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 probablre roots of koie and koiute. Fr. cahute, a hut, a cottage; Ir. ca, cai, a house.

This would strengthens 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 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")?

  • 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 '15 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 '15 at 12:56

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.

  • 1
    If the first OED reference has In cahoot with the devil the word even then is 'bad' if only by association! – Dan Nov 20 '15 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 '15 at 5:47

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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