"What exactly is a Hoosier, anyway?"
Simply put, a Hoosier is a person from Indiana, the Hoosier state. Which I am-- not born (Dad was in the service, so my birth certificate says North Carolina), but raised there. From infancy until I married and took my first "real job," the northwest corner of the state was home. Then we lived away (Ohio, then Illinois) for more than a dozen years, but moved back shortly after my youngest was born. When I went to seminary (where I started this blog), there was a contingent in my class which found this amusing and provincial; and so, out of pique and a certain pride, I adopted the nickname as part of my title.
Now the next question: where did the nickname itself come from? That's a more complicated answer. The origins are murky at best, but seem to stem from the early 1800's, and no one is really sure of a definitive answer. Among the more popular theories, according to the Indiana Historical Society:
Many have inquired into the origin of Hoosier. But by all odds the most serious student of the matter was Jacob Piatt Dunn, Jr., Indiana historian and longtime secretary of the IHS. Dunn noted that "hoosier" was frequently used in many parts of the South in the 19th century for woodsmen or rough hill people. He traced the word back to "hoozer," in the Cumberland dialect of England. This derives from the Anglo-Saxon word "hoo" meaning high or hill. In the Cumberland dialect, the world "hoozer" meant anything unusually large, presumably like a hill. It is not hard to see how this word was attached to a hill dweller or highlander. Immigrants from Cumberland, England, settled in the southern mountains (Cumberland Mountains, Cumberland River, Cumberland Gap, etc.). Their descendants brought the name with them when they settled in the hills* of southern Indiana.
- When a visitor hailed a pioneer cabin in Indiana or knocked upon its door, the settler would respond, "Who's yere?" And from this frequent response Indiana became the "Who's yere" or Hoosier state. No one ever explained why this was more typical of Indiana than of Illinois or Ohio.
- Indiana rivermen were so spectacularly successful in trouncing or "hushing" their adversaries in the brawling that was then common that they became known as "hushers," and eventually Hoosiers.
- There was once a contractor named Hoosier employed on the Louisville and Portland Canal who preferred to hire laborers from Indiana. They were called "Hoosier's men" and eventually all Indianans were called Hoosiers.
- A theory attributed to Gov. Joseph Wright derived Hoosier from an Indian word for corn, "hoosa." Indiana flatboatmen taking corn or maize to New Orleans came to be known as "hoosa men" or Hoosiers. Unfortunately for this theory, a search of Indian vocabularies by a careful student of linguistics failed to reveal any such word for corn.
- Quite as possible is a facetious explanation offered by "The Hoosier Poet," James Whitcomb Riley. He claimed that Hoosier originated in the pugnacious habits of our early settlers. They were enthusiastic and vicious fighters who gouged, scratched and bit off noses and ears. This was so common an occurrence that a settler coming into a tavern the morning after a fight and seeing an ear on the floor would touch it with his toe and casually ask, "Whose ear?"
*Note to all my mountain-loving friends: they are nowhere near the elevations you're used to; but yes, there are hills in southern Indiana. It is lovely, rolling countryside, and you really should visit in the fall, when the trees set the hills ablaze with color.