The etymology of hoosier is unknown, but it has been used since at least 1830. According to Bill Bryson, there are many suggestions for the derivation of the word, but none is universally accepted. Jacob Piatt Dunn, longtime secretary of the Indiana Historical Society, noted that "hoosier" was frequently used in many parts of the South in the 19th century for woodsmen or rough hill people. He traced the word back to "hoozer," from the Cumberland dialect of England. This derives from the Anglo-Saxon "hoo", meaning high or hill. In Cumberland, "hoozer" meant anything unusually large, such as a hill. Immigrants from Cumberland settled in the southern mountains (Cumberland Mountains, Cumberland River, Cumberland Gap, etc.). Their descendants brought the name with them when they settled in the hills of southern Indiana.
Smith found that the 1826 letter by James Curtis cited by Dunn and others as the first known use of the term was actually written in 1846, and an 1827 diary entry by Sandford and Son (published in a newspaper in 1859) was likely an editorial comment and not from the original diary. Smith theorizes the word originated in the Ohio River commerce culture as a term for Indiana farmer flat-boatmen and did not become an insult until 1836.
Fisk University history professor William Piersen suggests that followers of preacher Harry Hoosier were the original "Hoosiers". Harry Hoosier was a black itinerant Methodist minister who evangelized throughout the American frontier at the beginning of the 19th century. Piersen writes, "Such an etymology would offer Indiana a plausible and worthy first Hoosier – 'Black Harry' Hoosier – the greatest preacher of his day, a man who rejected slavery and stood up for morality and the common man."
The term came into general usage in the 1830s. John Finley of Richmond, Indiana, wrote a poem, "The Hoosier's Nest", which was published in 1833 and was used as the "Carrier's Address" of the Indianapolis Journal, January 1, 1833. It was generally accepted as a term for Indiana residents by the 1840s, and as it came into common usage, the debates about the term's origin began.
In 1900, author Meredith Nicholson wrote The Hoosiers, an early attempt to study the origins of the word as applied to Indiana residents. Jacob Piatt Dunn published The Word Hoosier in 1907, a serious study into the origin of the term Hoosier as a term for the citizens of Indiana. Nicholson and Dunn both chronicled some of the popular, satirical origins of the word (see below). Nicholson, however, had also defended against an explanation that the word "Hoosier" was applied to Indiana because it referred to uncouth country folk. Dunn, by contrast, concluded that Indiana settlers adopted the word as a humorous nickname, and that the negative connotation had already faded when John Finley wrote his poem.
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