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What does the word "hooky" mean in the phrase "play hooky" (skipping class/truancy) and where did it come from?

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Dictionary discussions of 'hookey'

John Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms (1848) has entries for "hookey" and for a term that I suspect may be very closely related, "on one's own hook". Here they are:

ON ONE'S OWN HOOK. A phrase much used in familiar language, denoting on one's own account ; as, 'He is doing business on his own hook,' i. e. for himself.

[Example:] The South is determined that its favorite, Mr. Calhoun, shall go into the National Convention as a candidate for the Presidency ; and in case he does not get the nomination, he will run on his own hook.—Newspaper.

Example:] I now resolve to do business entirely alone—to go on my own hook. If I get rich, the money will be all mine.—Perils of Pearl Street, p. 195

...

HOOKEY. To play hookey is to play truant. A term used among schoolboys.

The second edition of Bartlett (1859) adds to the entry for hookey the words "chiefly in the State of New York." Although the 1848 edition of Bartlett has an entry for "by hook or by crook," neither it nor the 1859 edition has anything for "hooky-crooky," which makes that theory of origin less appealing. Bartlett also provides an entry for hook, but that entry says simply

TO HOOK. To steal. A common vulgarism.

to which the 1859 edition appends the words "formerly used in England." No doubt running away is a frequent adjunct to stealing, but it appears that hookey was already used in U.S. slang before Bartlett showed any awareness of U.S. use of "to hook" in the sense of "to steal."

As for the theory that truant schoolboys were influenced by the Dutch term hoekje spelen, it seems rather fanciful; the argument would be more compelling if the kids cutting school were naughty PhD candidates in linguistics. Admittedly, Bartlett's explicit tying of the word hookey to New York offers some support for the possibility that the expression is derived from Dutch (as hoople was), but I remain skeptical.

It seems far more likely to me that a schoolboy might boast to his schoolmates that he was "going out on his own account [or going on his own hook] for the day" and that the wording mutated into "playing hookey."

On the other hand, Kenneth Wilson, The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993) has this reading:

hooky, hookey (n.) is part of an idiom, to play hooky, which means "to be truant, to hook {escape} school." Its plurals are hookeys or hookies, and neither is much used. Hooky was once slang, but it has lasted so well that it is now Standard in its idiom.

And Dick Wilkinson, Concise Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphors (2013) reports that the phrase "hook Jack" was used in the sense of "play truant" during the period 1840–1850:

Hook Jack {Amer: 1840-50}/Play hookey [Amer]. Play truant. (As/From the above, the sense-connexion being to hook Jack from going to school.)

Harold Wentworth, American Dialect Dictionary (1944) confirms the usage of "hook Jack" listed in Wilkinson:

hook Jack. To play truant. Cf. slunk school [the corresponding term used in Maritimes Canada, circa 1895]. 1840–1850 e[astern] Mass[achusetts] Boston The current phrase among boys c.1860 Mass[achusetts] Chelsea n. phr. = hookey. 1889 Mass[achusetts] Boston Also 'hook off.' Before 1892 e[astern] Mass[achusetts] Wellesley to play hookey & hook Jack. 1910–22 cent[ral] N[ew] Y[ork] Not used.


Google Books and Library of Congress matches for 'hookey' and related terms

The earliest Google Books match for "on his own hook" is from a letter from Gerrit Smith to Edward Delavan (September 11, 1833), reprinted in "The Intemperate, and the Reformed" (1834):

You have heard the story of our countryman at the battle of Yorktown, who, to use his expression, 'fought on his own hook.' There are some such self poised and independent spirits. But the reformed drunkard, in respect to his conflict with the the temptations of rum, is far from being one of them.

Another instance occurs in Robert Bird, Nick of the Woods, or, The Jibbenainosay: A Tale of Kentucky, volume 2 (1837):

"It is true," replied Doe, coolly : "but see the difference! When the Piankeshaws were burning him,—or when I thought the dogs were at it,—it was a death of my making for him : it was I that helped him to the stake. But here the case is altered. He comes here on his own hook; the Injuns catch him on his own hook ; and, d—n them! they'll burn him on his own hook! and so it's no matter of my consarning. There's the root of it."

