How the Term “Hoosier” Became a Weapon in the Class War

In Indiana, “hoosier” is a badge of honor. In St Louis, it’s the nastiest insult around. The reason for the difference can be found in labor history, and it reveals the intraclass prejudice that breaks worker solidarity.

Workers leaving the Standard Oil Company refinery in Whiting, Indiana, 1952. (Robert Yarnall Richie / Library of Congress / Corbis / VCG via Getty Images)

Bougie. Bum. Stinking rich. Skid row. Moneybags. No scrubs. In English, we’ve got an excess of terms that reinforce the boundary between the rich and the poor.

But we also have a vast lexicon meant to divide the working class, separating the diligent and noble poor from their supposedly lazy or ungrateful counterparts. Those monikers are a rare window into the granular sociopolitical realities of people who often don’t have their history recorded at all.

The terms separating “good workers” from “bad workers” are often used by working-class people themselves and tend to be more obscure and regional. For instance, in South St Louis, Missouri, the hardworking German immigrant poor were termed the “scrubby Dutch” for their refusal to use mere mops, preferring to get down on all fours with a brush and go at it.

On the flip side are the “hoosiers,” St Louis’s number-one term of derogation. No other city or state uses hoosier this way. In Indiana, it’s a badge of honor, and people outside of this regional pocket don’t say it at all.

A Wabash Soap and Chemical advertisement for Hoosier soap. (Library of Congress)

St Louis’s use of hoosier as an insult is such a strange anomaly that it has attracted the study of linguists and historians. And the story they tell fundamentally concerns labor and class in America — particularly, how the Chrysler Automotive Cooperation exploited rural migrants, turning neighbors and coworkers against each other.

The Strange Evolution of Hoosier

In Indiana, there remains a raging debate about the origins of hoosier. It may have been a way to jam “Who is there?” into a one-word greeting, or it may have been a guy named Mr Hoosier. In 1907, in “The Word Hoosier,” historian Jacob Piatt Dunn asserts that the real origin is

in the pugnacious habits of the early settlers. They were vicious fighters; and not only gouged and scratched, but frequently bit off noses and ears. This was so ordinary an affair that a settler coming into a bar room on a morning after a fight, and seeing an ear on the floor, would merely push it aside with his foot and carelessly ask, “Who’s [sic] ear?”

The word probably had a slight pejorative connotation at the beginning, like a regional synonym for “redneck.” But over the years, hoosier has “absolutely lost any derogatory meaning in Indiana,” Jeffrey Graf told Riverfront Times. Graf, a veteran Indiana librarian and researcher, points out, “It’s not the first time somebody has adopted a term that could be perceived as derogatory . . . I suppose it’s the same as adopting ‘Quakers’ for Society of Friends. They were called Quakers because they shook before the Lord. Methodists were accused of being methodical in their beliefs.” In Indiana, hoosier is like that.

Proud Indianans exported the term across the Midwest in a dozen different vehicles — as a kind of bread or a kitchen cabinet model, which was manufactured in Indiana and advertised as a “Hoosier.”

But whatever positive connotations it had developed were once again extinguished beyond the expanse of Illinois, across the Missouri state line.

The “Hoosier” Cabinet. (Library of Congress)

Interestingly, hoosier-bashing in St Louis was initially an intraelite affair. Competition for industry between Missouri and Indiana gave the word a particular negative inflection, with St Louis elites mocking hoosiers in the papers as early as 1889. The St Louis merchant class felt besieged by upstart Indiana businessmen, who, even though they were posing real competition and occupied the same petit bourgeois stratum, were considered by old-money St Louisans to be cornfed and stupid.

Daniel Duncan at the Department of Linguistics at New York University points to this localized evolution as a complex animal. “Use of hoosier is salient enough that sociolinguistic studies of [St Louis] often refer to it as a motivation for phonological changes to the dialect,” he writes. In other words, all St Louisans know what a hoosier is and change the way they talk so as to avoid being called one. Duncan notes that middle- and upper-class whites are specifically sensitive to it as slander. They’ve even altered how they speak so they aren’t mistaken for a lowly hoosier.

Kurt Vonnegut, Michael Jackson, David Letterman, and Pete Buttigieg proudly declare themselves hoosiers, which for them just means Indiana native. Why would a member of the St Louis bourgeoisie fear this defamation? Because on a local level, hoosiers are poor whites. A St Louis hoosier goes to the family reunion looking for a date. A St Louis hoosier uses a bath towel for a napkin. They’ve got a hoosier yacht up on blocks in their driveway — a pontoon boat with a stars and bars flag hanging off the side. There’s an intensity around the word as a slur. In 2003, a Post-Dispatch columnist described a St Louis hoosier as “a low-life redneck.”

