Monday, April 02, 2007

The etymology of 'hoser'

Since I posted a link to the video (here) of Clark the Canadian hockey goalie playing shortstop (in full goalie gear, natch, if you haven't watched it), I've been asked a couple of times whether I posted it just for the discussion of the etymology of the Canadian term hoser.

No, I did not. I posted it for the gut-bustingly hilarious content, and had barely noticed the speculation about the origin of that term. But there's a little story in here. First, I was surprised not to find it in the Dictionary of American Regional English or other lexical sources I would normally turn to. The ADS list has had threads about it, but never anything conclusive that I can find. Even the storied OED on-line has only a draft entry from 2006:
Origin uncertain; perh. cf. HOSE n.
Popularized by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, who played the characters Bob and Doug McKenzie on the Canadian television programme SCTV (1980-2), who frequently used this word.

A stupid, unsophisticated, or loutish person, esp. one regarded as typically Canadian.

1981 Toronto Star 2 Nov. A4/5 MacKenzie brothers phrases like ‘hoser’ and their habit of wearing toques and ear muffs while drinking beer are being imitated in living rooms and schools across Metro... For parents puzzled by talk of hosers and such, Rick Moranis explained..that ‘a hoser is what you call your brother when your folks won't let you swear.’
But beyond the scholarly world, a whole range of suggestions in the comments in the video and on Attaboy below the video sound plausible enough — a cropping from hosebag (which I know most clearly as a term for 'loose woman', but which is often used for men too, without sexual connotations) or hosehead, for example, with an -er suffix. (Note that the last line in the quote suggests taboo avoidance, which could fit with cropped from hosebag.) And having to groom the ice after you lose sounds almost too good, but who knows.

As to the Mackenzies, a website on Canadian English has this in its list of Canadian lexical items:
Hoser: This is supposed to be a word that Canadians use to insult each other, except that no Canadian ever seemed to have heard of it before Bob and Doug Mackenzie started using it in the 1980s.
At least one commenter at Attaboy reports knowing it from the 1970s, and even if it got popular with the Mackenzies, they probably got it from somewhere. One Wisconsinite told me that she'd learned it from her cousin before the Mackenzie skit, but after we talked it through in detail, it was far less clear that she knew it earlier than that.

I'm constantly amazed at what I learn from the comments here, so maybe somebody's going to come up with a clincher citation or something like that, but it looks like what happens constantly with good slang: Its origins are murky — possibly beer-soaked hockey talk here — but it clicks. For Safire and his ilk, tracking this stuff down is about all they find cool about language. (Bashing those who violate his norms is presumably about power more than fun.) But this is a fun party game and (until somebody produces the goods!) not much more. I'll keep looking around for an answer, but this doesn't really advance our understanding of language structure or how language works in communication very much.


JohnO said...

Add this to the list of things I never thought I'd Google: "hoser etymology."

Like many other Canadians, I never really knew the background ... and I suspect Clark's story will become the gospel, even if it only has an incomplete dose of truthiness. It's just got that perfect promise of an urban legend about it ...

Tito said...

Wikipedia even has something about it. Apparently, it referred to guys in Canada who would siphon gas from farming vehicles during the Great Depression.

Anonymous said...

Is it just my imagination...? I could swear that I had this expression explained to me in the 60s by my father (a very erudite man). He explained that its origin stemmed from an insulting reference to the "hoosiers"which were the career soldiers who were issued and wore hose (stockings). Although the appellation has lost its original significance the the insult remains and has adapted itself to the times...or did I indulge in too many "recreational pharmaceuticals" at the time...?

miko said...

i was told somewhere that it is a corruption of "whoreson" which was a common insult in shakespeare's time....