Monday, June 18, 2012

St. Louis' own language: "Hoosier"

Starting off my series on words that have a STL connection or unique meaning, I wanted to explore the word hoosier. 

So you think you know what a hoosier is, eh? Well, I guess a lot of that depends on where you're from? If you're from Indiana, the word is a source of pride and local identity...ummm, not so much here. As a kid growing up in Belleville, Illinois just a mere 7.5 miles from St. Louis, I heard the term infrequently, but didn't really understand it, and rarely used it.  Some friends and family from the Metro East did use the word, but most don't.  I had to drop some knowledge of this fine St. Louis term on my parents among others. 
Hoosier has a very distinctly alternate meaning in the STL metro region than it does in other parts of the country.  From wikipedia:
Hoosier ( /ˈhuːʒər/) is the official demonym for a resident of the U.S. state of Indiana. Although residents of most U.S. states typically adopt a derivative of the state name, e.g., "Indianan" or "Indianian", natives of Indiana never use these derivatives. Indiana adopted the nickname "Hoosier State" more than 150 years ago.[1] "Hoosiers" is also the nickname for the Indiana University athletic teams. Hoosier is sometimes used in the names of Indiana-based businesses and organizations. In the Indiana High School Athletic Association, seven active athletic conferences and one disbanded conference have the word Hoosier in their name.
In other parts of the country, the word has been adapted to other uses. In St. Louis, Missouri, the word is used in a derogatory fashion similar to "hick" or "white trash".[2] "Hoosier" also refers to the cotton-stowers, both black and white, who move cotton bales from docks to the holds of ships, forcing the bales in tightly by means of jackscrews. A low-status job, it nevertheless is referred to in various sea shanty lyrics. Shanties from the Seven Seas[3] includes lyrics that mention hoosiers. Hoosier at times can also be used as a verb describing the act of tricking or swindling someone.
That last sentence is startling...ever been hoosier'd?  Another part of the above definition that caught me off guard is the use of the term for black people.  That just doesn't follow my experience.  The term hoosier has always been reserved for white people.  Agree? 
Either way, chances are, if you are a St. Louisian, or even a metropolitan St. Louisian in the burbs, you probably know exactly what a hoosier is and some version (likely with a mullet) comes to mind...and, it probably has nothing to do with Indiana University basketball.  Frankly, I love the word, it adds to our local flavor, history and it's a distinct description.  It's not a bad word, and the politically correct set that takes offense in it can get lost.  You've got to embrace this works too well to not have it in your vocabulary.  Other variations of the term I've heard:  hoos-wah (noun), hoos (adjective), turbo hoos (descriptive noun).

For those readers who have never been to St. Louis, allow me to prove my point.  Go to google and type hoosier in the search box and select images.  You'll see many pictures of Hoosier brand racing tires, Indiana basketball players, and other Indiana-related images.  Nothing of the STL hoosier though.   Now type in St. Louis Hoosier and see what you get...ah, now that's more like it.  Here are couple of the images that popped up on the first page:
^Hot looks for hot times, indeed.  I hope this doesn't seem mean spirited, I'm not poking fun as much as I am fascinated by the conscientious, deliberate work that it takes to hone this look.  It's on purpose, it's not an accident...these men seek this look out...this is a big part of who they are.  Notice the shirtless theme? Notice the many photos taken at Busch Stadium?  The Blues get the local rap for having hoosier fans, but I think that is tied to the old days at the Checkerdome with it's cheap seats/beer and proximity to Dogtown that brought that on.  When the Blues moved to the Scottrade Center and starting charging major $$ for admission, the hoosiers started staying at home.  I think Cards game are more hooʒ than Blues games.

But being a hoosier is so much more than ridiculous tattoos, mullets and sleeveless shirts.  More than anything, it's an attitude...a thought process...a way of life.  Lord knows I've done things that are hoosier (usually involving duct tape); I get the comes with the y chromosome...although women are not immune from being hoosiers.  Hell, there may be a little hoosier in all of us.  But, at their core, are hoosiers funny?  Or, are hoosiers mean spirited and destructive to a dignified way of life?  I don't general find the latter to be my experience, but I have seen some crazy fights and lewd behavior from hoosiers.  Usually alcohol induced.  There are some great South City bars that are prime hot beds for hoosier sightings....I won't name names, but I'm sure everyone has their own favorites.  I've generally found hoosiers to be harmless and even quite endearing.  They are tough to have as immediate neighbors though, I've lived that.

Let's give the regional aspect of the hoosier some more thought...

Today, is the STL hoosier more common in the suburbs of St. Louis?  Rural counties on the outskirts?  St. Charles and Jefferson County?  Or is the hoosier more prone to settle right here in the City of St. Louis?

Sure STL professional sporting events, Soulard Mardi Gras and other city events and locations are great for luring in hoosiers from far and wide.  But are they coming from somewhere else?  Are they coming from the STL neighborhoods?  Hoosiers used to be strongly associated with Carondelet and the Patch for sure, maybe even the 3 neighborhoods of Dogtown.  But is that true today?  Are they an endangered species, are they leaving for the suburbs and rural areas?  Does the modern hoosier still listen to classic rock or has he morphed to a more contemporary country music, a mod-hate rock/nu-metal ensemble as can be heard on  105.7 F.M., or even better yet, the urban white hip hop hoosier?

As a middle-aged guy, the hoosier vision that is etched into my brain is the one who identifies with Molly Hatchet or Metallica.  But the old KSHE 95, cut-off-jorts hoosier may be going the way of the dodo bird.  But I think his spirit will live on for my kids generation to continue to experience.  But the future STL hoosier probably will not have a mullet and a sleeveless shirt; the future hoos I envision is a more ghetto take on the original hoosier.  One who tries to identify with low-class black urban lifestyles (ghetto is another misunderstood word that I'll approach next...stay tuned).  I think there is a new brand of white trash or hoosier in town that has sprung up in the post hip-hop error.

