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Just out of curiosity, I was wondering about the history of the term "bum" meaning a homeless person, not the UK version referring to someone's posterior.

Bonus: If you know the background on "Hobo" that would be interesting too, and does it have any relation to the town Hoboken, New Jersey?

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Also note the similar use meaning "to ask for a handout; beg," for instance, "Can I bum a cigarette?" –  moioci Aug 24 '10 at 2:22

5 Answers 5

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Wikipedia offers some speculation on the origin of Hobo. It would seem the etymology revolves around railroads or migrant workers, and that it originated in California.

Author Todd DePastino has suggested that it may come from the term hoe-boy meaning "farmhand," or a greeting such as Ho, boy!. Bill Bryson suggests in Made in America that it could either come from the railroad greeting, "Ho, beau!"

As to the origin of Bum, it seems to come from the German word for loafer (bummler), which comes from loaf (bummeln), presumably from the unemployed trying to obtain bread. Wiktionary

1864, Back-formation from bummer., from German Bummler (“loafer”), from bummeln (“loaf”)

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The New Oxford American Dictionary reports that bum is synonym of vagrant ("a person without a settled home, or regular work, who wanders from place to place and lives by begging"), and that to bum means, "to travel, with no particular purpose or destination." On the list of the phrases, it lists also on the bum to mean, "traveling with rough provisions and with no fixed home."

The dictionary reports that the origin of the word is probably from bummer, and that bummer derives perhaps from German Bummler, from bummeln ("stroll, loaf around").

For hobo, the same dictionary reports that its origin is late 19th century, but the word from which it derives is unknown.

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I was told by a very old railroad worker that "HoBo" is actually an abbreviated term from the end of World War I as follows:

Most returning American soldiers came home from Europe in 1918 and 1919 over the Atlantic Ocean by ship. They were released from military service on the East Coast and then told they would need to make their way home on their own as best they were able. The military apparently had not developed any "wind down" plans for dealing with millions of soldiers needing transportation at the end of the war.

Having no significant funds and there being no significant travel infrastructure at the time (our national highway system didn't even start serious construction until after 1921) these soldiers (some in uniform and some in their "civvies") grabbed their duffel bags and jumped on board freight trains to cover the largest leg of their trip to their respective home states.

For a while the railroad companies supported this "patriotic" means of assisting our returning boys in uniform, referring to them as "Homeward Bounds" or "HoBos" but after 1919 many non-military people continued to capitalize on the free train trips and the term evolved into a derogatory name for freeloading rail riders.

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It's always possible "Homeward Bound" was the origin, but note that Wikipedia says the only certain detail about its origin is the word was first noticed in American English circa 1890, so it can't have actually started after WW1. –  FumbleFingers Nov 12 '13 at 22:26

The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (1997) has interesting entries for both bum and hobo. With regard to bum, it observes:

No self-respecting hobo, or tramp, would allow himself to be called a bum, for the word has degenerated from its original meaning of "a vagabond" over a century ago, and today usually stands for a "moneyless, prideless, filthy, hopeless derelict and habitual drunkard." One working definition to distinguish between the three classes of vagabonds is that "a hobo will work, a tramp won't, a bum can't." Bum was first recorded in 1855, and during the Civil War was used to describe a foraging soldier. It appears to derive from two words: the German bummer, "a high-spirited, irresponsible person," and the old English word bum, which has for four centuries been slang for both "a drunk" and "buttocks."

And as for hobo:

The word hobo is of uncertain origin. Perhaps it derives from a once common greeting of vagabonds to each other: "Ho! Bo" (Ho! a form of "Hi!" and Bo meaning "guy or brother"). This seems to be the most popular explanation, but wandering *ho*meward *bo*und Civil War veterans have also been suggested, as have hoe boys who left the farm and were on the road. The word is first recorded in the American Pacific Northwest, about 1889.

All I can say about the homeward bound Civil War soldiers is that they either were taking their time or got terribly lost if they started for home in 1865 (at the end of the war), and didn't get noticed as "hobos" until 1889 in the Pacific Northwest.

The Dictionary of American Slang, Third Edition (1995) adds this gloss:

hobo n b*y 1889* A person who wanders from place to place, typically by riding on freight trains and who may occasionally work but more often cadges sustenance...[origin unknown; perhaps fr the call "Ho, boy," used on late-1800s Western railroads by mail carriers, then altered and transferred to vagrants; perhaps putative hoe-boy, a migrant farm worker in the West, who became a hobo after the harvest season]

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My grandmother is a WWII survivor whose house was "bombed out" during the war. In such a war-torn situation, those that were "bombed out" of their homes were left with nothing. Already desperate for food, with no economy except war, these people were forced to beg for everything. They were bummed out by bummers, and they became bums, bumming for food. My grandmother's accent makes "bomb" sound like "bum." The term "bum" is a derogatory word, created by ignorant bullies, and used for victims of a greedy society.

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That's an interesting idea, but the word bum meaning homeless person has been around longer than WWII. –  Matt Эллен Dec 21 '13 at 23:15
welcome to ELU! –  medica Dec 22 '13 at 1:57
Bombs have existed longer than WWII. What is important is the blazing truth that war creates bums, aka victims of greed. I hope everyone enjoys their television "programming", oil, and global warming while the Society continues to program every human tool with Mickey Mouse. –  Ewaila Dec 22 '13 at 15:22

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