May 25, 2007
Sharp-eyed readers — or should I say “San Francisco blog addicts” — will have noticed the recent appearance of yours truly on the SFist, a San Francisco-obsessive collaborative blogging venture. And why? Well…. because they asked me. They’re a solid bunch of San Franciscophiles, and I jumped at the chance to wedge a little historical consciousness into their current-events-focused flow. And the SFist also seems like the perfect place to showcase all those little nuggets of history that don’t necessarily fit into a specific podcast theme.
These pieces will be appearing irregularly (of course!), and I’ll be copying them here, too, so you won’t miss a thing.
The last time we were accosted in the wee hours of a Mission Street morning, “hoodlum” was definitely not the first word to spring to mind. The epithet’s intensity has faded over the years. In fact, the last time we heard it, it was being hollered at a hyperactive five-year-old.But we say it’s time for a hoodlum comeback! Why? Well, it turns out there’s a San Francisco angle. “Hoodlum” is a coinage from the 1860′s Barbary Coast, just like “shanghai” – a word invented right here in the City, way back when street gangs ruled our muddy streets.
So we know what it means, but why does it mean it? Like all the best American words, there’s a little etymological confusion. Here’s a short list of the most likely suspects:
Hoodlum #1: One of the leading street gangs of the time was run by a thug named Mr. Muldoon. A too-clever newsman decided to spell “Muldoon” backwards to identify the gang of ruffians in print, coming up with “noodlum! ” Sadly, his typesetter swallowed a couple shots of redeye too many before work, misread that initial “n” as an “h“, and there you have it: “hoodlum”.
Hoodlum #2: A sharp-dressing ex-officer blew into town from parts unknown, sporting a fez with some kind of long tail down the back as part of his military ensemble. The street kids, as fashion-forward then as they are now, swiped the look and called the fez a “hood”. Before long, the whole Barbary Coast was wearing the costume and labeled “hoodlums” by civilized folk.
Hoodlum #3: “Hoodler” was the name of a particularly troublesome family in the neighborhood. (Too easy, and possible grounds for libel – we don’t like it!)
Hoodlum #4: Hoodies were hip for the hooligan girls of the 1870s – hey, just like today! Anyway, they wore some kind of hood-shaped bonnet. The boys, using a kind of street pig-latin, endearingly dubbed ‘em “hoodlum girlums”… and it stuck.
Hoodlum #5: When the cops closed in, a particularly well organized teenage gang cried “Huddle-em! Huddle-em!” as a signal to retreat to their hideout. An article detailing this appeared in the San Francisco Times under the headline “Huddle-em”, soon contracted all over town as “hoodlum”. This seems to me to be the most likely candidate…
…but draw your own conclusions. Our vote is for “noodlum!”