6

The OED Online, in an entry "not yet fully updated (first published 1899)", gives this etymology for 'hoodlum':

The name originated in San Francisco about 1870–2, and began to excite attention elsewhere in the U.S. about 1877, by which time its origin was lost, and many fictitious stories, concocted to account for it, were current in the newspapers. See a selection of these in Manchester (New Hampshire) N. & Q. Sept. 1883.

The Online Etymology Dictionary has this to say on the subject:

hoodlum (n.)
popularized 1871, American English, (identified throughout the 1870s as "a California word") "young street rowdy, loafer," especially one involved in violence against Chinese immigrants, "young criminal, gangster;" it appears to have been in use locally from a slightly earlier date and may have begun as a specific name of a gang:

"The police have recently been investigating the proceedings of a gang of thieving boys who denominate themselves and are known to the world as the Hoodlum Gang." [San Francisco "Golden Era" newspaper, Feb. 16, 1868, p.4]

Of unknown origin, though newspapers of the day printed myriad fanciful stories concocted to account for it. A guess perhaps better than average is that it is from German dialectal (Bavarian) Huddellump "ragamuffin" [Barnhart].

"What the derivation of the word "hoodlum" is we could never satisfactorily ascertain, though several derivations have been proposed; and it would appear that the word has not been very many years in use. But, however obscure the word may be, there is nothing mysterious about the thing; ...." [Walter M. Fisher, "The Californians," London, 1876]

Can we do better than OED Online or Online Etymology Dictionary?

The most expert analysis of the origin I've so far discovered is this from "Hoodlums and Folk Etymology", Peter Tamony, Western Folklore, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Jan., 1969), pp. 44-48:

hoodlum1 hoodlum3

  • 1
    hood is from neighbourhood, lum is from asylum – JonMark Perry Dec 4 '15 at 8:45
  • @JonMarkPerry would that imply a hoodlum is someone from a crazy neighborhood or a crazy person from a particular neighborhood? – Skooba Dec 4 '15 at 14:26
  • @Skooba; a crazy person from a crazy neighbourhood – JonMark Perry Dec 4 '15 at 14:53
  • 1
    @JonMarkPerry, how about neighborhood luminaries? That procrustean bed is underused unless you chop a little something off both ends. – JEL Dec 4 '15 at 17:29
  • When I was younger I always assumed that "hood" came from the hooded coats they wore. (This was well before "hoodies", but the look/effect was much the same.) I'm still of the opinion that this origin is as reasonable as any. – Hot Licks Feb 3 '16 at 3:30
3

It appears the term has no clear origin, here are two other interesting assumptions:

Wiktionary suggests hoodlums may come from the expression "huddle 'em" that is "to beat them up" (the Chinese migrants):

  • According to Herbert Asbury's book The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld (1933, A. A. Knopf, New York), the word originated in San Francisco from a particular street gang's call to unemployed Irishmen to "huddle 'em" (to beat up Chinese migrants), after which San Francisco newspapers took to calling street gangs "hoodlums".

The following source suggests it may derive from a "mispelling" of the name of the leader of the gang:

Hoodlum:,

  • A newspaper reporter in San Francisco, in attempting to coin a name for a gang of young ruffians who were terrorising the streets of the town, hit upon the idea of taking the leader's name and reversing it. The leader was one Muldoon. The reporter, accordingly, wrote Noodlums. Like many reporters, his writing was not particularly decipherable, and the compositor in setting it up in type, made it Hoodlums. And hoodlum has been the name for a street rough ever since.

(users.tinyonline.co.uk)

Early usage instances:

  • 1871 Cincinnati Commercial 6 Sept. (Suppl.) 2/5 Surely he is far enough away here in this hideous wild of swamp, to escape the bullying of the San Francisco ‘hoodlums’.

  • 1872 Sacramento Weekly Union 24 Feb. 2 (Farmer) All the boys to be trained as scriveners..clerks, pettifoggers, polite loafers, street-hounds, hoodlums, and bummers.

