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Why Is Indiana Called the Hoosier State?

By R. Stamm
Updated May 17, 2024
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Since Indiana officially adopted the Hoosier State motto in the early 1830s, much debate has surrounded the reasons and the origins of the term without a definite answer as to why they chose it. Some citizens suggest that the state’s motto stems from a famous ship or a poem, and others prefer to believe in taller tales about barroom brawls and mispronounced phrases. Historians performed extensive studies of the word to determine the origin, and theories suggest that it is a derogatory, Anglo-Saxon word used to describe uneducated, backwoods people. Early settlers and modern-day citizens of Indiana believe the word describes a body of brave and courageous people. Whatever the reason, Indiana displays the motto proudly throughout the state.

There are several false stories concerning the word "Hoosier" and its application to the Hoosier State. One false tale describes how nosy woodsmen would call out, “Who’s here,” running the words together so that they eventually sounded like Hoosier. Other false theories concerning the mispronunciation of phrases include running the words “who’s your relative" together so that it sounds like the word Hoosier. The theory that word Hoosier stems from the Indian word hoosa, which means corn or maize, is also a false claim. Another false report gives credit for the phrase to an Indiana contractor named Hoosier who called his men “Hoosier’s men.”

While there are many false stories and tall tales about the origins of the motto Hoosier State, several plausible reasons exist. Perhaps the most likely explanation that the Hoosier State calls itself by that name is due to John Finley’s poem “The Hoosier’s Nest.” In this poem, the word describes a group of independent, brave people. Early settlers seemed to believe the term had a similar meaning to that of the poem and proudly used it to refer to themselves. Another possible reason is that a business man, G.L. Murdoch, offered to call his ship the “Indiana Hoosier” for business privileges in a letter he wrote to General John Tipton in February of 1831.

While these stories are entertaining, etymologists and historians agree that the phrase Hoosier describes others in a contemptuous manner. The derogatory term applied to individuals in the same context as the words redneck or hick. The term first described the peoples living in the Ohio Valley and then spread through to Southern Indiana. Over the years, the term came to include all inhabitants of Indiana; and it lost the negative connotations of the original meaning.

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