What's your description of a hoosier?  Where are they most spotted?  Are they leaving St. Louis or gaining in numbers?  Will the STL hoosier live on, or is he/she a dying breed?  Is hoosier an endearing term (like homie) or is it an insult or mean-spirited?

Back to wikipedia:
The term "hoosier" began to take on its negative connotation in St. Louis during the mid-1950's when the Chrysler Corporation built a large automobile assembly plant in the St. Louis suburb of Fenton and closed a plant it had been operating in Indiana. At the time, the city of Fenton, was at the then-rural southwest rim of St. Louis county. During this time, Many former employees of the closed Indiana plant moved to Fenton for employment; so many, in fact, that entire subdivisions of new homes sprang up south of the plant, near what was then US Route 66. It became something of a local joke to refer to the new arrivals from Indiana as "hoosiers", and before long, anyone from the rural edges of St. Louis County was considered such.
That last sentence is an important tie to my understanding of the word.  I truly think this is a St. Louis and St. Louis County term...not used as universally in the Metro East and maybe not as common in St. Charles and other exurbia counties.

And finally:
Thomas E. Murray carefully analyzed the use of "hoosier" in St. Louis, Missouri, where it is the favorite epithet of abuse. "When asked what a Hoosier is," Murray writes, "St. Louisans readily list a number of defining characteristics, among which are 'lazy,' 'slow-moving,' 'derelict,' and 'irresponsible.'" He continues, "Few epithets in St. Louis carry the pejorative connotations or the potential for eliciting negative responses that hoosier does." He conducted tests and interviews across lines of age and race and tabulated the results. He found the term ecumenically applied. He also noted the word was often used with a modifier, almost redundantly, as in "some damn Hoosier."
In a separate section Murray speaks of the history of the word and cites Baker and Carmony (1975) and speculates on why Hoosier (in Indiana a "neutral or, more often, positive" term) should remain "alive and well in St. Louis, occupying as it does the honored position of being the city's number one term of derogation." A radio broadcast took up where Murray left off. During the program Fresh Air, Geoffrey Nunberg, a language commentator, answered questions about regional nicknames. He cited Elaine Viets, a Post-Dispatch columnist (also quoted by Paul Dickson), as saying that in St. Louis a "Hoosier is a low-life redneck, somebody you can recognize because they have a car on concrete blocks in their front yard and are likely to have just shot their wife who may also be their sister."
I don't agree with the Elaine Viets description.  Are hoosiers murderers?  My definition is a more harmless one...annoying, sometimes crude yes, murdering thugs, no.  I also don't think hoosiers use their look and lifestyle to intimidate others.  I could be wrong.

So who is this Thomas Murray?  I must know more.  He wrote a book called: "The Language of St. Louis, Missouri: (American United Studies XIII, Linguistics, Vol 4) 1986".  So I went to my trusty public library website to order a copy of this book from the central stacks.  It was shipped to my local branch (Barr) and in my hands within 5 days.  Damn, we have a great library system...but anyhow, here's the book:
Now, I take issue with Murray's sampling methodology because he chose not to interview any black people.  His research was done in the 80s yet he didn't speak to one black person...ummm, did you know that 1/2 the city is made up of black people.  He explains the broad range of ethnicities:  southern blacks, Czechs, Italians, Dutch, Irish, German, French, Poles, etc.  but when he sampled the population he excluded blacks and he goes on to say that St. Louis is now populated "almost exclusively by blacks".  Huh?  Did this guy look at the demographics of St. Louis at all?  Here's the paragraph I'm referring to:
It becomes clear, then, that the linguist who wishes to study "the" language of St. Louis faces the problem of selecting informants that will not bias the final results of the study.  Rather than choosing equal numbers of each ethnic sub-population of the city, I elected to avoid "pure" informants as much as possible.  None of the ethnographic collecting of data reported above was done in strongly ethnic sections of the city, just as none of my other informants came from any but an ethnically mixed background.  Furthermore, because one of the requirements to be met by all non-phonological informants was that both they and their parents had to have lived in St. Louis all of their lives, all of my data come from the mouths of white speakers.  It is true that Inner St. Louis is now populated almost exclusively by blacks, but the vast majority were born in other parts of the country and then migrated to the Gateway City; thus, I could not, strictly speaking, label their speech "the language of St. Louis."
Am I missing something here?  St. Louis has never been almost exclusively populated by blacks and in the 1980's there are plenty of black families whose parents had lived in St. Louis their whole lives as did their progeny.

Aside from disagreeing with his sampling methodology, I also don't think there's much to gain from this book regarding the word hoosier:
Hillbilly occurs in the speech of one middle-class female over the age of 60, but the popular favorite in all other demographic cells in hoosier.
The two favorite in this semantic category are hoosier and [the n-word (sorry, I can't do it)].  Hoosier is preferred most often by members of the upper class except males between the ages of 20 and 40, middle-class males over 40 and middle-class females under 20 and 40 to 60, and lower-class males under 40.  Spook is used infrequently by members of each gender and socioeconomic class, hillbilly is reported by one middle-class and two lower-class males over the age of 40.
The book has some insight on other debatable words like crawdad vs. crayfish and soda vs. pop.

Anyhow, hoosier is a word that has a completely alternate meaning in St. Louis.  Enjoy it, use, it...we own this word.  It's ours.  Cherish it.

I'd love to hear your personal take on the word and where you first heard it and where you are from (please be specific on the last one i.e. Des Peres is not St. Louis).