – Kacey

“So this strong connection to river life is very apparent, reinforced,” Palmer says. “When you look at the maps, when you see the instances of Hoosier appearing on the map, they are following those rivers. So that was one thing that was sort of reinforced by what people thought was happening, but we absolutely see evidence of it through these maps, and that was exciting.”

Researchers say since the word was well-rooted in Indiana identity, residents had to claim it with pride despite the clear evidence that it began as an unflattering description.

“The people from Indiana are actually taking it on,” Bakken says. “[They're] saying okay, we may be from the country but we’re not necessarily all those things. We’re just country folk, and we’re honest, and we’re decent, and we’re hardworking, and we’re proud of being Hoosiers.”

Rohan Mathew “Words are kind of what you make of them, and if you take a bad word and embrace it, it kind of just empowers you.”

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