Where did the word ‘hobo’ come from?


An index of Washington newspaper stories from the 1890s related to hobos, tramps and bums, compiled by retired librarian Bill DeCosta. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist August 18

I found myself wondering where hobos come from. Not the rootless, wandering men of yore, but the word itself: “hobo.”

The question came to mind last week after I wrote about local historian Bill DeCosta and his research on hobos and tramps in 1890s Washington.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

What is the etymology?

Webster’s didn’t help. There was no derivation, just a little star next to the listing indicating that the word is an Americanism. The Oxford English Dictionary said the same thing, narrowing its place of birth to the Western United States.

We know where “tramp” comes from. Webster’s says it’s derived from the Low German trampen, to trample. That makes sense. The first definition of the English verb “tramp” is “to walk with heavy steps.” That’s probably how you would walk if you spent your days marching from town to town, hungry for your next meal.

We have the Germans to thank for “bum,” too. The German verb bummeln means to stroll or wander.

Hobos themselves thought that they knew where the word came from. In 1927, The Washington Post published a brief Associated Press item about the International Convention of Hoboes, held that year in Minneapolis. (Hobos were once such a big deal that they had their own conventions. There were even hobo colleges and a hobo newspaper.)

Herman Gaul, a convention delegate from Chicago, explained:

“In the old days when most of the boys were working in the agricultural section of the West, they were referred to as just ‘boys.’ Then, to distinguish them from other workers, the name of one of their tools, the hoe, was applied to them and they became ‘hoe-boys.’ From that it was only one step to ‘hoboes.’ ”

I don’t know how much truth there is to Herman’s supposition, but it makes a nice story.

Bum rap

Bill Johnson of Manassas said my column about tramps and hobos took him back to the 1950s, when he was in Sister Rosalyn’s fifth-grade class at St. Mary’s School in Alexandria. On Vocations Day, everyone in class was supposed to say what they were going to be when they grew up.

Bill wrote: “As it turned out, most all of the girls were aspiring nuns and the boys, of course, were on their way to the priesthood — all except me and Ralph Rinaldi. We were the last to testify.”

Bill told the class that he planned to be a herpetologist. He said that Sister Rosalyn exclaimed: “That’s nice — the study of herbs and spices.”

“No, Sister,” Bill corrected, “it’s the study of reptiles and amphibians.”

Sister was not amused. “You are wrong, Mr. Johnson,” she said. “Look it up.”

Bill pulled out his dictionary and showed her the definition. She refused to believe it, he said.

Then it was Ralph’s turn. “I’m going to be a tramp,” he said proudly.

Sister Rosalyn was having none of it. “No student of mine’s growing up to be a bum,” she said.

“Sister, a tramp is not a bum!” Ralph said. “A bum is lazy and steals. A tramp is honest and free. He works for his meals and hurts no one.”

“I don’t care,” Sister Rosalyn exclaimed. “It’s still a bum, and you can’t be one!”

Bill said Ralph had a backup plan. “Okay,” Ralph told the class, “I’m going to be a hog farmer.”

I asked whether Bill ever achieved his childhood dream of studying snakes, lizards, turtles and such. No.

“I became an electrical engineer,” he said. “I engineered and managed submarine electronics for most of my career.”

And what of the plucky Ralph? Bill wasn’t sure what became of him. Bill said: “I think about him every time I eat bacon.”

Hot child in the city

As I sat in Section 110 at Sunday’s Nationals game, I noticed that my brow was sweaty, my breathing labored. Call the CDC! I have a deadly virus.

Then I remembered: It was August and I was in Washington. The high that day was close to 90 and the humidity was close to 60 percent. My body was surprised. For this summer, that was unusually hot and humid.

As the Capital Weather Gang has noted, while the average temperature this summer is about where it should be, we’ve had far fewer days above 90 degrees than is typical.

I know it’s perverse, but I kind of miss a real Washington summer. There’s something character-building about those stretches of 95-degree days, with the occasional 99 or 101 thrown in. Best of all, it’s a wet heat, with humidity that makes you feel like you’ve been given a sponge bath with dog saliva. Here’s hoping we have a few days like that before August is over.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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