Why kids call homeless people hobos

Above is an episode of Kids React to Viral Videos in which some of the kids refer to the formerly-homeless "golden throated" Ted Williams a hobo. My two daughters and all their friends refer to homeless people as hobos, too. I have tried to explain that homeless people aren't generally hobos, but for some reason this word seems have stuck with kids. I never asked them where they first came up with the idea that homeless people are hobos, but it could be that they picked it up from a TV show for kids called iCarly. Or then again, the writers of iCarly may have picked it up from hearing kids say it. (Personally, I blame Hodgman and Apelad.)


Sociological Images has more:

Since one girl attributed her use of "hobo" to the TV show iCarly, Josh did a little searching and discovered that the show's official website contains a set of photos of the cast dressed up for a Hobo Party, complete with captions that make fun of or trivialize poverty and homelessness, including this first one that refers to the store "C.J. Penniless."
Trivializing homelessness: iCarly and "hobo parties"


  1. Legit hobos take these misnomers kinda seriously. A hobo friend of mine put it this way – A hobo is one who travels to work, a tramp is one who travels but doesn’t work, and a bum is one who neither travels or works.

  2. I often use this euphemism, because frankly, being a “hobo” is way more glamorous sounding than “indigent” or “homeless”. And a number of homeless people in our town are hobos, in the sense that they travel around due to seasonal changes, are resourceful and self-dependent and don’t seem to be terribly mentally ill.

    I feel more positively towards the guys drinking forties around a small fire under the bridge when I think of them as “hobos” and often stop to let them pet my dogs and chat. For our friends, “hobo” is a more humane term that induces us to behave in a more friendly way to these people, and I can’t see anything wrong with that.

    As for the tasteless “hobo” party, the verbal mocking of poverty was more insensitive than the costumes (hobo is an easy go-to costume for procrastinators). I don’t think people would have made these kind of remarks to the face of a homeless person.

    People will get upset about all kinds of things, but I’m not sure this should be one of them.

  3. I dunno about today’s youth, but I probably picked up the term “hobo” from watching Looney Tunes as a lad in the nineties.

    Turns out the classics aren’t shown like they used to be. In 2000 they became exclusive to Time Warner properties, slashing the number of networks allowed to air them. An in 1999, every “Speedy Gonzales” episode was taken off air because of internal concerns over negative stereotypes. Ironically, many hispanics protested the removal citing nostalgia and relatively tame stereotyping, so the began rebroadcast in 2002, but on a much more limited scale.

    ~D. Walker

  4. OED sez:

    ‘An idle shiftless wandering workman, ranking scarcely above the tramp’ (Funk).

    1889 Ellensburgh (Washington) Capital 28 Nov. 2/2 The tramp has changed his name, or rather had it changed for him, and now he is a ‘Hobo’.

    1891 ‘J. Flynt’ in Contemp. Rev. Aug., The tramp’s name for himself and his fellows is Hobo, plural Hoboes.

    1892 Pall Mall Gaz. 28 Dec. 3/3 They will be vagrants on the streets and hobos of the night.

    1896 Pop. Sci. Jrnl. 50 254 The tramp‥can scarcely be distinguished from the dyed-in-the wool hoboe.

    1896 Atl. Monthly Jan. 58 By the ‘Ambulanter’ it is called Gypsyland, by the tramp Hoboland.

    1918 Let. in F. A. Pottle Stretchers (1929) x. 295 We had been so long separated from our organization that we had pretty thoroughly acquired a hobo frame of mind.

    1925 J. Buchan John Macnab vii. 157 The gillies have‥gathered in some wretched hobo they found looking at the river.

    1928 Punch 15 Feb. 196/1 Few dramatic critics‥could display so adequate a working knowledge of‥the ways of hobos in the United States.

    1959 I. Opie & P. Opie Lore & Lang. Schoolchildren iii. 55 Gipsies, usually known as ‘gyppoes’ or ‘hoboes’.

    1963 H. Garner in R. Weaver Canad. Short Stories (1968) 2nd Ser. 40 Harvest hands are like hobos, their friendships as casual as the mating of a pair of flies.

  5. I’m an old who uses “hobo” rather than “homeless.” Probably because “hobo” implies the person is on some Huck Finn-esque grand adventure, rather than struggling with the indignities of destitution. I never really considered it before, but I guess it’s a method of emotionally distancing myself from what they’re going through.

