The Grammarphobia Blog

On the road again

Q: I have been trying for years to get a definitive answer to the origin of the word “hobo.” There are some interesting theories, but nothing concrete. Can you shed any light on this truly important American cultural notion? I would be much obliged and quote you eternally!

A: I’m sorry to disappoint you, but the only definitive answer to your question is that there is no definitive answer.

The word “hobo” first showed up in print in the northwestern United States in the late 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest citation is from an 1889 article in the Ellensburgh (Washington) Capital: “The tramp has changed his name, or rather had it changed for him, and now he is a ‘Hobo.’ ”

Etymologists searching for the origin of the word “hobo” have come up with a lot of theories, some more likely than others, but none of them definitive.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang lists two “plausible” origins: (1) “hoe-boy,” a migratory farm hand; (2) “Ho, boy,” a term used by railroad mail handlers in the 1880s.

Random House notes, however, that there’s no paper trail for “hoe-boy,” and the documentation for “Ho, boy” is poor, though the expression has been traced to the 19th-century American Northwest, where “hobo” first appeared in print.

The dictionary also mentions an early, tantalizing use of “ho-boy” as a verb that seems to refer to traveling like a hobo.

Here’s the citation, from an 1848 article in the New Orleans Picayune: “A year’s bronzing and ‘ho-boying’ about among the mountains of that charming country called Mexico.”

The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins lists “hoe boy,” “Ho, boy,” and one other possibility: “Hey, bo” (with “bo” a sarcastic corruption of the word “beau”).

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology adds a couple of other hypothetical sources: “hawbuck” and “hawbaw,” 19th-century English dialect for a clumsy or coarse fellow.

I could go on. There are quite a few other theories, but most of them are too far-fetched to take seriously.

I’ll end this with an excerpt from H.L. Mencken’s The American Language (4th ed., 1937):

“Tramps and hoboes are commonly lumped together, but in their own sight they are sharply differentiated. A hobo or bo is simply a migratory laborer; he may take some longish holidays, but soon or late he returns to work. A tramp never works if it can be avoided; he simply travels. Lower than either is the bum, who neither works nor travels, save when impelled to motion by the police.”

Sorry I can’t be more helpful, but not all questions have definitive answers.

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