Hobo Language

The Code of the Road

My mother often talked about her Uncle who was a Hobo, by choice, not by fortune. She reminisced about how he would show up at her mother’s house, usually late at night, let himself in, and eat whatever was in the fridge. Guess that irritated my Grandmother. For some reason, a bowl of leftover peas was the subject of a huge argument. my mother thought of her Uncle as romantic and a wanderer but being a Knight of the Road wasn’t all that romantic. They had to deal with being ran out of town, being accused of crimes, being beaten by railroad Bosses, hunger, and the elements to name a few issues.

I should mention here that being homeless and being a Hobo is not the same thing. True Hobos, like my relation, were not looking to be homed. They loved their lifestyle and many were proud of it. They were not Tramps (only worked when pushed to), or Bums (who would never work), but traveling workers. During the great depression, rather than live in “Hoovervilles” the shanty towns for the very poor, many men became “Hobo’s” and lived in Hobotowns in or near a railyard. They felt safe from authorities in these towns awaiting trains to take them to where they could find work. A whole society formed, with Hobo Kings and Queens, and is the basis of many people’s idea of what being a Hobo is.

Being on the road could be dangerous, however, and Hobos developed a language of symbols called a Hobo Code. Each symbol would tell others who followed what they could expect ahead. Where there was danger, where there were handouts, and when there was no reason to stop. To the untrained eye, it would just look like a circle or a “G” drawn on a post. To the Hobo who came by it meant there was nothing for them there and to move on.

Below are some examples of Hobo Code

By Ryan Somma – https://www.flickr.com/photos/ideonexus/5175956044/in/set-72157625264885775/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15379352

Besides the written language, Hobos have their own slang. Words such a Bone Orchard (graveyard) Sky Pilot (Preacher) or Yegg (a thief) shows just how much of a lifestyle it was. This link https://arc.lib.montana.edu/ivan-doig/objects/2602-B039-F12.pdf will take you to a PDF of a dictionary of Hobo Slang I found it really interesting that much of the slang used in the ’40s is slang today in the mainstream population. Moniker meant what was your name, it is the same today. Cheesy meant that you were dirty, filthy. Today it means cheap, unpleasant, poor quality.

Many folks who out of work and homeless and living in tent cities, just like during the Great Depression. Unfortunately, unlike the great depression, besides lack of employment, people have turned to drugs. Addiction is not a fun thing and until you are clean it is difficult to get out of those circumstances. Yesterdays and today’s true Hobos do not really stay in one place for too long. They seek employment, make some money, and are on their way. Modern trains make it impossible for them to get a ride, but many have vehicles or walk to their next destination.

The Hobo Code is alive and well. It now includes symbols for wifi and places to plug in your phone. On the phone, there are websites or apps to help out the modern-day Hobo. However, the language was designed to be meaningful only to the Hobo because if others knew what it was that resource could become off-limits or locked up.

Do you think you have seen some Hobo Code symbols when traveling or even around your town?





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