The earliest Google Books match for hookey in the relevant U.S. sense is from Joseph Field, La Déesse, an Elssler-atic Romance (1841):

And oh! how sweet the memory/Of boyish days, when carelessly/We stole away from home and rule,/Played “hooky,” and deserted school,/To wander, fancy, fetter free,/Among Pomona's treasures there—/(Heaven, smiling, pass'd the registry—)/To snatch a peach, perhaps a pair!

An instance from Merry's Gems of Prose and Poetry (1860) spells the word hookie:

The Comforts of Playing Hookie

In this vignette (or reminiscence), at least, it appears that "playing hookie" entailed not skipping school but failing to return directly home (as expected) after school. But in other instances from the 1860s, bagging school is definitely part of the delinquency.

Another early instance of hookey in the relevant sense appears in a brief item in the New York Daily Tribune (April 30, 1845), reprinted from the Baltimore [Maryland] Saturday Visiter:

ADVERISEMENT —Mr. Starling respecktfully cautions his patterns and the publick that he is a going to teach a school in this town in the branches of larning and the scholars will find there own books as will be well used except them that plays hookey will be licked with the strap—8 cuts for a big boy and 5 cuts for a little one. For further infarmation, inquire of Mr. Pras the sope biler whose darter gut her edication as above.

The earliest Google Books match for "hook Jack" appears in City of Boston. Reports of Truant Officers (July 1853):

The inducements for boys to leave School at this season of the year, such as bathing, boating, going into the country for fruit and berries, are irresistible with many, who never see the beauties of the country, unless they "hook Jack," as they term it, during school hours, for they are employed by their parents as soon as they arrive at home, both Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, and their excuses for truancy are numerous just at this time.

And from Oliver Optic, Now Or Never: Or, The Adventures of Bobby Bright (1857):

"Didn't you tell me you were 'hooking jack'?"

"Who is going to know any thing about it?"

"The master will know you are absent."

"I shall tell him my mother sent me over to the village on an errand."

"I never knew a fellow to 'hook jack,' yet, without getting found out."


Other early nineteenth-century meanings of 'hookey'

Hookey was by no means an unheard-of term in the United States when it began to be applied to truancy. One early instance of hookey that doesn't seem to be directly related to the "skip school" sense of the term appears in "Editor's Correspondence" (written by a correspondent from New York on January 12, 1846), in the [Washington, D.C.] Daily Union (January 13, 1846):

The "Bad Enough" News."—This paper has thought proper to criticize my remarks respecting the extent of the trade and commerce of New York, made in a former letter. What does "The News" mean? One day it is for peace, and peaceful counsels, and at another time hot for war, and ready to quarrel with a man if he merely says the people of this city have much at stake, but are not less patriotic than the citizens of other portions of the Union. From its repeatedly blowing hot and cold, one would suppose it was playing a game of "Political Blind Hookey."

An early edition of Hoyle's Games: Containing the Rules for Playing Fashionable Games (1857) devotes a full page to explaining the rules for playing "Blind Hookey," a simple card game that has elements of blackjack in it. George Smeeton, Doings in London; Or, Day and Night Scenes of the Frauds, Frolics, Manners, and Depravities of the Metropolis (1828) mentions this game twice; and Professional Anecdotes: or Ana of Medical Literature, volume 2 (published in London in 1823), says that Blind Hookey "is a game venerable for its antiquity." The name Blind Hookey thus seems very likely to have originated in England and subsequently crossed over to the United States.

Another usage of hookey in early nineteenth century English appears in the phrase "Hookey Walker"—a piece of London slang attested as early as 1811 in Francis Grose, Lexicon Balatronicum (1811):

HOOKEE WALKER. An expression signifying that the story is not true, or that the thing will not occur.