  6. I’ve noticed this too. To my 14 year old son, any homeless person is a ‘hobo.’ He didn’t get it from me and I’m pretty sure he didn’t get it from iCarly either, as he wouldn’t be caught dead, etc. @johnhoeffluer, I’ll use your hobo friend’s definition the next time it comes up, though I’ll restrain my son from thinking of all homeless people as ‘bums.’

  7. I haven’t seen it, but I understand from my nieces that there’s an “American Girl Doll” themed movie, set in the Depression, that involved hobos. (Google, Google: Kate Kitteridge)

    I agree that “hobo” is a lot more a positive term than “bum” or “vagrant” or even “homeless.” There’s a sort of romantic vibe to the term. Brothers of the Road and all that.

  8. I’m sure this is why my son (7 years old) uses the word “hobo”. And he is insensitive about it. I’m working on him, but he’s got a mean streak that comes out sometimes.

    iCarly‘s actually not a bad show. It’s a lot better than most of the rest of the stuff he watches (and that’s after all the restrictions we put on his TV time), and better than a lot of prime time stuff too.

  9. In my midwesteern public high school, our “school spirit” week was called Hobo Week, and everyone was encouraged to dress the part. It started around the 1950s if I remember correctly.

  10. I’m nearly 30 years old, never seen iCarly, and I’ve called homeless people hobos for as long as I can remember. I always thought the words were synonyms. Is that not the case?

  11. iCarly has been on my list of shows that I don’t let my children watch for quite some time, due to the portrayal of adults as idiots and the subsequent disrespect and disdain shown by the children as acceptable. That being said, I can’t help but feel like you’re basically ragging on kids playing dress-up. “the hobo” has been a part of American culture for a hundred years, and is a standard dress-up character (hobo, movie star, cowboy, etc.) Remember, many hobos are hobos by choice.

    If iCarly posts pictures from their “chemo party” or “blackface party”, let me know, and I’ll be right there in the indignation line with you.

    1. Except we’re not talking about hobos, we’re talking about homeless people in general being called hobos. And homeless people, with ~35% of them suffering from some kind of mental disease, are not mostly homeless by choice.

      But way to miss the point of the post.

    2. That being said, I can’t help but feel like you’re basically ragging on kids playing dress-up. “the hobo” has been a part of American culture for a hundred years, and is a standard dress-up character (hobo, movie star, cowboy, etc.)

      That’s true. I can remember dressing up as a hobo one Halloween, and that was over 30 years ago.

      (On the other hand, back then we actually knew what a hobo was. There was even (positive) write-ups about them in the Boy Scout manual.)

    3. iCarly isn’t a bad show. The kids treat the “good” adults, such as their school principal and friendly neighbors, respectfully. The “bad” adults, such as the school teacher who openly hates kids or the terrible doorman, don’t get that same respect and are often the subjects of pranks or jokes, and are often portrayed as bumbling fools (think the burglars from Home Alone).

      For the most part, Carly (the title character and “role model” of the group) shows respect to the people who treat her well. The characters are obviously larger than life; they’re unnaturally well spoken, witty and attractive, but the same can be said for most scripted sitcoms.

      I think an important part of scripted TV is watching with your kids and discussing what they saw and how they interpreted the show afterwards. “Why do you think Carly and her friends were disrespectful to the teacher?”

      My only grudge with iCarly (and most kid sitcoms these days) is the amount of comic violence in each episode. I’d like to see the characters getting comically beat up, falling over, and generally getting “hurt” but without any ill after effects greatly reduced. If the stunt requires a stunt double, it’s probably too violent for kids to be watching.

  12. I am not a child. I have always considered homeless people hobos. Really, unless you know their transient habits, how can you tell on sight the difference? Are you implying that hobos might, in fact, be secret homeowners? Frankly, just because someone is begging doesn’t mean they’re homeless. Unless they have a sign that says the word “homeless” on it, you really don’t know. I personally can’t tell the homeless from the hipsters in my locale. I figure the hipsters are the ones throwing up in the bushes that are occupied by the hobos.

  13. I remember kids using “hobo” and “homeless” as synonyms when I myself was a child in the ’80s. Children don’t understand subtle differences between similar terms.

    1. Yeah, this dates back at least until the 1980s. As a kid growing up in the midwest, the term “hobo” was a nice term for homeless person, while “bum” was a derogatory one. Obviously, we had no idea what the supposedly correct usage was, we just went with what our parents/peers/TV told us to do.

      iCarly and other kids shows are just perpetuating a collapse of nuance that’s been out there for decades.

