Visitors from out of state often pose this question, with what I like to think is a bit of envy in their voices. Their eyes fix upon you as they undoubtedly expect a quick, concise, and delightfully quaint little story that fits nicely into the anecdotes of their travels.
Sorry about that, visitors. We have no quick and concise answer to your question, but if you’re looking for anecdotes, you’ve come to the right place. Just be prepared to spend a little more time on the subject that you might have expected.
All of us who call Indiana home are proud to be “Hoosiers.” It’s a great nickname, certainly better than “Indianan” or “Indianian.” But how in the world did we come to be called “Hoosiers”?
Scholars have been investigating the etymology of “Hoosier” for almost as long as Indiana has been a state. The term can be found in print at least as far back as 1833, when John Findley of Richmond penned a poem entitled “The Hoosher’s Nest.”
A popular hypothesis explains that Indiana pioneers, hearing someone outside their cabins, would holler out, “Who’s here?” which came out sounding more like “Who’s yere?”
A more scholarly derivation traces the word back to England and the Anglo-Saxon word “hoo,” meaning “high” or “hill.” English travelers on the Ohio River might have used “Hoozers” to refer to folks they met coming out of the hills of southern Indiana.
Another source identifies a contractor named Samuel Hoosier who hired men to work on the Indiana and Portland canal. He had a reputation for employing good, dependable men (in one version of the story) or rough, brawling types (in another account.) At any rate, they came to be called “Hoosier’s men,” and pretty soon the name was applied to everyone in the region.
Some historians have suggested that the term might originate with “Hussars,” European cavalrymen known for their bravery and boastfulness. Others point to the fact that boatmen from Indiana were a querulous bunch and, in numerous fights, would often “hush” their opponents. It’s not hard to see how, over time, these “hushers” became “Hoosiers.”
James Whitcomb Riley, always the joker, was often asked about the meaning of “Hoosier.” Unable to provide a good answer, he made one up. He explained that early settlers of southern Indiana frequently brawled to the extent that flesh was torn. It was not uncommon, he said, for those picking up the pieces to ask, “Whose ear”?
In1987, Indiana University’s “Hoosiers” men’s basketball team was in the final game of the NCAA championship. Their opponent was Syracuse, and New York Senator Alfonse D’Amato took time on the Senate floor to report that his dictionary defined “Hoosier” as “an awkward, unhandy or unskilled person, especially an uncouth rustic.” It was a good-natured jibe at his friend, Indiana Senator Dan Quayle.
Students of the game know that Indiana won the championship that year, defeating Syracuse by one point, 74-73. The victory prompted Quayle to introduce a non-binding resolution which read: “Be it resolved that a ‘Hoosier’ is someone who is smart, resourceful, skillful, a winner, unique and brilliant.”
You would think that a Senate resolution would have put the matter to rest, but it didn’t. Visitors to the state are still curious about “Hoosier.” Perhaps they’re just jealous. Maybe they’re from one of the many states whose residents have no nickname or worse, one that has been kept hidden in the cellar for many years. Texans don’t want you to know that they were once called “beetheads,” nor do Marylanders brag about being labeled “craw thumpers.” Folks in Nebraska seldom mention that they were known as “bug eaters.” The title for worst nickname of all probably goes to citizens of Missouri, who had to answer to “pukes.”
It’s no wonder that few states today enjoy nicknames that are as well recognized as “Hoosier.” That’s why tourists are so curious as to its origin. In 1987, Indiana Governor Robert D. Orr put it this way: “Those unfortunate souls who, for some reason, live elsewhere, may continue to speculate as to the origin of our name; and we Hoosiers will continue to enjoy their doing so.”
In other words, folks from Indiana are pleased as punch to befuddle the Buckeyes of Ohio, tease the Tarheels of North Carolina, josh the Jayhawks of Kansas, and hassle the Hawkeyes of Iowa.
We like to keep people guessing. And, yes, Virginia, and Michigan and California, maybe that’s how come we’re called “Hoosiers.”
How Come You're Called the "Hoosier State"?