Add 'Hobo' To The List Of Four-Letter Words

'Hobo' — A Brief History, A Look At How The Term Turned Into A Stereotype, And Why The Word Has Got To Go.



Almost a hundred years ago, during the great depression, people travelled from town to town in search of short-term employment. Odd jobs and temp work that helped put food on the table during one of the leanest times in American history. Looking back, it might have been one of the earliest examples of a gig economy. When work was sparse and money tight, people, mostly men young and old, would hitchhike and ride the rails to work and back home again. A generation became famous for it. It even became part of pop culture. They were called hobos — a name they gave themselves — believed to be short for ‘homeward bound’. Hobos were often portrayed in print and, years later, in film and on television. At the time, being a hobo, while challenging, was honourable. A hobo worked hard, doing jobs many people in more fortunate situations would not do, and they made sacrifices in an effort to survive and to provide for others. But they wouldn't sacrifice their pride or their reputation. In fact, they established a hobo code of conduct that today is still followed by the few thousand remaining and real hobos in the States. Real because the term hobo took on a different meaning over time that is not reflective of its origins. As the depression grew, and with it desperation, more and more men became transient but not all followed and respected the rules of the road and the established hobo code of conduct. The actions of this new group who seemed to care only about themselves — cursing, public intoxication and petty crime — represented something worse and unfortunately came to represent the hobo. Dirty, dishonest and disrespectful, almost a century later hobo reflects only the negative stereotypes of transient life once displayed by a small wave of wanderers. Now, it's time to lose the term altogether.


It's time for a lot of things to change, including an end to racism, to discrimination, and to the use of language that reinforces negative stereotypes, diminishes ones value or self-worth, and promotes, even glamorizes, hate, abuse and violence. Let’s just accept that, today, hobo is a four letter word. Some think it’s cool to curse, although others would suggest swearing is the vernacular of the ignorant and the immature. That might explain why hobo is used to target a specific demographic of consumer and establish products and brands that retailers wish to appear rough-around-the-edges, irreverent and anti-establishment. In this case, it’s cool to be poor. Then again, anyone who suggests they are cool is quite the opposite.


Eliminating hobo from our lexicon may not be possible. Not in our lifetime. Not while businesses continue to sell products aligned with the term. The key word there is ‘sell’. People are buying the products, from thousand dollar hobo bags at Nordstrom to hobo video games in the app store and, soon, Hobo cannabis on Toronto streets. Nordstrom appears to like the concept of ‘it’s posh to look poor’; a couple years ago they were selling $700 running shoes with duct tape on the toes that helped make the footwear looked used.


If the product didn’t sell — in other words, if people didn’t purchase it — then it wouldn’t get produced. That’s where change has to start, impacting the bottom-line of business. In this cancel culture, the approach seems to be working, seems to be an effective tool and the right response.



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