      1. I have to agree with you on this terminology being at least as old as the 80’s. Until this post and the subsequent comments I actually did not know there was a difference between “hobo”, “homeless”, “bum”, “vagrant”, and “drifter”. I always understood them to be synonyms, although “bum” or “drifter” always felt derogatory.

        I honestly did not know there was a discrete meaning for each term.

  14. These little strumpets need to clean up their act or someone’s going to pull a shiv out of their bindle and shank them for sardine money!

    Seriously, teenage girls are some of the cruelest/wittiest creatures in the galaxy. If a teenage girl met the aliens in Close Encounters instead of Richard Dreyfuss they would all run back into their disco spaceships and just start quietly crying to themselves.

    1. If a teenage girl met the aliens in Close Encounters instead of Richard Dreyfuss they would all run back into their disco spaceships and just start quietly crying to themselves.


  15. Maybe kids call the homeless “hobos” the same reason why I’d call them hobos…it’s easier to say than “homeless” or “vagrant” and doesn’t sound as demeaning as calling someone a “bum”.

  16. Seriously, there was an adult “hobo party” here in Brooklyn this past January: http://bit.ly/hWE6RE

    The place it “went down” was in Bed-Stuy. Right near the Marcy projects.

    And people wonder why gentrifiers are hated?

    1. The Hobo party was based on the song “Big Rock Candy Mountain” which was written by a hobo about a hobo fantasy land. The party recreated themes from the song and made them reality. Basically the hobo party was about real hobos and the hobo lifestyle and not homeless people. In fact the “gentrifiers” that threw the party are a bunch of poor punk kids, many of whom were hobos at some point (gutter punks might be more appropriate but pretty much the same thing). Is the party silly? Sure but it wasn’t mean spirited at all. Also, are you suggesting that people in the Marcy projects are hobos and therefore this party is insensitive to the native hobo population? Maybe do a little research next time.

      1. Also, are you suggesting that people in the Marcy projects are hobos and therefore this party is insensitive to the native hobo population? Maybe do a little research next time.

        Nope. I am not. But the Marcy Projects are far from wealthy. And hobos are not millionaires either.

        I grew up white and poor in Brooklyn. If my friends could scrounge up enough from minimum wage jobs to get some pizza and booze, the best we could do is hit the boardwalk and maybe see if we can hang out in Coney Island. Even my richer friends could maybe get a friends basement at best.

        How can a bunch of self-declared “bunch of poor punk kids” score huge warehouse spaces to trash in NYC nowadays for semi-legal parties? Please don’t wear punk as drag.

        The party recreated themes from the song and made them reality.

        Really? The invite posted here does touch on some themes:

        And you know, you are mostly right on track. But what the %^@!# is a “dumpster jumping” contest about?

        In fact the “gentrifiers” that threw the party are a bunch of poor punk kids, many of whom were hobos at some point (gutter punks might be more appropriate but pretty much the same thing).

        The last time I met gutter punks that were true pioneers in modern NYC, that was during the Tompkins Square Riot years in the late 1980s. Are you folks the ones who used to occupy the “Bat Cave” in Gowanus and harass neighborhood folks for no reason? Because those are the only Gutter Punks I know if in the part of Brooklyn your HQ—if you are directly connected with the group that organized this “party”—and those folks were truly some of the most abusive and harassing “punks” I have met in years. Last time I dealt with anyone close to being that way in Brooklyn was when someone rented out an apartment in my childhood building to a bunch of punk junkies who trashed it and harassed all the elderly neighbors.

        You might throw some decent and elaborate parties, and I have genuinely been impressed with the creativity, but wow… When I heard about the “Hobo Party” the words “patronizing” and “slumming” came to mind.

        1. Jack, if I was a rich white kid the last place I would move is the middle of Bed-Stuy, especially when they did. These kids are not rich kids and maybe half are white. They’ve been living in that space for years. In 2005 a 3-bedroom on Bedford & Metropolitan was $1,600 – imagine what they got that space for. That area has barely been gentrified to date, back when they got that space I can’t even imagine how cheap it was (and still is considering there still hasn’t been much gentrification).

          But let’s forget about all that because ultimately the point of the above post was that stupid kids don’t know the difference between homeless and hobo. If you’re offended by a hobo party in poor neighborhood then you clearly haven’t made that distinction yourself. If any hobos lived in Bed-Stuy then they simply wouldn’t be hobos to begin with because, as we all know, hobos are transient. Keep it real here Jack, you saw an opportunity to go on a hipster/gentrification rant and jumped on it. I’m all for it when it’s justified but your aiming at the wrong target here.

