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Why we’re in cahoots

Q: I don’t know if you care about older columns, but you may want to update your 2011 item about “cahoot.” It seems silly to say, as your source does, that this Western Americanism descends from French. Many (most?) Westernisms come from Mexican Spanish.

A: The term “cahoot” first appeared in the American Southeast in the early 19th century and didn’t show up in the West until decades later, so it’s unlikely that the usage comes from Mexican Spanish.

In the early days, the word was singular (“cahoot”) and could refer to either a legitimate partnership or a devious collaboration. It’s now used primarily in the scheming sense in plural constructions such as “in cahoots” and “in cahoots with.”

The first known use of the term, tracked down by the linguist Ben Zimmer, is from “Barney Blinn,” an anonymous sketch in a Georgia newspaper about a fictional backwoods orator:

“I ha’nt read newspapers for nothing–Gin’ral Government and the ministration are going in cahoot to undermine and overrule the undertakings of the free People of Georgia” (The Augusta Chronicle, June 20, 1827).

We found the following example, which appeared a year later in a public notice in a Mississippi newspaper:

“I have reason to beleve, that a certain clan, cahoote of connexion, and othrs residing in the vicinity of my residence are predisposed to create, unnecessary and illegal liabilities on me, thro, the agency of my wife, LOUISA HOLMES” (Statesman & Gazette, Natchez, July 24, 1828).

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary, which we’ve expanded, is from a list of “provincialisms and vulgarisms” in “Md. Va. Ky. or Miss.,” with “improper” examples followed by “corrected” ones:

“Hese in cahoot with me. He is in partnership with me” (Grammar in Familiar Lectures, 1829, by Samuel Kirkham).

This South Carolina example, found by the language researcher Pascal Tréguer, is from a list of “cracker” slang: “Co hoot—Copartnership” (City Gazette and Commercial Daily Advertiser, Charleston, May 14, 1830).

And here’s an example from a February 1839 speech on the floor of the House of Representatives by Rep. Alexander Duncan, a Democrat from Ohio:

“Only think of this! A rank Abolition Whig from the North in ‘cahoot’ with a rank anti-Abolition Whig from the South” (from the Congressional Globe, predecessor of the Congressional Record).

The OED cites a different passage from the same speech: “I will splice the member from North Carolina to you, and for a short time will consider you one person, or in ‘cahoot.’ ”

The first Oxford citation for the plural “cahoots” is from a manuscript diary of G. K. Wilder (1862): “Mc wished me to go in cahoots in a store.” And “cahoots” it’s been ever since.

In his Dictionary of Americanisms (1848), John Russell Bartlett describes “cahoot” as a term used in “the South and West to denote a company or union of men for a predatory excursion, and sometimes for a partnership in business.”

However, the only Western example cited by Bartlett is from what we would now consider the Midwest. The passage, from a humorous newspaper sketch, describes an encounter on a Mississippi steamship:

“One day, the confidential hoosier took him aside, told him that there was a ‘smart chance of a pile’ on one of the tables, and that if he liked, he (the hoosier) would go in with him—in cahoot!” (from “A Resurrectionist and His Freight,” by J. M. Field, in The St. Louis Reveille, March 9, 1846).

The earliest example we’ve seen for “cahoot” used in the region now considered the West is from a newspaper in the Oregon Territory:

“I’m much obleeged to ye, sir; but old Betsey Baker (Betsey Baker was the name he gave to his own rifle) hev ben so long in cahoot together, that I hev a kind of efiction for the old lady” (from the Oregon Spectator, Oregon City, Oct. 18, 1849).

As for the origin of “cahoot,” the OED, an etymological dictionary updated regularly online, says the term is “probably a borrowing” from cahute, French for a hut or shack, and notes that “cahute” meant a cabin in the Scottish English of the 1500s.

The dictionary has two 16th-century citations (the earliest is from 1508 and describes a “foule cahute,” or foul cabin, on a ship).

Other modern etymological references are more hesitant than the OED to link cahute and “cahoot.” Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, for example, says “cahoot” is “of uncertain origin; occasionally thought to be borrowed from French cahute cabin.”

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang and Green’s Dictionary of Slang have similar entries. Green’s also has the French term cohorte, which gave English the word “cohort,” as a possible source of “cahoot.”

The OED doesn’t indicate how an obsolete Scottish term of French origin came to mean a partnership or conspiracy in the American South of the 19th century. The idea perhaps is that the cabin suggests people working together in private.

We’ve searched newspaper and book databases for the use of “cahoot” in various spellings by Scottish and Latin American immigrants  in the late 18th century and early 19th.

We also checked such sources as Dictionaries of the Scots LanguageDiccionario Etimológico Castellano En Línea, and Dictionary of American Regional English for hints of a possible Spanish or Scottish connection to the American usage. No luck.

We’d describe the origin of “cahoot” as uncertain.

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