This attitude of class snootiness is widely held in the municipalities neighboring South St Louis. Don’t go to that Walmart or else you’ll get “hoojed out.” The St Louis hoosier is a loudmouth who has the cops and Child Services at their door every day. And if there’s going to be another heat-of-the-moment tragic shooting, it’ll probably concern those hoosiers hanging around the scummy end of the trailer park.


A few episodes in labor history help further explain the derogatory hoosier. St Louis University communications scholar Avis Meyer observed that its more popular usage, beyond the local merchant class, “goes back to the 1930s and union struggles” at Anheuser-Busch.

Indiana capitalists weren’t the only interlopers in St Louis; Indiana workers were in the mix too. According to Meyer, the Anheuser-Busch brewery got in the habit of hiring nonunion workers from Indiana during labor strikes, rural migrants who were desperate enough to cross picket lines and accept lower wages. At times, hoosier intersected with “scab.” Beyond strike circumstances, it “came to mean a country bumpkin who screwed up your job.”

Then in the 1950s, during the mid-century auto boom, Chrysler’s Plymouth auto plant in Evansville, Indiana, needed to upgrade equipment and wanted closer proximity to a central railroad. Instead of investing in Evansville, in 1953, Chrysler shuttered the Indiana plant and moved operations to the far edge of South St Louis, to a county called Fenton.

Chrysler employees in 1953 admiring the one millionth Plymouth automobile manufactured in Evansville, Indiana. (Edgar M. Greenwell)

There was nothing out in Fenton but some woods, hills, and a few homesteaders. When the plant arrived, so too did another wave of Indiana workers migrating from Evansville, mixing with local autoworkers at the Fenton plant. The rich regarded the newcomers with typical class prejudice, while workers resented their sudden arrival in the workforce. Thus St Louisans across the class spectrum greeted them with their favorite slur: hoosiers!

The word is a curse in the superstitious sense of words that perform a magic spell. In this case, their effect was to give the Chrysler Corporation an advantage, with workers focusing on their hatred of incoming hoosiers instead of the bosses who moved workers around like chess pieces, omnipotently sealing their economic fates. The animosity between rural Indiana migrants and workers with local roots was, along with pervasive racism, just the kind of division Chrysler needed to stave off solidarity and a real organized threat from the union.

And for what? In 2009, Chrysler’s Fenton assembly plant closed for good, laying off about thirty-seven hundred workers. The plant lasted about forty years, and now those union jobs are gone.

View of the Chrysler plant in Evansville. (Evansville VanderBurgh Public Library)

In 2011, the plant’s buildings were razed, and now that area is devoted to a bright, gigantic, Wally’s gas station, with a dark field of Amazon distribution warehouses behind it — a collection of significantly worse jobs than Chrysler ever offered. In there is a lesson for the workers who spat on the hoosiers of yore. Without a good union job, who’s a hoosier now?

Hoosier Love

In South St Louis, the ’90s local access show Worldwide Magazine advertised its viewership: “Fifty thousand hoosiers can’t be wrong!” The term is a point of humble pride — you can expect the hoosier at the hoosier bar to be intoxicated but friendly. If a hoosier has a stain on their shirt, they will simply turn it inside out. The short film Hoosiers Are From Mars illustrates the romantic life of hoosiers, with American Pie levels of consent, ska music, White Castle, and beer.

Despite flashes of Indiana pride in South St Louis, across the rest of the city hoosiers are still akin to “rednecks,” with all the usual class implications.

Hoosier went through a tumultuous evolution, but its eventual effect in St Louis was to corrode worker power. It’s one example of the linguistic machinery that divides workers today from their neighbors and from people in far-off industrial-war zones. On the assembly line, there’s little daylight between an Indiana-born worker and a St Louis native. The differences are overblown to negative effect, just as they are between American-born and immigrant workers, or white and black workers.

Redneck, white trash, hoosier, and hillbilly, plus an enormous litany of racist terms inflected with class hatred — ultimately, they’re all tools that demean and divide the working class. They’re part of the armature of the class system, supporting the rich’s war against the poor and keeping workers too busy at each other’s throats to fight back.

The only answer is pride and solidarity. Hoosiers of the world unite!