Hobo, tramp, and bum are all terms for a person who is homeless and without a steady job. While most folks use these words interchangeably, there is a slight difference between the three. A hobo is someone who travels from place to place looking for work, a tramp is someone who travels, but avoids work whenever possible, and a bum does not care to work or travel.
While no one is quite sure how the word “hobo” developed, it seems
to have originated in the American West after the US Civil War, when
many discharged veterans were looking for employment. The hobo
population also increased during the Great Depression, as unemployed
men took to train-hopping with the hopes of finding better prospects
on the road. Although “hobo” is a slang word, its meaning was well
known by the late 19th century and Funk and Wagnall's even listed
“hobo” in the 1893 edition of its dictionary. It was derived from
the term hoe-boy meaning "farmhand", or a greeting such as "Ho,
boy!". Bill Bryson suggests in Made in America, 1998 that it could
either come from the railroad greeting, "Ho, beau!" or a syllabic
abbreviation of homeward bound.
The British Hobo Museum exhibits hobo history and lore. Initially
just a "Hobo Convention" museum, in the late 1990s it evolved into
the Hobo History Museum.
The word “tramp” comes from a Middle English verb meaning to “walk
with heavy footsteps,” and, like “hobo,” it also became widely used
after the Civil War. It initially referred to migrant workers
searching for permanent work, but it was later used to designate
those who “prefer the transient way of life.” In Britain the term
was widely used to refer to vagrants in the early Victorian period.
It is also used for a sexually promiscuous woman.
Lately, the word is experiencing a bit of resurgence as many
wanderers have adopted the title to more clearly differentiate their
way of life from hobos. Some, for example, intentionally avoid
participating in the economic system and therefore take pride in
their 'tramp' status and may even view themselves as superior to
A vagrant could be described as being "a person without a settled
home or regular work who wanders from place to place and lives by
begging." Both "vagrant" and "vagabond" derive from Latin word
vagari "wander." The term "vagabond" is derived from Latin
vagabundus. In Middle English, "vagabond" originally denoted a
Panhandling is a solicitation made in person for immediate donation
of money or other gratuity. Bottom line, most bums, tramps, and
vagrants, but only some hobos panhandle. All politicians and some
other groups and individuals engage in panhandling or public
fundraising for many causes and charities.