      2. And a post-script to the above: Class privilege is not always about directly wealth. Sometimes it has much more to do with access to resources, entitlements and other some what intangible things connected between one group and another.

        In the case of what is essentially a huge warehouse party in NYC nowadays that does not get shut down right away by the cops, you have to be fairly dense to not see immediate class privilege right there. But you know what? That’s not bad. Class divisions always exist. I’ve gone to exclusive parties in lofts, garages and reworked spaces attended by some very connected folks in very poor neighborhoods. There might be some class resentment, but it happens.

        But to throw a secret hipster party where folks who—let’s face it—are predominantly white are encouraged to basically dress up like homeless people—and faux dumpster dive for prizes—is pretty obnoxious. To hold it in the middle of Bed-Stuy which is predominantly black and poor and is now experiencing a wave of gentrification (aka: white people) moving in is not better. And right near the Marcy Projects? You know that place is not name-checked in tons of rap songs because it’s so nice, wealthy and palatial.

        Sorry but I think the hobo party concept you are debating is pretty tone deaf to say the least.

  17. I recently saw a fellow actually using the classic bag-on-the-end-of-a-stick, over-the-shoulder method of transporting his stuff the other day, and I thought to myself, “Now there’s a hobo.”

    I think the way he had his belongings packaged for travel made me think that.

  18. Also, am I the only person who noticed the girls were in a pink room with a frilly painting, and boys were in a blue room with more intellecty type stuff? Seriously? Books aren’t for girls?

  19. Actually, I was talking about the hobo party, you were talking about children seeing the hobo party and not being able to differentiate between the character “The Hobo” and the real homeless. I just happen to believe that the right response is to explain to children that no, those people on the street are not happy-fun clownlike characters like you see on iCarly or in those little statues, and not to criticize the “dressing up as a hobo” act itself.

    This is the same response I got from a parent when they found out my kids played with nerf dart guns. “OMG, don’t you realize how many people are murdered every year by guns?!?” Um, yes, I do. I also know that my kids have been taught the difference between murder and Nerf.

  20. I would tentatively argue that in the same way that dressing as a “hobo” trivializes human poverty, dressing as a monster trivializes physical deformity, or really cool wound makeup trivializes human suffering/injury.

    Where’s the fallacy there?

  21. The first time I got called a “homo” by an older kid, I thought the he was mixing up “hobo” and “homeless,” and I thought it was a weird insult since he seemed to be just as poor as me.

  22. Maybe the same reason kids call dumb people retarded?

    Hobo is actually more fun to say as a kid. It has a more humorous sound to it than homeless.

  23. @chemist

    I volunteer at a homeless shelter in Santa Monica – OPCC. I mingle. Not that I have a scientific/statistically sound analysis of the homeless, but my experience differs greatly from your characterization of the homeless as ‘35% of them suffering from some kind of mental disease, [and] are not mostly homeless by choice’. Simply not the case in my experience. I think many people read alot and experience a little.

  24. iCarly teaches disrespect for grown-ups? Are your kids naive enough to think that iCarly portrays adults accurately? Ehh. Whatevs. My daughter loves the show. I ax a lot of programs from what she can watch, mostly because the writing is so dreadful. iCarly is one of the few truly fun, smart and entertaining shows filled with old fashioned wholesome hi-jinx. FCC forbid that it teaches the girls any sass.

    I did consider the Hobo word use on the show. I’ve explained to her the subtle differences in types of homelessness and the fact that many people won’t make distinctions. I think she has a decent amount of empathy.

    I’m sure this Hobo usage hit the kid circuit through iCarly. I’d the writers were searching for a group they could safely make fun of. The world of kids’ TV is fraught with the minefields of political correctness, which might not be the worst thing in the world if they can still write fun, smart stuff.

  25. A century of writers like Mark Twain, L. Frank Baum, John Steinbeck and John Hodgman did for the hobo what Robert Louis Stevenson and J. M. Barrie did for pirates. For that reason I don’t find the idea of kids dressing up as bindle-slinging hobos any more offensive than dressing up as hook-handed buccaneers.

    Making fun of REAL homelessness is not cool, but then again neither is trivializing the very real life-or-death struggles that continue to plague the Somali coast.

  26. the simpsons also refer to homeless people as hobos occasionally, which is probably a bigger cultural influence than icarly.

