The cliché: As American media comments on Trayvon Martin's death, the word "hoodlum" has spiked in usage. A word that seems most appropriate in the mouth of a cranky old man yelling at kids from his front porch, has found its way into everyone else's lexicon. Google Trends, which scans Web searches and media mentions, shows that "hoodlum" -- far more than synonyms like "delinquent" or "hooligan" -- is having a moment. To understand why, look at an equally trendy word that often appears in the same breath: "hoodie."
Ever since the hoodie became a symbol of solidarity with Martin (with a big, unwitting boost from Fox News's Geraldo Rivera) we've been engaging in word play with "hoodies" and "hoodlums." Rivera brought the two words together when he declared minority kids should "leave the hoodie at home," and later declared, "If you dress like a hoodlum eventually some schmuck is going to take you at your word." Days later, Rep. Bobby Rush donned a sweatshirt's hood in the House of Representatives and stated, "Just because someone wears a hoodie does not make them a hoodlum." A Mother Jones headline reads, "Hoodie, Not a Hoodlum." "When Did Hoodlums Start Wearing Hoods?" asks a Slate headline. (The answer in a moment...)
Where it's from: The conflation is notable in part because "hoodie" and "hoodlum" have entirely distinct origins. As the Boston Globe's Jan Freeman wrote in 2004, "hood" comes from an Old English word for head covering while "hoodlum" derives from a German word meaning "ragamuffin." She suggests, though, that because it relates semantically in the modern mind with a "hoodlum" or the "hood" (from neighborhood), use of the word "hoodie" may have gotten a boost in popularity. (The "hoodie" as a term for a sweatshirt only came about in the early '90s.) Call it a convenient accident. And as Slate's Brian Palmer noted in his nice explainer on hoods Thursday, hoodlums have long had an affinity for hoods that disguise them. The KKK, of course, depended on them, too, and so did "12th century teenage miscreants" and troublemakers in the many centuries between. The link between "hoods" and "hoodlums," even if accidental, has a long history.
Why is it catching on? So what's behind the "hoodlum" comeback this week? Most immediately, it seems to be along for the ride as "hoodie" enjoys more media usage than usual and it's brought "hoodlum" along with it.
Why else? More broadly, we seem to attach ourselves to the "hoodlum" because it affords fun opportunities for wordplay. Something like "I've got a hood, but I'm not a hoodlum," has the ring of an anthem or rallying cry to it, as Rush surely knew when he drafted his remarks on the House floor. In fact, it engages in the exact same wordplay, and conflation of etymologically unrelated words as the The Killers's catchy lyric*, "I've got soul, but I'm not a soldier." In short, the hoodlum is here this week because it affords good writing opportunities, and we probably won't let the fact that it's only loosely related to the "hoodie" get in the way.
*We originally attributed the lyric to The White Stripes.