Home Videos Games Podcastle

Sanity check - use of the word "hobo"


Not sure if this is allowed/appropriate here. I know that dragging drama from another part of the internet to a forum is generally frowned on or banned, but the SU&SD crew seems so well-versed on issues of political correctness that I want to use you all as a sounding board. Feel free to ignore/delete.

OK, so, the topic is “having a dream”. Without further elaboration or explanation, could anyone tell me if the following quote is offensive?

“The first dream I had was to become a hobo. Never quite got there, but 3+ years on the road was enough. Other than that, I think not having to struggle or worry was probably the core of that naive and ignorant 6-year-old’s dream, and I think I’ve done (am doing) pretty well on that score =)”


A quick search doesn’t show any concerns for the word. The origins aren’t well understood, and while somebody might dislike the implication that they specifically are a hobo, the use of the word in a general way seems pretty benign.


No, I’ve had a thought about this, and I don’t think it’s derogatory.

My brains contribution. Which may not be entirely helpful.


OK, now I’m interested in whether or the potential for offence is regional. Any input from the UK crowd, in particular?


It’s not really a word used in Britain. We don’t really have the idea of people “riding the rails” etc.


OK, 2/2 is good enough for now.

For context, I posted the quoted text on a public site, and someone I have played games with and am likely to meet again, a woman in her 20s(?) from the UK responded with:

I mean I can’t decide which is more offensive. The use of the word hobo or aspiring to be at someone’s very lowest, with no options but to live on the streets usually due to untreated mental health issues and the failings of normal society. But sure you go get that dream

Me: Right, because taking offense at my 6 year old self makes perfect sense.

Her: Your 6 year old sense didn’t choose to word it like that in 2018 did he?

Her again: “when I was 6 I wanted to be a homeless person. Never quite got there but after 3 years on the road I could call myself a nomad due to my access to medicine, my good fortune of having not fallen to mental health issues or substance abuse, which are sadly issues that often lead to homelessness and because I have family and friends I can count on”

Seems like I was unjustly targeted for a tongue-lashing, and I’m not sure why.

My further responses, to which there has been no response for 10+ hours:


Over 30 years ago I wanted to be a “hobo”, and I distinctly remember having latched onto that term, despite having no idea what it meant. 30 years on, I’m not in need of a lecture on the subject. Perhaps I could have phrased the 10 second FB post for greater clarity, but this kind of language policing seems more like a deliberate “misunderstanding” than anything else.

… but I’m happy to extend the benefit of doubt, assume I inadvertently hit a nerve, ask that you reread my first post in light of the explanation I gave, and, uh, electronically shake hands or something. I’m not at all happy with having accidentally kicked off here.

For further clarification (because oh wow, how I hate being misunderstood), my half-formed ideas 30 years ago were informed by adults into Jack Kerouac and images of homeless guys catching rides on trains across America. I also haven’t since seen or heard the term used in any other context that I can remember. Like, ever. If it has become more offensive in the last 20-ish years, I was not aware of it until now. The point of my first post was the absurdity of that “naive, ignorant” kids’ dream, and not, of course not, that I have ever come remotely close to actually being homeless - I don’t need anyone to point out that I’ve always had money, support, and safe places to return to. If anything, all that travel just drilled home how I’ve always been among at least the top 0.1% most privileged people on the planet.


Yeah, I think it sounds like someone who wanted to get a lecture in on how much it sucks to be homeless and used you as the excuse. To the best of my knowledge,* there is nothing inherently offensive about the term hobo in general in modern usage and in your initial use of it in this specific example, you already addressed all the concerns later raised by the other person when you said you did not have to struggle in your life and that your 6-year-old self was “naive and ignorant” of the realities of that type of situation.

*My “knowledge” comes from being a PhD in American history with a specialization in political history, particularly the cultures that develop around communities of protest, dissent, social movements, rebellions, etc. and having just last week covered the Great Depression in my introductory US history survey class in which we discussed the numerous different terms such as hobo, bum, vagrant, transient, etc. all with very different meanings in use during the Depression and how and why those shades of meanings have been somewhat elided over time.


In some ways, it falls into the same category as gypsy; a word which is often used in a romanticised way, disconnected from the harsh reality of the experience. The Romani have been scapegoats for a long time, but they’re also seen in a similar light to your dreams of the hobo freedom.

However, the term gypsy is rooted in an actual slur, and as far as I know, hobo isn’t.


I was always taught (in the UK) not to use any of the following: Tramp, Bum, Vagrant - Hobo and Transient weren’t in my upbringing, but there was a pretty big deal with calling homeless people anything other than “homeless people” because pretty much every other word was being used as a slur.

