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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Two hobos walking along railroad tracks, after being put off a train. One is carrying a bindle.

A Hobo is a migratory worker or homeless vagabond, often penniless.[1] The term originated in the western—probably northwestern—United States during the last decade of the 19th century.[2] Unlike tramps, who worked only when they were forced to, and bums, who didn't work at all, hobos were workers who wandered.[2][3]



Informal three-quarter length portrait of three hobos sitting under a covered structure in Chicago, Illinois, in 1929.

The origin of the term is unknown. Etymologist Anatoly Liberman, writing for Oxford University Press, says that the only details certain about its origin is that the word emerged in American English and was first noticed around 1890.[2] Liberman points out that many folk etymologies fail to answer the question: "Why did the word become widely known in California (just there) by the early nineties (just then)?"[2] Author Todd DePastino has suggested that it may come from the term hoe-boy meaning "farmhand," or a greeting such as Ho, boy!.[4] Bill Bryson suggests in Made in America that it could either come from the railroad greeting, "Ho, beau!" or a syllabic abbreviation of "homeward bound".[5] H. L. Mencken, in his The American Language (4th ed., 1937), wrote:[3]

Tramps and hobos are commonly lumped together, but in their own sight they are sharply differentiated. A hobo or bo is simply a migratory laborer; he may take some longish holidays, but soon or late he returns to work. A tramp never works if it can be avoided; he simply travels. Lower than either is the bum, who neither works nor travels, save when impelled to motion by the police.


It is unclear exactly when hobos first appeared on the American railroading scene. With the end of the American Civil War in the mid 19th Century, many soldiers looking to return home took to hopping freight trains. Others looking for work on the American frontier followed railroads westward aboard freight trains in the late 19th Century.

In 1906, Prof. Layal Shafee, after an exhaustive study, put the number of tramps in America at 500,000 (about 0.6% of the U.S. population). The article citing this figure, "What Tramps Cost Nation", was published by The New York Telegraph in 1911 and estimated the number had surged to 700,000.[6]

The population of hobos increased greatly during the Great Depression era of the 1930s. With no work and no prospects at home, many decided to travel for free via freight trains and try their luck elsewhere.

Life as a hobo was a dangerous one. In addition to the problems of being itinerant, poor, far from home and support, and the hostile attitude of many train crews, the railroads employed their own security staff, often nicknamed bulls, who had a reputation for being rough with trespassers.[citation needed] Also, riding on a freight train is a dangerous enterprise. The British poet W.H. Davies, author of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, lost a leg falling under the wheels whilst trying to jump a train. One could easily get trapped between cars, or freeze to death in bad weather. When freezer cars were loaded at an ice factory, any hobo inside was likely to be killed[citation needed].

National Hobo Convention

In 1900, the town fathers of Britt, Iowa invited Tourist Union #63 to bring their annual convention to town, and the National Hobo Convention has been held each year in early to mid August ever since.[7] Hobos stay in the "Hobo Jungle" telling stories around campfires at night. A hobo king and queen are named each year and get to ride on special floats in the Hobo Day parade. Following the parade, mulligan stew is served to hundreds of people in the city park. Live entertainment, a carnival, and a flea market are also part of the festivities. They also win money for the parade to help them get food. The first and most important rule of the hobo code was 'decide your own life', which meant 'do what you want to do'.

