I’ve been called a lot of things over the years. Dork. Geek. Nerd. Socially-incompetent lover of all things Pokemon. I was really popular in middle and high school.
Eventually, I learned to embrace it all because it’s perfectly acceptable to be those things in college. College is the great equalizer that grade school never could be, dominated as it was by a social elite that I was ostracized from thanks to an unfortunate combination of genetic deficiencies and a striking lack of fashion or athletic capabilities. Apparently those are the only skills worth having in the teenage hivemind. I promise I’m not bitter.
So I survived grade school as a skinny dweeb and, surprise, found myself surrounded by my own kind in college. Some of them were even skinnier and dweebier than me. I mean, I had only watched the Battlestar Galactica TV series all the way through twice—I couldn’t even hold a candle to some of these guys.
But as a result of my experience, I think I’ve been socially primed to have a kind of sensitivity to names and the roles they can play in a person’s identity. And they don’t always have to be insulting. Whether it’s a specific neighborhood, cultural heritage, or even Star Trek, people gather around specific identities in order to highlight the community they belong to. It can be a badge of honor. Something that nails you to the ground and anchors you as a part of something larger.
Some are pretty easy to identify; for instance, no one is really confused what “Trekkies” are really into, may they live long and prosper. But there’s one name I’ve been confused about since I first got here—what in the world is a “Hoosier?”
Now, I’ve found that it’s a ubiquitous term for someone from Indiana, and it’s a title to be proud of.
My problem is that no one seems to know exactly where the term comes from. Sure there are competing theories about the name’s etymology, but as far as my research has been concerned, it has no clear origin.
The general consensus is that it started being commonly used to describe Indianians sometime in the mid 1830’s, with the first really notable example being John Finley of Richmond’s poem “The Hoosier’s Nest.” The poem, published in 1833, describes the qualities of an all-American native to Indiana, and even describes the imagined reception of a travelling stranger into the home of such a person. Finley is positively aglow with his critique of midwestern virtue and culture saying, “Blest Indiana! in thy soil/Are found the sure rewards of toil/Where honest poverty and worth/May make a Paradise on earth.”
That’s a pretty high compliment and potential origin for one of the oldest nicknames in the country, and I have to say that I share some of Finley’s sentiment now. But there are some theories out there that are slightly less glamorous.
For instance, one possibility is that a canal contractor by the name of Hoosier worked out of Louisville and preferred hiring workers from Indiana on the northern side of the Ohio river. He claimed they were some of the most honest, hardworking men he had seen, and so this group of Indiana canal workers came to be known as “Hoosier’s men.”
Alternatively, another story goes that in the early days of midwestern settlement, brawls in various watering holes were commonplace among the rougher settlers staking out their claim. In one or more cases, somebody’s ear had been separated from its rightful home on the side of a head, leaving someone to see it on the ground and ask, “Who’s ear?” Get it? Who’s Ear? Hoosier? Certainly a little more gruesome than some possibilities, but no one can claim that Indiana’s state nickname is uninteresting.
Regardless of where it came from, it seems like “Hoosier” is here to stay, just as it has remained for the past century and a half. It’s a title to be proud of, I think, and I’m happy to consider myself an honorary one after having spent the past few months here in Indy. It seems to me that the hospitality Finley wrote about wasn’t so groundless, and Hoosier certainly sounds a lot better than “dweeb.”
Though I’m still fully prepared to watch Battlestar Galactica for the third time through if anyone else is willing.