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According to Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003), cahoot, meaning a partnership or league, and usually expressed in the plural form "in cahoots," has a first known publication date of 1829, and a possible French derivation:

cahoot n {perh. fr. F cahute cabin, hut} (1829) : PARTNERSHIP, LEAGUE — usu. used in pl. {they're in cahoots}

But an early reference work that listed the word—John Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms (1848)—lists a different etymology:

CAHOOT. Probably from cohort, Spanish and French, defined in the old French and English Dictionary of Hollyband, 1593, as "a company, a band." It is used at the South and West [of the United States] to denote a company or union of men for a predatory excursion, and sometimes for a partnership in business.

A Google Books search reveals that John Jamieson, An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808) lists cahute as a Scottish word (drawn from French) with two meanings:

CAHUTE, s. 1. The cabin of a ship. [Example:] Into the Katherine thou made a foul cahute. Evergreen, ii. 71. at 26. Katherine is the name of the ship here referred to. This is probably the primary sense. 2. A small or private apartment of any kind. [Example omitted.]

Germ. kaiute, koiute, the cabin of a ship, Su.G. kaijuta, id. Wachter derives the term from koie, a place inclosed; Belg. schaaps-kooi, a fold for sheep. C. B. cau, to shut; Gr κωοι, caverna. He also mentions Gr. κεω cubo, and κοιτη cubile, as probable roots of koie and koiute. Fr. cahute, a hut, a cottage; Ir. ca, cai, a house.

This would tend to strengthen Merriam-Webster's theory that cahoot originated with the French cahute, since Scottish immigrants to the United States might have brought Scottish cahute with them.

On the other hand, the 1829 instance of cahoot cited by Merriam-Webster is probably the following one (cited in J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang [1993] as being from 1829), from Samuel Kirkham, English Grammar in Familiar Lectures (1831), in a chapter on "Provincialisms" and a subsection on instances from Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, or Mississippi:

Hese in cahoot with me.

which is corrected by Kirkham to

He is in partnership with me.

The 1833 edition of Kirkham has cohoot for cahoot, and J.L. Lighter indicates that the 1829 edition did as well, which suggests that the word may first have appeared in U.S. English with the spelling cohoot—which certainly has more in common with cohort than with cahute. For its part, Lighter approaches the etymology question with caution:

cahoot n {orig. uncert.; perh. [from] F cahute 'cabin, hut'}


So I have three questions:

  1. Where did cahoot come from?

  2. When was it first used in written English?

  3. How did it acquire its lingering pejorative sense (mentioned in Bartlett in 1848 as referring to "a company or union of men for a predatory excursion")?

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  • 1
    A Grammatical Corrector, Or, Vocabulary of the Common Errors of Speech (1848) defines cahoot as "a very common vulgarism in the West". books.google.it/…. The term appears to have had a pejorative conotation from its very early usages.
    – user66974
    Nov 20, 2015 at 10:46
  • I'll observe that the term (in the pejorative sense) was a popular one in US "Western" movies, at least during the 50s and 60s, and likely going back a few decades before that. Script writers generally knew nothing of the true argot of "cowboys" and worked from formulas, relying on the fact that the viewers' familiarity with the terms would likewise come only from other movies. As a result any pejorative connotation would be amplified (if it wasn't already pejorative enough).
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 20, 2015 at 12:56

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From The Collaborative International Dictionary:

  • Cahoot \Ca-hoot"\, n. [Perhaps fr. f. cohorte a company or band.] Partnership; league; as, to go in cahoot (or in cahoots) with a person. Usually used in the plural, and in modern usage often used to imply that the joint effort is unethical, shady, questionable, or illegal; as, a shill in cahoots with a pickpocket, to serve as a distraction. [Slang, southwestern U. S.]
    --Bartlett. [1913 Webster +PJC]

Grammarphobia looked into it but came to no clear conclusion. I think the extract is worth your attention anyway:

The origin of Cahoot:

There are two theories.