  • 1877 Boston Jrnl. Aug. (Cent.), You at the East have but little idea of the hoodlums of this city [San Francisco]. They compose a class of criminals of both sexes..travel in gangs; and are ready at any moment for the perpetration of any crime. -

The story:

  • On June 9, 1871, a cigar store owner named Ah Lee was beaten to death outside his store by a gang of young hoodlums, one of whom was only 14.

  • San Francisco's then-police chief Patrick Crowley took note of the gangs forming in the city in his 1872 annual report, noting: "There is one evil which I mention with regret ... it is the disposition on the part of many young men and lads to commit acts of violence and mischief."

  • It wasn't until an article in an 1875 issue of the magazine Scribner's Monthly that the word entered the mainstream. Writing about the gangs of young white men who were terrorizing certain San Francisco neighborhoods in his piece "The City of the Golden Gate," journalist Samuel Williams described them as follows:

    • "The Hoodlum is a distinctive San Francisco product. ... He drinks, gambles, steals, runs after lewd women, and sets buildings on fire. One of his chief diversions, when he is in a more pleasant mood, is stoning Chinaman. That the Hoodlum appeared only three or four years ago is somewhat alarming." In his 1877 book The Chinese in America, Otis Gibson went into further detail about the ways a "San Francisco hoodlum" would harass the Chinese:

    • "They follow the Chinaman through the streets, howling and screaming after him to frighten him. They catch hold of his cue, and pull him from the wagon. They throw brickbats and missiles at him."

Its origin is likely to remain obscure as suggested by Word Origins And How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone by Anatoly Liberman.

  • The word seems to be quite close to hooligan, which word, it always seems to me, is replaced by hoodlum in America. – WS2 Dec 4 '15 at 8:35
  • Hooligan has a later origin: 1890s, of unknown origin, according to OED etymonline.com/index.php?term=hooligan – user66974 Dec 4 '15 at 8:36
  • Yes. I have just looked at the OED entry. Interestingly, though, it dates from the same time period - late nineteenth century - and is also of uncertain origin. – WS2 Dec 4 '15 at 8:38
3

The Hoodlum Band was arrested on December 13, 1866. Refer to The Frederick Bee History Project "Hoodlum" page. From that page:

Hudelum means disorderly in a German dialect, Swabian.

This is corroborated by the etymology for 'hoodlum' given at WordReference.com:

Etymology: dialect, dialectal German; compare Swabian derivatives of Hudel rag, e.g. hudelum disorderly, hudellam weak, slack Hudellump(e) rags, slovenly, careless person, and related words in other dialects.

Also see this more detailed definition of Swabian 'Hudel':

Hudel m.: a baker's rag for cleansing the hot oven.

(From an archived website titled "Swabian into English - Vocabulary".)

Also from "The Frederick Bee History Project" is this explanation of the popularization of the word:

Summary: On December 13, 1866, William Sullivan, William Frattiger, Christopher J. Conley, John Hamilton, and John Hudson were arrested by the Harbor Police. These boys ranged in age from 10 to 16, and identified themselves as the Hoodlum Band. The gang testified against its fence, Lazarus Moses (aka Fagin). Mr. Moses was convicted and paid his $300 fine. The first reported reference to the Hoodlum Band was in the December 14, 1866 Daily Evening Bulletin. The Hoodlum Band's numerous petty thefts and Lazarus Moses' ability to sell stolen goods popularized the word hoodlum.

The arrest of Lazarus Moses, later convicted as being a fence for the gang, was reported in the Daily Alta California, 15 December 1866 edition. The article reporting his arrest was the first verifiable mention of 'hoodlum', and refers to the name the gang called themselves, the "Hoodlum Band". Moses was a naturalized citizen from Germany, thus tempting the conclusion that the source of the gang's name was his influence.

  • Tony, I took the liberty of editing your answer to bring it in line with the requirements of ELU. Most of the edits are from your site, although I added some support for the interesting claims about 'hudelum' as the source of 'hoodlum'. If you don't like what I've done, you are of course free to revert or delete; I should warn you, though, that as it stood it was almost sure to be deleted as a link only or low quality answer. – JEL Feb 3 '16 at 8:00

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