  27. Huh, the guy named “slightly askew” is clearly on the level. How ’bout them apples!

    I call homeless people who are working “working men” (or women) and give them the same respect I give workers who have homes.

    I call homeless people who are laying in the gutter asking for a handout “bums”. I also give them money, while people with ten times my income walk past with their noses in the air, so STFU with the noise about my callous inhumanity. I give money to bums, do you? And don’t give me any noise about “they will just spend it on booze” – bums don’t have access to Dr. Feelgood like rich people do, and they have every right to self-medicate if they want to, you are just trying to assuage your guilty conscience. Call me when you change your name to St. Francis and give your car and house away to feed the poor, OK?

    Hobos are guys who ride the rails, untrimmed locks blowing in the wind, fighting off the bulls, the bindlestiffs, and John Hodgepodge, livin’ the life while you are sleeping. They name themselves, I don’t.

    1. OK, so you give money to the homeless. IMO the whole “Is it good to give money to panhandlers?” thing is sufficiently complicated that I don’t feel I can make a valid choice in the short span of seconds it takes me to pass the guy asking for spare change.

      Two stories – I once sat in a McDonald’s eating breakfast when two irritating boors came in, had a big breakfast, and proceeded to have a very loud “we want everybody to hear us so we can make a point of ignoring you and thus showing how above-it-all we are” conversation, expounding obnoxiously on every hot-button subject you can imagine. It was nice to see them leave. It wasn’t so nice to see them walk over to their less-than-5-year-old Cadillac and pull crutches, a neck brace, a wheelchair, and a little hand-lettered “Homeless. Please help.” sign out of the trunk. She got in the wheelchair. He put on the neck brace and took up the crutches. They then walked/rolled the hundred yards to the nearest freeway intersection. They were still working that intersection when I drove through at lunch.

      Isolated incident? Not necessarily.

      On another occasion, I scheduled too many errands to run at lunch. Then I added a couple enroute. Then a couple of things I was doing got screwed up by the merchant involved and I had to leave and come back. The end result was that I wound up crisscrossing a few square miles of roads near my workplace for over an hour. This included 3 major freeway/surface street intersections, all three of which I went through from every direction that day. At every one of those intersections, no matter the approach vector, there was a homeless person with a little sign asking for money. This is not unusual. However, something was odd. I didn’t know what until I had seen at least a half dozen of these folks and then I re-drove through a few intersections just to be sure I wasn’t imagining things. Sure enough, I wasn’t. The thing that had poked my subconscious was the signs. They weren’t all just typical examples of the genre. They were nearly identical. Same cardboard. Roughly the same size. Roughly the same verbiage. And ALL in the SAME handwriting! These people were all working together or, at minimum, sharing resources in a way inconsistent with random panhandling. My best guess is that someone picked up a few homeless downtown, brought them to this part of town, set them up with signs, buckets to sit on and a couple of bottles of water, and then picks them up and takes a cut at the end of the day. Or maybe this is just a “beggar’s collective” that’s pooling resources and designated one guy as sign-maker. Whatever was going on, it was clear that these were not individuals who were down on their luck. This was someone’s organized, multi-employee business.

      I always thought the Sherlock Holmes plot device of the well-off Englishman who secretly made his money by panhandling to be purely fiction but it’s not. There’s a basis in reality. And on that basis, I no longer give money to folks standing by the road representing themselves as hard-luck cases. Between the ones who’ll blow it on drugs or alcohol and the ones who are flat-out lying, the probability is too high that they aren’t someone I really care to help.

      1. You don’t give handouts to beggars because they might secretly have a cadillac out back?

        That’s even stranger than the “oh they will just spend it on drugs” excuse.

  28. When I was a kid, we referred to homeless people as “Bums.” Hobos were the guys who rode the railes with all thier possesions tied up in a hankie on the end of a stick.

  29. Although it’s been around for a while as an alternate for homeless, I noticed hobo trending about ten years ago in conjunction with the Simpsons episode, “Simpsons Tall Tales”. I feel that it’s usage has spread because it’s far easier to think of the homeless and lovable tramps than to try to tackle such a monumental problem. For example: “I witnessed a homeless person defecating on the sidewalk today.” vs. “I just saw a hobo take a poop.”

  30. @Shelby – Good question, because of course, the glib nomenclature doesn’t really address it. I don’t know. My buddy spent about 3 years riding the rails, and as you’d imagine, he got pretty absorbed into the subculture and has a streak of what I’d describe as something akin to Hobo pride.

