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What’s a Hoosier?

Whether traveling or back home, people from Indiana are used to seemingly endless speculation about their nickname, Hoosier.

Whether traveling or back home, people from Indiana are used to seemingly endless speculation about their nickname. Though most agree that what began as a pejorative term has evolved into an honorific, even Indiana history specialists concede that the source of the term “Hoosier” is elusive. Nonetheless, trying to come up with an explanation has become a time-honored pastime in Indiana. One popular theory suggests that the term arose out of the frontier greeting “Who’s there”?

Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley offered a mock-etymology derived from the reputation of the early settlers as fierce brawlers; at the end of a scuffle, one might have to ask, “Whose ear?” Other explanations trace the word back to a surname. Sam Hoosier and Robert Hoosier were said to be foremen during the construction of, respectively, the Ohio Falls Canal and the National Road. In both cases, their crews of Indiana men, who came to be known as “Hoosier’s” brought distinction to the name for their hard-working reliability. A scholarly theory attributes the name to the African-American Methodist preacher Harry Hoosier, who had a large mixed-race following in Indiana in the late 1700s. Still another professor has traced the appellation back to the Polish word “huzar”, meaning light horseman. The word may have gotten its Indiana association from Kosciusko County, named for Polish nobleman Tadeusz Kosciuszko who fought as a “huzar” with George Washington during the American Revolution.

Regardless of its provenance, the term was popularized over the 19th century in the press, poems by Riley and John Finley, and such novels as Edward Eggleston’s The Hoosier Schoolmaster. Though still used as a slur in other states, the “Hoosier” mantle is worn with pride by Indiana natives, especially those in the southern half of the state. When Hoosiers invoke the term, it usually serves as shorthand for a set of traits—hard-working, unpretentious, and connected with the land and the seasons.

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