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‘Hoosier’ is now the official name for Indiana folk. But what does it even mean?

Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) announced a bipartisan effort that changed the federal designation of Indiana natives to "Hoosiers." (Video: Senator Joe Donnelly)

It’s what Indiana natives have been proudly calling themselves for nearly two centuries, the mascot of one of the state’s premier universities and the name of a certain sappy basketball movie treasured deeply by those who live in the Crossroads of America.

Yet Hoosier, the folksy and ambiguous moniker, has for decades been snubbed by the federal government as the official name for residents of Indiana. Instead, the tongue-twisting “Indianan” — or worse, “Indianian” — has been the preferred demonym.

But that changed Thursday, officially, when the U.S. Government Publishing Office released an updated version of its style manual, a guide that has directed the language usage for printing and publishing within the federal government since 1894.

The new list begins with Alabamian and ends with Wyomingite. Now, somewhere in the middle, sits Hoosier.

Aside from the somewhat jarring “Hawaii resident,” no other state deviates from the standard construction of “-ites” and “-ans” and “-ers.” North Carolinians don’t get to be Tar Heels and no New Englanders have officially claimed Yankee. Sorry, Buckeyes, but you’re just Ohioans.

The change stemmed from a bipartisan effort between Sen. Joe Donnelly, an Indiana Democrat, and former senator Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican, who wrote a letter to the Government Publishing Office last April. Coats has since retired, but the issue was taken up by his successor, newly elected Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), who said in a video announcement about the update that if he and his Democratic counterpart Donnelly “can get the federal bureaucracy” to agree on the significance of the term Hoosier, “then there’s nothing we can’t do.”

“We aren’t achieving world peace here, but it’s nice to be recognized by the federal government as Hoosiers,” Young said in the video announcement. “It’s not just a classic movie. It’s not just the nickname for IU athletics. It’s who we are.”

But what, exactly, does it mean?

In short, nobody really knows.

It’s a mystery that has befuddled Hoosiers for about as long as they’ve been calling themselves that.

Even in their written appeal to make Hoosier official, Donnelly and Coats acknowledged the term’s general ambiguity, but said it “has been embraced by the citizens of Indiana and continues to represent friendliness, neighborliness, and pride in the Indiana way of life.”

That vague description doesn’t say why, though, and neither does the Merriam-Webster definition of the word: “a native or resident of Indiana — used as a nickname.”

And the explanation incoming freshmen get at Indiana University, where students and athletes call themselves Hoosiers, is no more revelatory.

“A Hoosier is not a mascot. It’s not an animal, a bird, or a mythical creature, either,” the university’s “Traditions and Spirit” Web page explains. “A Hoosier is a proud member of the IU family.”


There are scholars who have investigated the word’s true origins, though, which have spawned a plethora of theories upon which nobody can agree.

Jeffrey Graf, a references services associate at the Herman B Wells Library on IU’s campus, best summarized them in the introduction to an article he wrote on the topic, “The Word Hoosier.”

Like barnacles, a thick crust of speculation has gathered over the word “Hoosier” to explain the origin of Indiana’s nickname. Popular theories, diligently and often sincerely advanced, form a rich, often amusing body of folklore. Those theories include: “Who’s here?” as a question to unknown visitors or to the inhabitants of a country cabin; Hussar, from the fiery European mounted troops; “Huzzah!” proclaimed after victory in a fight; Husher, a brawny man, capable of stilling opponents; Hoosa, an Indian word for corn; Hoose, an English term for a disease of cattle which gives the animals a wild sort of look; and the evergreen “Who’s ear?” asked while toeing a torn-off ear lying on the barroom floor the morning after a brawl.

The most likely explanation for its rise in popularity, he wrote, was the use of it as just another word for hillbilly, “a term of contempt and opprobrium common in the upland South and used to denote a rustic, a bumpkin, a countryman, a roughneck, a hick or an awkward, uncouth or unskilled fellow,” not unlike its cousins, “cracker” and “redneck.”

Eventually it lost its meaning as an insult and was reclaimed by the people of Indiana as a point of pride.

Graf’s argument for this meaning is based, in part, on the term’s possible derivation from the Saxon word “hoo,” meaning hill. Combined with the ending, “-sier,” which might come from “scir,” the old form of “shire,” Graf argues that the Hoo Shire could have evolved to Hoosier.

“Would that meaning then extend to those who lived in the hills, making them the ‘hooscirs’ and later the ‘Hoosiers,’ the mountain people, hillbillies by another name?” Graf wrote.

But others argue that being a Hoosier was never derogatory — and, instead, began as a point of pride.

In a 2007 article for the Indiana Magazine of History, Jonathan Clark Smith wrote that Hoosier was referenced twice in newspapers from 1831, both times when discussing the “then-hot political issue of river transportation and canal building.”

“Reviewing other sources — including the first-known use of the term in a February 1831 letter — Smith concludes that Indiana’s nickname originated not as a derisive term for the state’s southern migrants but as an indication of local pride in those who sought to improve the state’s economy,” a news release summarizing Smith’s findings said. “Hoosiers were boatmen who made a living on Indiana’s canals and rivers and who, therefore, supported government-sponsored development of water transportation.”

That argument pairs well with another popular theory, that a contractor employed by Louisville and Portland Canal, named Hoosier, preferred to hire laborers from Indiana. Their nickname, the story goes, was “Hoosier’s Men,” a tag eventually claimed by all Indiana residents.

Even still, there is no one definitive backstory that historians, or even the Indiana government, can agree upon.

References to the word date as far back as 1927, according to the state’s website, and appear in poems, newspapers and private letter correspondences:

The word appears in the “Carrier’s Address” of the Indiana Democrat on January 3, 1832. G. L. Murdock wrote on February 11, 1831, in a letter to General John Tipton, “Our Boat will [be] named the Indiana Hoosier.” In a publication printed in 1860, Recollections . . . of the Wabash Valley, Sandford Cox quotes a diary which he dates July 14, 1827, “There is a Yankee trick for you — done up by a Hoosier.”

Experts do agree that the term gained national and international notoriety from a poem by Indiana native John Finley titled “The Hoosier’s Nest,” which included these lines:

The emigrant is soon located-
In Hoosier life initiated:
Erects a cabin in the woods,
Wherein he stows his household goods.

The mystery that belies Hoosier hasn’t kept Indiana from inserting the word in official names — like the Hoosier National Forest, Amtrak’s Hoosier State line, the agricultural Hoosier Homestead Award Program and the Hoosier Riverwatch Program.

It is even used to label the certain brand of Midwestern kindness specific to Indiana: Hoosier hospitality.

James Madison, a retired IU history professor who has written several books about the state, told the Associated Press that the unsettled origin of Hoosier is what sets Indiana apart.

“Some people just can’t believe that we don’t know where it comes from,” Madison told the AP. “Well, I like that.”

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