    It’s obviously a jejune way to think about all kinds of different people and their individual situations. But I thought it an interesting, relevant insight I could share, partially because I don’t expect many people in boxcars to log-in and mention that conflating the conditions or homelessness or poverty with hoboism can be offensive to some hobos.

    All of which is interesting stuff to me. I didn’t mean to come off as insensitive to anyone.

    1. Jejune? That’s jejune? You have the temerity to say that I’m talking to you out of jejunosity? I am one of the most june people in all of the Russias!

      Sorry, I occasionally channel Woody Allen. There’s been a mistake! I know, I made it!

  31. thanks boing boing , I just figured something out

    If I break down two ways to describe a stranger, one may be describing by something that’s not their choice, or by something that’s their choice.

    by choice: he/she is a lawyer, a doctor, a janitor , athletic, etc.
    not by choice: he/she is white, black, blond, etc.
    not by choice (some may argue): he/she is pretty, ugly, fat, skinny, poor, homeless
    by choice (some may argue): he/she is a hobo

    I think the cases where it’s by-choice , especially objectively by-choice, are never offensive. Can’t say the same for the not-by-choice cases.

    I’ll try to be more aware of this when I talk to others.

  32. Lots of younger teenage girls saw Kit Kittridge: An American Girl, which did a very good job teaching them about what the Depression was like. That was possibly their first exposure to the word “hobo”.

  33. I have to mention two books on hobo culture that are in the public domain…

    THE ROAD by Jack London, and FROM COAST TO COAST WITH JACK LONDON by “A-Number-One”, King of the Hobos. Both detail the hobo lifestyle during the 1890s economic depressions in the United States.

    The books were (loosely) the basis for the strange 1973 movie EMPEROR OF THE NORTH (POLE), although it was rebooted to the 1930s Great Depression.

    You can find THE ROAD on Project Gutenberg


    More on this: http://planettom.livejournal.com/288763.html

  34. Gah! For the longest time I couldn’t figure out where the hell my daughter came up with the term HOBO. Now I know. And I tend to watch iCarly with her. I feel like a derp.

  35. I am the original “josh” who wore this story. I do think it is interesting that everyone seems to defend the use of the word Hobo by showing that they are an actual group of people related to choosing to ride the rails. That is all fine and dandy but the real problem here is the kids equating people who are homeless and on the street (be it because of drug addictions, mental problems, financial problems, etc.) with this “lovable character” in history.

    I don’t think the men and women who are struggling to find something to eat and a place to stay see their life as part of a fanciful story of bandanas on sticks and life riding the rails.

    Using the term hobo to describe people who are down on their luck and homeelss is incorrect.

    the key we need to be focsing on is that homeless does not equal hobo. Using “fun” terms to distance us from the depressing reality in our cities is not healthy for any society.

  36. I’m nearly 40 and “hobos” have always been storied, old-timey train hoppers with bindles, NOT everyday homeless people on the street. If they are in fact referring to the homeless as “hobos” that’s pretty obnoxious imho. On the other hand, with the way the economy’s being looted by the wealthiest 1%, they may have a real opportunity to be “hobos” for real when they grow up.

  37. I really think the hobo meme was launched 5+ years ago by John Hodgman’s 700 Hoboes project. That’s exactly the kind of thing coastal hipsters grooved to in 2006… some of whom went on to write scripts for shows like iCarly. Which would mean Boing Boing itself is part of the kids’ current Hobo craze:


    (That’s one of many Hodgman hobo links on the Boing!)

  38. I have been calling homeless people hobos for almost two decades. I would attribute my use to Adam Carolla from the early Loveline days. He said it made them more mysterious and romantic. He has even dubbed his unit of smell “hobo”. I am sure that even Adam Carolla wasn’t the first to start this trend. Please don’t give credit to I Carly or any other insipid kid’s show.

  39. I’m way out of the iCarly demographic (a near 30 year old man) and I use “hobo” and “homeless person” about equally. I just think “hobo” is more fun to say.

  40. I shudder at the memory that at eight years old I went out for Halloween as a bag lady. Not only did my parents see nothing wrong with it, they encouraged it (probably because it was an easy costume to put together), and even had me make a sign to wear around my neck which read “bag lady,” just in case my costume wasn’t clear to our neighbors. At the time, I thought bag ladies were these fantastically dressed old ladies who chose to go around loaded down with bags (I didn’t question why), talking loudly and generally being eccentric. I was clearly ignorant, but my parents should have known better.