J.S. Farmer & W.E. Henley, Slang and Its Analogues, volume 3 (1893) has this entry for the term:

HOOKEY WALKER! (or WALKER!) intj. (common). — Be off! go away. Also implying doubt. ... {BEE: From John Walker, a hook-nosed spy, whose reports were proved to be fabrications.}

The "Bee" mentioned by Farmer & Henley is Jon Bee, Slang. A Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the Pit, of Bon-ton, and the Varieties of Life (1823), which offers a thorough account of the expression and accompanying pantomime. Though Hookey Walker was an English term, knowledge of it reached the United States. The [Holly Springs, Mississippi] Guard (January 12, 1842) devotes space to an excerpt from Charles Mackay, "Cant Phrases," from his Memoirs of Popular Delusions, including this discussion of Hookey Walker:

Hookey Walker derived from the chorus of a popular ballad, was also high in favor at one time, and served, like its predecessor, Quoz, to answer all questions. In the course of time the latter word alone became the favorite, and was uttered with a peculiar drawl upon the first syllable, and a sharp turn upon the last.


Could 'hookey' have originated from 'Hookies', a pejorative term for Amish people?

An answer by Old-School (above) asserts that "playing hookie" meant staying at home rather than going to school "like the Amish children." Could that appellation for the Amish be the source of hookey in the sense of truancy? Google Books searches for Hookies and Hookeys turn up a first occurrence in the relevant sense from Peter Schrag, Voices in the Classroom: Public Schools and Public Attitudes (1965) [combined snippets]:

But Jesup, unlike the Amish, long ago accepted the technology of the modern world, giving up the attempt to be commercially self-sufficient, and thus there is an ironic aspect to its good natured but somewhat condescending references to the "Hookeys" (so named for the hooks and eyes on their clothes). The Amish are trying to preserve their culture by rejecting at least part of the surrounding technology.

Also, from Donald Erickson, Public Controls for Nonpublic Schools (1969) [combined snippets]:

On the way back to Hazleton, however, Snively suggested that "since the Hookies pulled a fast one on us, we should pull a fast one on them." (The Amish, who fasten their clothing with hooks and eyes because of a taboo on ornaments, are often called "Hooks" or "Hookies." The non-Amish nearby are frequently referred to as "Buttons" or "English.")

And from Don Locke, Increasing Multicultural Understanding: A Comprehensive Model, second edition (1998):

Like other ethnic minorities, the Amish endure verbal affronts as well. In Buchanan County, Iowa, they are often pejoratively called "hookies," a term that refers to the Amish use of hooks and eyes instead of buttons.

Mitford Mathews, A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles (1951) has no entry for Hookies or Hookeys, but it does have relevant citations for "Hook and Eye Baptists," "Hook and Eye Dutch," and "Hookers":

(1) 1898 Philistine Feb. 66 The East Aurora Hook & Eye Baptists as yet have not Meeting Houses of their own, holding services every Sunday at the residence of some member. — (2) 1903 N.Y. Times 9 Sep., He was a member of the Amish sect, commonly known as the Hook and Eye Dutch, for reason that they wear hooks and eyes in preference to buttons on their clothes. 1947 Amer[ican] Sp[eech] Consequently these 'hook and eye Dutch' were often the butt of fun-making by the other school-children.

and:

1880 Harper's Mag[azine] May 810/1 The stricter Mennonites regarded them {sc. buttons}as a worldly innovation, and, adhering to the use of hooks and eyes, were called 'Hookers,' in distinction from the more lax brethren, who were called 'Buttoners.' 1913 Proc[eedings and Addresses of the] P[ennsylvani]a-Ger[man] Soc[iety] XXII 82 The inn was the first public house west of Philadelphia, kept by a 'Hooker' Mennonite.

Google Books finds instances of "Hook and Eye Baptist" as early as a newspaper called the Journal and Republican of February 15, 1894, quoted in Strangers and Pilgrims: History of Lewis County [New York] Mennonites (1987):

There is a sect living in this region with some queer ideas, called Hook and Eye Baptist, because hooks an eyes are used on all garments instead of buttons.

Instances of "Hook and Eye Dutch" going back to Federal Writers Project, The WPA Guide to Iowa: The Hawkeye State (1938):

Right from Independence, on a dirt road, is LITTLETON, 11 m., a small settlement of "Hook and Eye Dutch." They are a religious sect, in many ways similar to the Mennonites and Amish, fundamentalists in their doctrine, and strict in compliance with it. ... The men wear black clothes, the coats having wide neckbands. In winter the topcoats have capes of elbow length. All fastenings are made by means of hooks and eyes, from which comes the name "Hook and Eye Dutch."