Hobo culture

Hobo lingo in use up to the 1940s

Hobo term Explanation
Accommodation car the caboose of a train
Angellina young inexperienced kid
Bad Road a train line rendered useless by some hobo's bad action
Banjo (1) a small portable frying pan. (2) a short, "D" handled shovel
Barnacle a person who sticks to one job a year or more
Beachcomber a hobo who hangs around docks or seaports
Big House prison
Bindle stick collection of belongings wrapped in cloth and tied around a stick
Bindlestiff a hobo who steals from other hobos.
Blowed-in-the-glass a genuine, trustworthy individual
"'Bo" the common way one hobo referred to another: "I met that 'Bo on the way to Bangor last spring".
Boil Up specifically, to boil one's clothes to kill lice and their eggs. Generally, to get oneself as clean as possible
Bone polisher a mean dog
Bone orchard a graveyard
Bull a railroad officer
Bullets beans
Buck a Catholic priest good for a dollar
Buger today's lunch
C, H, and D indicates an individual is Cold, Hungry, and Dry (thirsty)
California Blankets newspapers, intended to be used for bedding
Calling In using another's campfire to warm up or cook
Cannonball a fast train
Carrying the Banner keeping in constant motion so as to avoid being picked up for loitering or to keep from freezing
Catch the Westbound to die
Chuck a dummy pretend to faint
Cover with the moon sleep out in the open
Cow crate a railroad stock car
Crumbs lice
Doggin' it traveling by bus, especially on the Greyhound bus line
Easy mark a hobo sign or mark that identifies a person or place where one can get food and a place to stay overnight
Elevated under the influence of drugs or alcohol
Flip to board a moving train
Flop a place to sleep, by extension: "Flophouse", a cheap hotel.
Glad Rags one's best clothes
Graybacks lice
Grease the Track to be run over by a train
Gump a scrap of meat
Honey dipping working with a shovel in the sewer
Hot (1) a fugitive hobo. (2) a decent meal: "I could use three hots and a flop."
Hot Shot train with priority freight, stops rarely, goes faster; synonym for "Cannonball"
Jungle an area off a railroad where hobos camp and congregate
Jungle Buzzard a hobo or tramp who preys on their own
Knowledge bus a school bus used for shelter
Main Drag the busiest road in a town
Moniker / Monica a nickname
Mulligan a type of community stew, created by several hobos combining whatever food they have or can collect
Nickel note five-dollar bill
On The Fly jumping a moving train
Padding the hoof to travel by foot
Possum Belly to ride on the roof of a passenger car. One must lie flat, on his/her stomach, to not be blown off
Pullman a rail car
Punk any young kid
Reefer a compression of "refrigerator car".
Road kid a young hobo who apprentices himself to an older hobo in order to learn the ways of the road
Road stake the small amount of money a hobo may have in case of an emergency
Rum dum a drunkard
Sky pilot a preacher or minister
Soup bowl a place to get soup, bread and drinks
Snipes cigarette butts "sniped" (eg. in ashtrays)
Spear biscuits looking for food in garbage cans
Stemming panhandling or mooching along the streets
Tokay Blanket drinking alcohol to stay warm
Yegg a traveling professional thief, or burglar

Many hobo terms have become part of common language, such as "Big House", "glad rags", "main drag", and others.

Hobo code

Hobo code at a Canal Street Ferry entrance in New Orleans, Louisiana

To cope with the difficulty of hobo life, hobos developed a system of symbols, or a code. Hobos would write this code with chalk or coal to provide directions, information, and warnings to other hobos. Some signs included "turn right here", "beware of hostile railroad police", "dangerous dog", "food available here", and so on. For instance:

  • A cross signifies "angel food," that is, food served to the hobos after a party.
  • A triangle with hands signifies that the homeowner has a gun.[7]
  • A horizontal zigzag signifies a barking dog.[7]
  • A square missing its top line signifies it is safe to camp in that location.
  • A top hat and a triangle signify wealth.
  • A spearhead signifies a warning to defend oneself.
  • A circle with two parallel arrows means to get out fast, as hobos are not welcome in the area.[7]
  • Two interlocked humans signify handcuffs. (i.e. hobos are hauled off to jail).
  • A Caduceus symbol signifies the house has a medical doctor living in it.
  • A cross with a smiley face in one of the corners means the doctor at this office will treat hobos for free.
  • A cat signifies that a kind lady lives here.[7]
  • A wavy line (signifying water) above an X means fresh water and a campsite.
  • Three diagonal lines mean it's not a safe place.
  • A square with a slanted roof (signifying a house) with an X through it means that the house has already been "burned" or "tricked" by another hobo and is not a trusting house.
  • Two shovels, signifying work was available (Shovels, because most hobos did manual labor).

Another version of the Hobo Code exists as a display in the Steamtown National Historic Site at Scranton, Pennsylvania, operated by the National Park Service.

Hobo ethical code

An ethical code was created by Tourist Union #63 during its 1889 National Hobo Convention in St. Louis Missouri.[8] This code was voted upon as a concrete set of laws to govern the Nation-wide Hobo Body; it reads this way:

  1. Decide your own life, don't let another person run or rule you.
  2. When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.
  3. Don't take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals or other hobos.
  4. Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so you not only help a business along, but ensure employment should you return to that town again.
  5. When no employment is available, make your own work by using your added talents at crafts.
  6. Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals' treatment of other hobos.
  7. When jungling in town, respect handouts, do not wear them out, another hobo will be coming along who will need them as bad, if not worse than you.
  8. Always respect nature, do not leave garbage where you are jungling.
  9. If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help.
  10. Try to stay clean, and boil up wherever possible.
  11. When traveling, ride your train respectfully, take no personal chances, cause no problems with the operating crew or host railroad, act like an extra crew member.
  12. Do not cause problems in a train yard, another hobo will be coming along who will need passage through that yard.
  13. Do not allow other hobos to molest children, expose all molesters to authorities, they are the worst garbage to infest any society.
  14. Help all runaway children, and try to induce them to return home.
  15. Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed, you may need their help someday.
  16. If present at a hobo court and you have testimony, give it. Whether for or against the accused, your voice counts!


Notable hobos

Notable people who have hoboed

Hobos in media

Examples of characters based on hobos include Emmett Kelly's "Weary Willy" and Red Skelton's "Freddy the Freeloader".