  41. As a young person, I can attest to the word ‘hobo’ being used to describe a homeless person since I was a rather young child (I’m twenty now). I have always tried to use the correct vernacular, and correct others, but it doesn’t seem to take. I remember, when I was in early high school, between dream careers, I decided I was going to be a hobo, and I meant traveling the rails, going from job to job, etc. Well, my classmates caught wind of this and thought I just meant a straight-up homeless person, and I couldn’t sway them from this idea.

    I think the general confusion comes from people who live in nice areas (I went to fairly nice schools), seeing people dressed similarly, who seemed to have no job, and when they hear them referred to as hobo, the name just sticks in their mind as homeless, and stationary. I’ve met a number of hobos in my hometown, and they hang out with some of the just-plain-homeless people in the square (I know a few of them by name, too). We’ve got a lot of trains in our town, so they’ve got a way to move. Some of them stay awhile, some of them just wander off after a few days. Many of them are not really looking for jobs, just wandering. But they don’t panhandle or anything. Met a lovely lady with this awesome, long skirt, stitched together from old clothing. It was beautiful, and she had a healthy-looking chocolate lab. She was very sweet.

  42. Where exactly is the outrage over this terminology coming from? Is “hobo” derogatory?

    I understand the difference between the various terms. I would use “homeless” to describe the average homeless person you might see in a city, myself, and wouldn’t call them hobos because I understand the difference.

    But why, exactly, would anyone object to calling a homeless person a hobo – unless they’re a stickler for correct terminology? I really just don’t see what the big deal is – hobo has never really been an offensive term.

  43. I’m a Brit and I’ll admit I had no idea what the point of this article was until I reached for my dictionary (Chambers 11th Edition):

    hobo n.

    1. An itinerant workman, esp unskilled (N American)
    2. A homeless, penniless person
    3. A tramp

    So, in addition to blaming Apelad and iCarly, you might want to blame us.

  44. But why, exactly, would anyone object to calling a homeless person a hobo – unless they’re a stickler for correct terminology? I really just don’t see what the big deal is – hobo has never really been an offensive term.

    As others have pointed out homeless people aren’t hobos, being vagabonds and looking for work out on the rails. It seems to me that it makes light or glosses over what’s a serious and disturbing epidemic in this country.

  45. The website Overheard in New York has made a special point of using the word “hobo” since at least 2005 and the publisher has stated explicitly that it is a term he wants to bring back into vogue. He’s “hobo #1” on their editors page.

    I concur that iCarly is crap, but also that it’s a little silly to be criticizing people for hobo costumes. Slightly Askew #12 is right, it is a staple costume, recognizable, and easy for parents to throw together.

  46. For those who want the thrill of riding the rails without the discomfort, there’s an antipasto called Hobo Bundles. I don’t remember the Italian name, something vagabondo. Venison carpaccio with grated asiago and capers in the center, then wrapped up in a bundle with a toothpick through the top.

  47. Interesting post on a culture collision. I’m sure others have noticed that in the past decade homeless fashion habits seem to be as innovative as those dispersed into the consumer population. The collage thing especially. Have there been homeless clothing habits that have diffused into consumer fashion? If so, i would guess it happens through a kind of passive imitation rather than a deliberate attempt at irony. The sense of Otherness is pretty powerful, and so it would only make sense that the markets would try to use it. In a similar way I’ve wondered what impact the recent Egypt footage may have on consumer fashion. The style of clothing there has been pretty strongly imprinted in my eye-brain. Especially the occasional mashups I’ve seen between Western activewear and burkas. That has felt like a new kind of visual stimulation and so i would wonder if we might see some echos of it in Urban Outfitters soon.

    1. That has felt like a new kind of visual stimulation and so i would wonder if we might see some echos of it in Urban Outfitters soon.

      It’s been done before, and was called “grunge”. Come to think of it, I think “grunge” was what Urban Outfitters was built on.

  48. I was a fourth-grade teacher until No Paperwork Left Behind made me reconsider. 4th-graders have been calling each other hobos since approximately 2004. iCarly might as well claim OMG as its own.

