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What the Heck is a Hoosier?

The definition of Hoosier has been widely debated over the past two centuries, especially throughout Indianapolis history. But if you’re from Indiana, you know what it means to be a proud Hoosier. It’s the official demonym for Indiana residents, because Hoosiers couldn’t settle for “Indianan” or “Indianian,” we needed a name far more special. The origin of the word is completely unknown, but Indiana residents have created their own definition, which varies from person to person.

More than 150 years ago, Indiana took on the nickname “Hoosier State.” The name has become the title of a famous movie, the mascot of a huge state university and a marketing campaign for businesses all over the region. In other parts of the world, Hoosier has a different meaning, but none consider the word as close to home as Indiana residents.

The nickname is thought to be one of a variety of terms used from state-to-state during the early 19th century. For example, Pennsylvanians were called “Leatherheads,” Alabamans were “Lizards,” Nebraskans were “Bug Eaters,” Texans were “Beetheads,” and people from Missouri were called “Pukes.” These hilarious regional nicknames were likely given out of rivalry from surrounding states. Instead of getting upset, or erasing it from history, Hoosiers embraced the name and made it their own, much like the American colonists adopted the name “Yankees.” In some parts of the U.S., Hoosier is still used as a derogatory term. In Missouri, for example, the word translates to “hick,” or “white trash.” But hey, you’d be defensive too if someone call you a “Puke.”

In the late 1980s, the Wall Street Journal took on the venture of figuring out what the term Hoosier actually means, and Indiana Governor Robert D. Orr answered it best, “Those unfortunate souls who, for some reason, live elsewhere may continue to speculate as to the origin or our name; and we Hoosiers will continue to enjoy their doing so.”

The earliest written reference to the term related to Indiana was found in a personal letter in 1827, but the word went public when John Finley wrote a poem in the 1833 titled The Hoosier’s Nest. The poem was published in an Indianapolis newspaper. Since that time, many other poems, books and films have used the Hoosier name, including a book by author Meredith Nicholson called The Hoosiers, which was an attempt to study the origin of the term in 1900. At that time, it was asserted that the nickname was given to Indiana referring to unintelligent, red- neck country folk. In 1907, author Jacob Piatt Dunn published The Word Hoosier, which was an in-depth study of the word’s origin. He concluded that Indiana residents adopted the nickname as a humorous gesture.

 

The 1986 film Hoosiers is about an underdog high school basketball team, from a small town, that goes on to win the state championship tournament. The movie was shot at the historic Hinkle Fieldhouse on the campus of Butler University. The film was inspired by the Milan High School basketball team. The player who made the winning shot in the film was a character based on Bobby Plump. The real Mr. Plump now owns an Indianapolis bar called Plump’s Last Shot, located in Broad Ripple.  The Indiana State Museum displays Hoosier memorabilia and collector’s items from the film. The Museum is located in White River Park next to the NCAA Hall of Champions.

Over the years, several Indianapolis events have incorporated Hoosier into their title. For example, many Indianapolis sports events use the name, including the Hoosier 100, a legendary part of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race (the Indy 500). This event is held annually at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. The Hoosier 100 is one of the longest-running traditions of the classic Indianapolis 500 Festival.

Another Indiana tradition that borrows the name is the Hoosier Horse Fair and Expo, held every spring at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, near the Pepsi Coliseum. The Indiana High School Athletic Association has titled several Indiana basketball conferences with the Hoosier name, including the Hoosier Crossroads Conference that encompasses several central Indiana high schools.

Many myths have surfaced over the years about what the term Hoosier originally meant, but it is widely accepted that it originated from the English word “hoozer,” which means people of the hill. This doesn’t make much sense considering Indiana is as flat as a day old soda, but no matter what anyone says, Hoosiers have great pride for their homeland in the Crossroads of America.

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