Television and radio

  • Invader Zim Episode Hobo 13 - It states that the Hobo race are probably homeless types of aliens.
  • The Littlest Hobo - A movie and TV series about a dog of the same name.
  • Mad Men Episode "The Hobo Code" - The protagonist has a flashback to his childhood, when a hobo's brief visit teaches young Don/Dickie something about his father and something about life.
  • Many cartoons depicts hobos as main or secondary characters, hobo related activities such as traveling by train, with a bindle, or in company of hobos. For example, 8 Ball Bunny (1950) with Bugs Bunny, Merrie Melodies Hobo Gadget Band (1939), Mouse Wreckers (1948) and MGM's Henpecked Hoboes (1948).


Musicians known for hobo songs include Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Utah Phillips, Jimmie Rodgers, Seasick Steve, and Boxcar Willie.

Examples of hobo songs include:

See also


Specific references:

  1. ^ Definition of 'hobo' from the Merriam-Webster website
  2. ^ a b c d "On Hobos, Hautboys, and Other Beaus". OUPblog. Oxford University Press. November 12, 2008. Retrieved 2009-08-05. 
  3. ^ a b Mencken, H.L. (1937). "On the road again url=". The American Language (4th ed.). 25, 2009). 
  4. ^ Interview with Todd DePastino, author of Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America from the University of Chicago Press website
  5. ^ Bryson, Bill (1998). Made in America. . ISBN 0-380-71381-0. 
  6. ^ New York Telegraph: "What Tramps Cost Nation," page D2. The Washington Post, June 18, 1911
  7. ^ a b c d e Moon, Gypsy: "Done and Been", page 24. Indiana University Press, 1996.
  8. ^ "Tourist Union 63". National Hobo Museum. 
  9. ^ "Monte Holm Dead at 89". Original Nickel Hobo Society. Retrieved 2010-02-06. 
  10. ^ "Louis L'amour: A brief biography". Retrieved 2008-12-07. 
  11. ^ "Dale Wasserman, 94; Playwright Created 'Man of La Mancha'" obituary by Dennis McLellan of the Los Angeles Times printed in The Washington Post December 29, 2008.

General references:

  1. Brady, Jonann (2005). Hobos Elect New King and Queen. ABC Good Morning America, Includes Todd “Adman” Waters last ride as reigning Hobo King plus hobo slide show with Adman’s photo’s taken on the road.
  2. Bannister, Matthew (2006). Maurice W Graham "Steam Train" Grand Patriarch of America’s Hobos who has died aged 89. Last Word. BBC Radio. Matthew Bannister talks to fellow King of the Hobos Todd Waters “Ad Man” and to Obituary Editor of the New York Times, Bill McDonald.
  3. Davis, Jason (2007). “The Hobo”, 30 minute special On The Road feature. KSTP television. Covers Adman Waters taking his daughter out on her first freight ride.
  4. Johnson, L. Anderson, H.S. (1983, July 12). Riding The Rails For The Homeless. The New York Times, sec B page 3, col 3. Story on Adman Waters The Penny Route.
  5. Hobo Museum, Hobo Foundation. 51 Main Ave. S. Britt, IA. (641) 843-9104

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010
(Redirected to hobo article)

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

See also Hobo




possibly a contraction of 'ho, boy' or English dialect hawbuck "lout, clumsy fellow, country bumpkin."




hobos or hoboes

hobo (plural hobos or hoboes)

  1. A homeless, usually penniless person, in some way associated with a life along the rails.
  2. A migratory laborer
  3. (pejorative) A tramp, vagabond; hence bum

Usage notes

  • Often used attributively, as if an adjective. For example, "hobo stew", "he was leading a hobo life."


Derived terms


The translations below need to be checked and inserted above into the appropriate translation tables, removing any numbers. Numbers do not necessarily match those in definitions. See instructions at Help:How to check translations.


to hobo

Third person singular

Simple past

Past participle

Present participle

to hobo (third-person singular simple present hobos, present participle hoboing, simple past and past participle hoboed)

  1. (intransitive) To be a hobo, tramp, bum etc.
    Joe idly hoboed trough half the country till he realized hoboing never gets you anywhere in life



Dutch Wikipedia has an article on:

Wikipedia nl



From French hautbois (from haut 'high' + bois 'wood')


hobo m. (plural hobo's, diminutive hobootje, diminutive plural hobootjes)

  1. An oboe, a woodwind melody instrument

Derived terms

  • hoboïst m.

Simple English

[[File:|thumb|right|Two Hobos walking on a rail line]] Hobo is a slang term for a homeless person who travels to different cities and towns to look for work. Hobos usually travel by train "hopping" (riding in empty train freight railcars without paying for a ticket), or sometimes "riding the rods" (lying dangerously near the train wheels, underneath the cars).

Hobos stay in "skid row" hotels in cities, or camp in simple shelters ("shanties") in shanty towns near the rail yards. There were many hobos during the Great Depression in the United States, when many people lost their jobs and homes. (Hobo camps were sometimes called "Hoovervilles", after President Herbert Hoover, whom many people blamed for the depression.)

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