  49. The economics are simple by creating a situation of documented and regulated work and a minimum wage there is far less opportunity for the lowest level survival or one off job work found 100 years ago, many benefit but it creates a line from where people do fall off into an abyss.
    Similarly supports for housing prices and strict rental laws benefit many, but it creates a pretty hard price floor for a place to stay if you don’t have people to couch surf with.
    When the wage curve drops below the combined housing and sustenance curves you get a homeless person except in the cases where your newly homeless person has the old substitute to a home the couch.
    It is economics, and we live in a hard generation not inclined to give much charity, states and cities are broke, the laws prevent housing below a certain standard so below that standard the only option is homelessness.
    Homeless is not a hobo, most hobo work is either too good for Americans or taken by migrants laborers who have pretty much taken over the laborer+living rough+migrant=hobo mantle.

  50. I see no one here or in the article actually mention what a true hobo is. It’s a lifestyle, traveling, doing odd jobs, leaving secret symbols, jumping trains. That’s what tv has taught me anyway. There is a hobo in the simpsons, they meet him on a train and he entertains them with stories (“nothing beats the hobo life, stabbing people with my hobo knife…” sung in minor key). There are some other homeless characters but I seem to remember them being called “winos” not hobos (correctly).

    There’s also a good episode of Mad Men that revolves around a flashback to the main guy’s childhood, about how his parents treated a hobo that showed up on their property one day, and how the experience affected whatshisname profoundly and influenced his later life choices.

    So, hobos are homeless, but not all homeless people are hobos. That’s the issue, right? That kids aren’t getting this… ?

  51. I learned english mostly on my own, so my knowledge is spotty at best, but I always thought ‘hobo’ was synonymous with ‘homeless’. Anyway, I just checked my go-to dictionary (google, http://www.google.com/dictionary?langpair=en|en&q=hobo) and it says:

    1. A homeless person; a tramp
    2. A migrant worker

    …so you might want to blame whoever writes your dictionaries?

  52. I’m going to go out on a limb here, and suggest that it might have something to do with the fact that a lot of hobos are/were homeless.

    Not to mention that most adults tend to use the word in the same way.

  53. My parents told me they used to go to something called “Tacky parties” where they would dress up very much like the girl in the picture. I think that was probably in the late 40’s, early 50’s.

  54. I’m certain this has been mentioned in other comments, but I’m sorry, this article just feels like it failed me.

    First, Mark, you never once explained WHY the term “hobo” was not an appropriate term. In fact, we as the reader were left to assume that it’s inappropriate or derogatory or something. The article you linked to doesn’t explain it either.

    The problem with that is that you seem to be the only person here who grew up with some sort of knowledge that “hobo” wasn’t a correct term for the homeless, and have assumed everyone else knew too. It’s a term I’ve used since I was a kid in the 80’s, like others here, so I sincerely doubt that this is a result of some recent kid’s TV show.

    I tend to not use it a lot because it sounds strange in many contexts. But I’ve never thought of it as a bad term, because nobody has ever told me otherwise until today. Unfortunately I still don’t know why, and your article didn’t help. Sorry, Mark.

    1. you never once explained WHY the term “hobo” was not an appropriate term.

      You have a home and a job. You get laid off. You have health problems that eat up your savings. You lose your home. You’re now homeless. And people are referring to you by a word that’s traditionally been used for drifters and ne’er-do-wells. Really, how much explanation is required here?

  55. Well, that explains why my 12-year-old asked me to define the word for her the other day! I explained about the Great Depression and nomadic men riding the rails and looking for nonexistent jobs.

    I wish I could drop the Disney Channel without losing all the other networks that come with it.

  56. Language does this.

    It evolves.

    What was once two distinct concepts is now becoming one concept.

    This is how language works.

  57. While backpacking for a few months last year, I came upon a group of 4th or 5th graders waiting at a trail head. I was really surprised when they started calling me a hobo. Granted I was looking pretty scruffy with the beard, but how many hobos use trekking poles and ultralight packs?

  58. “Hobo” is a trochee. So, as a matter of fact, is “Bindle.” I love the word Bindle. Bindlestiff is a good word, too. Excellent word.

    I hadn’t heard kids use “hobo” indiscriminately until very recently. Of course, that was moving from California to Maine, and then Utah. Cali is much more careful about words.

    I wonder if there are still hoboes out there. I think hobo lingo is interesting, as are hobo marks.

    I’d learn them, if there were anyone else to use them with. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a hobo. I still sort of do.

  59. Oh, wow. Really, I mean it. As a former homeless person you really just have to lighten up. Theme partys are most generally funner than non-theme partys, don’t you think? And if the theme is HOBO, then, fine. The penniless gag is preddy phunny too, eh?

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