Mumble in the Jungle

May/June 2010 Issue

Back before John Hodgman made hobo names ironic, hoboes were anonymous laborers who crisscrossed the country in search of work. And as historian Mark Wyman writes in his new book, Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), they carried some heavy lingo with them:

Hobo: Origins unknown, but possibly derived from the English term “hoe boy” (for a farm servant) or a contraction of “Ho! Boy!” Also known as ‘boes, bums, bindlestiffs, floaters, drift-ins, beeters, harvest gypsies, and almond knockers.

Freighting: Riding the rails. Preferable to “counting ties”—walking them.

Bulls: Guards hired to keep hoboes off freight trains.

Bo-teaser: A heavy pin attached to a long cord; dragged beneath moving boxcars by bulls trying to severely injure hoboes hiding there.

Jungle: The area near railroad tracks where hoboes slept, ate, and hid from bulls.

Snowdiggers: Hoboes who went south to Texas during the winter.

Buranketto boys Japanese migrant hoboes who took their name from their blankets.

Mission stiff: A hobo who got food from religious charities like the “Starvation Army.”

Scissorbill: A hobo who wouldn’t object to being treated badly.