  • The one favored by the Oxford English Dictionary is that English got the expression from the Scots, with a little help from the French.

  • The OED says the “cahoot” in the expression is “probably” from the French cahute, meaning a cabin or a poor hut. The French word, with the French meaning, was adopted into Scots English in the 16th century, but “cahute” was short-lived in English and is now labeled obsolete.

  • The OED’s only two citations for the usage are from the 1500s (the earliest is a 1508 reference to a “foule cahute”).

  • The word (if indeed it’s the same one) reappeared as “cahoot” in early 19th-century America, where the phrase “in cahoot with” meant in partnership or in league with.

  • The OED’s first citation for this sense comes from Chronicles of Pineville, a collection of sketches from the early 1800s about backwoods Georgia, by William T. Thompson: “I wouldn’t swar he wasn’t in cahoot with the devil.”

  • The second quotation is from Samuel Kirkham’s English Grammar in Familiar Lectures (1829): “Hese in cohoot with me.” (Kirkham lists it among provincialisms to be avoided.)

  • And the next, with the usual spelling, is from the Congressional Globe, predecessor of the Congressional Record. It’s from a speech delivered by an Ohio congressman, Alexander Duncan, on the floor of the House in February 1839:

    • “Only think of this! A rank Abolition Whig from the North in ‘cahoot’ with a rank anti-Abolition Whig from the South.”
  • The word “cahoot” apparently continued to be used in the singular for a couple of generations.

  • The OED’s first citation for the plural “cahoots” is from a manuscript diary of G. K. Wilder (1862): “Mc wished me to go in cahoots in a store.” And “cahoots” it’s been ever since.

  • The OED’s etymology makes sense, because being in on a scheme with someone is like being holed up in the same small cabin—much as we might use “in the same boat.”

  • There’s only one problem with this explanation. Where was “cahute” or “cahoot” for that missing 250 years or so between 1553 and the early 1800s?

As it happens, there’s another theory about the source of “cahoot.”:

  • The OED notes that others have suggested an origin in the French cohorte, the source of the English “cohort,” which originally meant a band of soldiers.

  • But apart from the resemblance between “cohort” and “cahoot,” we haven’t found any evidence that would connect the dots and support that theory.

  • This leaves us a bit up in the air. But we’d like to think the OED is right, and imagine people “in cahoots” (old coots, perhaps?) as hiding out in a grimy hut and plotting together.

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    If the first OED reference has In cahoot with the devil the word even then is 'bad' if only by association!
    – Dan
    Nov 20, 2015 at 11:19
  • Excellent summary of the evidence. Seth Hurd, Grammatical Corrector (which you mention in a comment) sourly concludes, "There is no such word in the English language." But Hurd also denounces budge, dabster, gump, lit (for lighted), mad (for angry), and rumpus as "vulgarisms," so I think he means that they (including cahoot) tend to be used by low people, not that the term necessarily has a pejorative connotation. But Bartlett gives a very pejorative meaning in 1848. Interesting point about the lateness of the switch to plural cahoots. I wonder what the story there is.
    – Sven Yargs
    Nov 21, 2015 at 5:47
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As to where the word "cahoots" originated, consider what John Jewett noted in his account of the two years he spent as a captive/slave of the Nootka Indians on Vancouver Island (1803-04). Of their beliefs, he noted the following: "They believe in the existence of a Supreme Being, whom they call "Quahoots."

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I had a good laugh on all those brilliant interpretations of the origin of being in cohorts with someone!

For me having studied Latin language it clearly originates from the Latin word cohort, and the French or Cajun version is just a bastardized version of that, which English speakers using it obviously mostly do not know how it is correctly spelled > in cahoots with = in cohorts with > meaning:

cohort /ˈkəʊhɔːt/ noun

a group of people with a shared characteristic. "a cohort of civil servants patiently drafting legislation"

a supporter or companion. "young Jack arrived with three of his cohorts"

an ancient Roman military unit, comprising six centuries, equal to one tenth of a legion.

synonyms: unit, outfit, force, army, group, corps, division, brigade, battalion, regiment, squadron, company, commando, battery, troop, section, patrol, cadre, crew, detachment, contingent, column, squad, detail, band, legion

Source: https://www.google.com/search?q=in%20cohorts%20meaning&ie=utf-8&oe=utf8&client=firefox-b-1-m

Other questions people ask:

How do you use the word cohort?

