Feb 13, 2015

Bums, Hobos, Tramps, Vagrants, and Vagabonds

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 hobos.

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 criminal.

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.