Federal Writers Project, The WPA Guide to Oklahoma (1941), however, asserts that the "Hook and Eye Dutch" are indeed Amish:

The Amish, popularly called the "Hook-and-eye Dutch," first came to America from Holland and Switzerland in the seventeenth century, hoping to settle where they might be free from all hindrances in following their customs and institutions.

The earliest mention of "Hooker Amish" I could find in Google Books searches is from Henry Smith, "Report to the Evangelical Alliance," in The American Presbyterian and Theological Review (October 1867):

The Mennonites, numbering (1858,) 110 churches and 36,280 members ; the Reformed Mennonites, 5,000 members, and the Hooker (Amish) Mennonites, are also Baptists. An attempt to unite the Campbellites with the regular Southern Baptists has failed.

Jonathon Green, Cassell's Dictionary of Slang (2005) offers this relevant entry:

hook-and-eyes (also hook-and-eye Baptists, hook-and-eye Dutch, hook-and-eyers, hookers) (late 19C+] (US) a nickname for the Amish, whose beliefs forbid them the use of buttons.


Conclusions

The earliest instance of *hookey/hooky" that a Google Books search finds is from 1841, so any source for that slang term must have existed before that year. The phrase "on [one's] own hook" dates to at least 1833, which qualifies it as a possible source—but no published authority supports the notion that it may be the actual source. According to at least two authorities, the phrase "hook Jack" is recorded for the period 1840–1850," so it, too, qualifies. Yet another reference work suggests that hookey derives from hook in the sense of "escape." I haven't attempted to trace that usage of hook.

The suggestion that hookey derives from Hookies (a denigrating term for Amish people) is intriguing, but it suffers from the fact that the term Hookie/Hookey is not recorded in the sense of "Amish" until fairly late—the earliest Google Books match is from 1965. Earlier dictionaries list "Hook and Eye Baptist" (as early as 1894) "Hook and Eye Dutch" (as early as 1904), and "Hooker" (as early as 1867) as terms referring to Amish people.

But if anything, the presence of those terms in the published record makes the absence of Hookies/ Hookeys in the same sense more striking. And even the earliest instance of Hooker I could find is from 26 years after the first instance of hookey in the "truancy" sense. Ultimately, the argument that hookey comes from Hookies is unpersuasive, I think, because Hookies appears so late in the historical record and because no lexicographer who is or was aware of the hook-and-eye-related pejorative terms for Amish people has considered those terms to be related to truancy hookey.

  • The argument that New York schoolboys were influenced by hoekje spelen is more compelling if we consider the fact that schoolboys in certain New York communities were speaking Dutch, or at least growing up with Dutch-speaking relatives, into the 19th century. Consider also cookie, from koekje. – phoog Apr 14 '16 at 22:45
  • @phoog: Yes, and there is an interesting instance of just that translation in connection with place-names in Schenectady, New York, in John Watson, Annals and Occurrences of New York City and State, in the Olden Time. But my impression from many (not all) of the sources I consulted in connection with the period 1840–1850, is that hooky is likelier to have originated in Massachusetts than in New York. The jury's still out. – Sven Yargs Apr 14 '16 at 22:55
  • Ah, and I remember many misspent hours hanging around on the street corner when I should have been in school. But where does the Massachusetts angle come from? The phrase in Boston seems to have been hook Jack, but that existed in parallel with play hooky so it seems unlikely to have been the source for that phrase. – phoog Apr 14 '16 at 23:02
  • @phoog: You're right—I was treating "hook jack" as a precursor of "hooky" rather than as a possible parallel development, an assumption unjustified by both the recorded evidence and the timeline involved. If the source of hooky was upstate New York, I may have erred in so airily dismissing the Dutch translation angle. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure that New York City, by the 1840s, retained little of its original Dutch flavor (aside from the "kills" of Staten Island, among other vestiges) in the flood of non-Dutch immigrants. – Sven Yargs Apr 14 '16 at 23:18
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    I just did a (fairly superficial) search for "hoekje spelen" and the only hits I found -- aside from pieces about the origin of "hooky" -- were actually Google books results wherein "hoekje" was the second part of a hyphenated word. The actual term seems to have been "schuilhoekje spelen" (where schuilen means to shelter or hide, cf. Schuylkill (River)), which means "to play hide-and-seek." – phoog Apr 14 '16 at 23:22
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UPDATE: @Old-School's answer sounds the most plausible (and most interesting), so I've marked it as the accepted answer.