  1. a group or company: She has a cohort of admirers, but he does not belong to that age cohort.
  2. a companion or associate.
  3. one of the ten divisions in an ancient Roman legion, numbering from 300 to 600 soldiers.
  4. any group of soldiers or warriors.
  5. an accomplice; abettor: He got off with probation, but his cohorts got ten years apiece.

Source: Cohort Definition & Meaning | Dictionary.com www.dictionary.com › browse › cohort

Is cohorts a bad word?

Note that one definition of “cohort” brings a negative connotation, a “conspirator or accomplice.” It's one reason to avoid “cohort” when you just mean “companion” or “colleague.”

Source: Journalists: Don't forget your most important 'cohort' www.cjr.org › b-roll › cohort_evolution...

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  • If you're going to add links, please link to the exact page rather than forcing people to use each site's search functions. Also please use the quote markup to clearly define the quoted sections of text, so that we know what is quoted and what is your own words. Oct 17, 2021 at 0:29
  • Can't see that having studied Latin would make you an expert in English eymology and there's no shortage of seductive case etymologies.
    – Casey
    Nov 22, 2021 at 17:56
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I looked for early examples of both cahoot and cahoots in the various newspaper databases covered by the Elephind search engine. The earliest matches it found are from 1827 (for cahoot) and 1854 (for cahoots). Both are earlier than the earliest specified dates cited in the answer from Grammarphobia quote at length in user66974's answer. Here those two early instances are.

From "Barney Blinn," in the Alexandria [Virginia] Phenix Gazette (August 2, 1827), reprinted from the Augusta [Georgia] Chronicle:

Afore I begin the preambulation, of what I am going for to say, I will just mention, by way of introjection, that I hate the present ministration as I do a pole cat.' (Here a deep groan was heard among the auditors, and Barney made a pause—'an awful pause'—lowering his shaggy eyebrows and glaring around with a most ominous expression of countenance; but nobody knew from whence it came so Barney proceeded)—'I have done my damndest to castigate all them which supports it, for the very root of it is rotten, so, sap, tree, and fruit must be rotten too. I h'a'nt read newspapers for nothing. Gineral Government and the ministration are going in cahoot to undermine and overrule the undertakings of the people of Georgia. Aint our principles free liberty gratis for nothing (Hear hear.) Aint Georgians spung from the genewine stock of old continentalers, who was all pluck to the marrow (great cheering.) ...

And from "Letter from Mr. Plunkett," in the [San Francisco, California] Daily Alta California (January 22, 1854):

I never knowed till lately the grate trials of being conected with the press. But sense this bribery case come on I have been in a tite fix. I had made arrangements to make a right smart thing out extenshun, the State printing and the senatorship. 1 I and the Governur was going in cahoots with what we I made. He was to use his influence privately both for and agin each of these things, and I was to write for the party that paid the best, but since them Custom house chaps have got into such a Peck of trouble I am a little skeery. I find that game don't work well and I told the Governur it would be better to give it up and work for his friends.

As for Joseph Jones, Chronicles of Pineville: Embracing Sketches of Georgia Scenes, Incidents, and Characters—mentioned in the Grammarphobia discussion as being dated "from the early 1800s" in the OED, there is no way to say when the particular piece where cahoot appears was written, but it the book in which it appears was first published in 1845. Here is the full paragraph in which it appears:

"I know'd it—it's jest as I 'spected," said Sammy. "Them devils [some robbers] is got clean off after all. Pete Hopkins aint no better nor he should be, and I wouldn't swar he wasn't in cahoot with 'em!"

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