Hoosiers, Suckers, Badgers, and Wolverines

featureImage_miniDon’t get distracted by the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue on Friday. The really big news from Washington came a week or so ago, when the
U.S. Government Publishing Office announced that it has finally adopted Hoosier as the official name for folks from Indiana.

The GPO made the change in its stylebook at the instigation of two U.S. senators from Indiana — Joe Donnelly and Dan Coats, who last summer sent a letter requesting the change. Coats has since been replaced by Todd Young, who likewise approves.

But it’s not as if Indiana itself has changed. The change is about 185 years overdue, reflecting a situation explained back in the 1830s by Charles Fenno Hoffman, and noted in his book  A Winter in the West: by a New-Yorker. Writing from Prairie Ronde, Kalamazoo Co., M.T. [Michigan Territory] in December 1833:

I am now in the land of the  Hooshiers, and find that long-haired race much more civilized than some of their western neighbours are willing to represent them. The term ‘Hooshier,’ like that of Yankee or Buck-eye, first applied contemptuously, has now become a soubriquet that bears nothing invidious with it to the ear of an Indianian.

And so it is today. Outside of Indiana, however, hoosier has had an entirely different meaning, still being applied contemptuously to “an uncouth countryman,” as the Historical Dictionary of American Slang puts it. To call a Kansan or Missourian a hoosier is the opposite of a compliment.

Lexicographers and etymologists have been fascinated with hoosier because of its unknown origin in the 1820s and sudden spread throughout the Midwest in the 1830s. It’s an excellent example of a word that is pejorative when used by outsiders, turned into a proud appellation by those whom it designates.

Back in the 1830s, Indiana wasn’t the only Midwestern state with a colorful nickname. Hoffman wrote from Prairie Ronde, Kalamazoo Co., M.T., on December 26. 1833:

“Stranger, will you take a cocktail with us?” called out a tall athletic fellow to me as I was making my way through a group of wild-looking characters assembled an hour since around the fire by which I now am writing. There was a long-haired “hooshier” from Indiana, a couple of smart-looking “suckers”* from the southern part of Illinois, a keen-eyed, leather-belted “badger” from the mines of Ouisconsin, and a sturdy yeoman-like fellow, whose white capot, Indian moccasins, and red sash proclaimed, while he boasted a three years’ residence, the genuine “wolverine,” or naturalized Michiganian. Could one refuse to drink with such a company?
*so called after the fish of that name, from his going up the river to the mines, and returning at the season when the sucker makes its migrations.

OK, Hoosiers, Suckers, Badgers, Wolverines — now go and enjoy your parade.


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