Since the phrase has been around since the mid 1800's (many sources cite 1848 as its first appearance), it's hard to determine a definitive answer. According to this site, there are a few theories about the origin of the phrase "playing hooky". As an interesting sidenote, in Boston, the phrase "hooking Jack" meant the same thing.

You'll have to decide for yourself which answer is the best. I believe the first two are more likely, but you're welcome to decide differently if you choose (or suggest a theory of your own in a new answer). :)

Americanism of the Dutch term hoekje spelen

[Although it has no bearing on the correctness of this theory, I like this one the best.]

Considering the fact that a large amount of the American colonists were Dutch, it is possible that the phrase for skipping school was related to a Dutch phrase for the game of hide-and-seek, hoekje spelen. This would certainly apply for students hiding from teachers and authority figures.

Related to the phrase "hooky-crooky"

This site has an interesting explanation of this theory. Because a student had to pretend he or she was going to school first and spend the rest of the day avoiding the truancy officer, these acts of deception were referred to as playing "hooky-crooky" (related to "by hook or by crook", an old English phrase).

Related to the phrase "hook it"

There's also speculation that it is related to the phrase "hook it", which means to escape or run away. This theory is discredited by some American lexicographers because the phrase "hook it" was allegedly not in use until after 1848.

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    So, which answer did you decide for yourself was best? :-) – Hellion Apr 9 '15 at 17:52
  • I prefer the Dutch one just because it's the most fun answer, but "hooky-crooky" seems to be the majority view, at least from what I've been able to find. :) – CullenJ Apr 9 '15 at 22:13
  • I'm vaguely recalling some other term, similar to "hooky crooky", that was used to mean "hide" when I was a kid. – Hot Licks Apr 9 '15 at 22:35
  • The earliest reference I found through a moderately superficial Google books search was from 1877, and indicated that the phrase was used mainly in New York. This supports the Dutch hypothesis over the Pennsylvania Dutch hypothesis; I think you should change the accepted answer. books.google.com/…. See also Sven Yargs's answer. – phoog Apr 14 '16 at 22:25
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I was told by my grandparents that at one time the Amish were called "Hookies". This was because they wore "hook and eye" closures instead of zippers. The Amish also didn't attend school. On their way to school children used to taunt the Amish children with phrases such as "lookie lookie, it's a hookie! Run and hide, or give me a cookie". The term "playing hookie" meant that you simply stayed home from school like the Amish children. This wasn't always seen as negative, often farm children would stay home and help out on the farm on days when their parents needed a little extra help. This was also called "playing hookie".

  • I did not know this, but it makes a lot of sense. Welcome to EL&U. – MrWonderful Oct 2 '15 at 15:56
  • Wow, that's pretty interesting! Here's a book I found that supports this: books.google.ca/… – CullenJ Oct 3 '15 at 18:30
  • @CullenJ Could you give us a quote? – Jacinto Apr 14 '16 at 8:04
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    The earliest instance I could find of Hookies used in reference to Amish people is from 1965 (although Hooker in the same sense goes back at least as far as 1867), while the earliest use of hooky I've found in the sense of truancy is from 1841. I have updated my answer with a lengthy discussion of my research into the Amish connection. – Sven Yargs Apr 14 '16 at 22:24
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My father, born in 1914 in Ohio and lived in and around Detroit had told me that playing hooky was in reference to kids not going to school and going fishing instead. Boys my dad's age would carry hooks and string to school in case they had a chance to go fishing. If they got caught at school with this they told school officials that it was a game called Hooky. (using the hook and string to snag small wads of paper) So, Playing Hooky was a code between the boys meaning lets leave school and go fishing.

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