That Hobo wasn’t really a term being used in the UK that I am aware of is probably not that important when the lesson all kids had hammered home is “You say homeless, nothing else”

It doesn’t sound to me as if she wanted to pick a fight, but perhaps chose a clumsy way of saying that she didn’t like that term. It’s very easy to forget that other people aren’t you and it sounded like she did for a moment.


I think she’s now probably realized she was off in calling you out for nothing, but since it’s really hard to apologise on the Internet, especially after attacking them before, it’s likely you’ll not hear from her again.


I wouldn’t say Gypsy is rooted in a slur.
It rather was an exonym that over time developed negative/derogatory connotations.


Unfortunately it has only escalated.


Me, private message: Seems to me you went from 0 to 100 based on a misread of my post. If you apologise, we’re cool, if you don’t, we aren’t. Right now I don’t know if you care one way or the other. I do.

Ze(?) (not sure of correct term, her is apparently wrong - someone else let me know, luckily I haven’t made this blunder directly: (Posts screenshot of private message) Usually people who are employed in the area of languages who find out that they have been using a discriminatory term against a group of people who are excessively targeted for acts of violence, sexual violence and are murdered well above the National average would be happy to learn that the term is no longer used. Not Ben Kyo. Ben Kyo will tell you that you, in fact made a mistake when reading the exact word he used in his exact context. He demands an apology for his own bigotry. I don’t think so

Me: Oh well, can’t say I didn’t try.

Ze: Ben Kyo also thinks that “trying” in 2018 means playing the victim when he, himself has acted inappropriately

The problem is, I will meet ze again, there’s just the one big monthly boardgame meet in Osaka, and I’m a regular at it - it’s my only outlet.

At least a friend has been in touch to say this kind of behaviour has come up before, and isn’t unexpected from ze.


Thanks for the context. I think you are right in that it is all about the word, and not the content. I didn’t really pick up on that until the most recent exchange.

I can’t but help think there’s a generation gap in play here too, but really, it seems like ze is reading from a script, and there’s no way for me to communicate.


Maybe the problem is “Hobo” has gone beyond the original meaning in general use. When I hear hobo nowadays Itake it to mean any or all of: vagabond, homeless person, drunk guy in the gutter - I think in general usage it may have gone beyond the original meaning and may have taken on a perjorative bent.

Who knows what it means to this person, or what their background is.

If someone has already taken offence or has made a judgement about you, it is quite difficult to make them change their minds, especially with plain text which is so coloured by the eye of the beholder.


Judging by the excerpt, I don’t think you or they will get any benefit by further participation in the discussion.


Agreed. Already resolved to ignore, block if necessary. Didn’t think it would come to that.


Sometimes people are just going through things - you said they are 20ish - they still have some growing to do. First things first is to look after yourself, and if that means cutting contact, then that’s what it means - it’s no failing on your part to have to do that.

To me, there are some red lines - it’s perfectly normal for people from different backgrounds to, and the quotations are deliberate here “offend” one another, but it’s how they reacted to that which is telling - a friend will try to understand another persons point of view, to accept that this person is probably a decent person and try to explain what the problem is without causing “offence” back - offence is not a zero sum game, you can feel it and not have to dish it back out to get back to level again.

However, they very clearly have no positive intention towards you, your privacy is not something you can trust them with as they have already broken that, they have drawn battle lines, named you the enemy and gone to war, and the only way to win this game is to not play.


If someone hasn’t been explicit with me, and I even half suspect that him or her is not how they view themselves, then I tend to use they, them, their - I know the other pronouns exist for very good reasons, but usually people will tell you if one of the others is what they prefer - in this context though, I suspect that you won’t be able to do right, and probably “the individual” or “that person” will be your only way out of a minefield!


I can see both sides here. As others have said, Hobo is both a romanticised image and a derogatory/dehumanising term. It’s persisted in both forms far longer than other similar terms that are seen as “not okay” by today’s standards. Personally, I wouldn’t class it as outwardly offensive unless used towards actual homeless people, rather than in the context of romanticised lifestyle you used it in, but it is a rather clumsy word to use.

By telling ze to apologise in such a rigid stance, it could easily be interpreted as you being aggressive towards them, especially with that “if you don’t, we’re not” ending (harsh!). There was no subtext of wanting to reach a resolution in that message. You were drawing a line in the sand and showing no contrition! If someone thinks you’re a bigot, that approach is only going to confirm your ignorance. Ze has then flown off the handle in righteous ire. From there, there’s no rationalising to be had. You’re both convinced of righteousness. Yes shes gone crazy, but you then went and wound her up some more…

Just let it cool down. If you see them in person apologize for the way you handled it. Demanding they apologize first never works out well.


They gaslit you, brazenly and without shame, I don’t think you have anything to apologise for, and I agree with @KIR that you could have worded your PM better but I can understand that when you’ve just been manipulated so openly, you aren’t going to be at your best.