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shameless pleading






Dear Word Detective:  I’ve been running across the verb “to hoon” a lot lately. It means to joyride or drive recklessly, as in “I know you like your new car, but I want you to come straight home and don’t go hooning around the countryside.” As with so much great slang, I think it comes from the British Isles. Any ideas? — Dalton.

Apparently I’m not getting out enough, either literally or metaphorically, because “hoon” is a new one on me. When I started rummaging through the dusty attic of my mind, in fact, the only “hoon” that sprang out of the shadows was Geoff Hoon, a Labor Party politician in the UK. Gave me quite a start, since I have no idea why I would remember his name. I guess that’s what comes of falling asleep listening to the BBC.

In any case, “hoon” is, indeed, popular slang, found primarily in Australia and New Zealand, and not so much in Britain. The verb “to hoon” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “To behave in a loutish or irresponsible way; specifically, to drive fast or recklessly” (“Despite the weedy 1.3-litre engine .., I found myself hooning around in the thing as though it was a Subaru Impreza rally car,” 2006). Apparently, the reckless and antisocial habits of “hoons” have become a sufficiently serious problem in Australia in recent years to prompt the passage of “anti-hoon laws” (e.g., “Road Safety Amendment (Hoon Driving) Act” in Victoria) that permit police to immediately impound a “hooning” vehicle. According to the website of the Victoria Police, they’ve impounded 14,500 cars under the act since 2006. “Hoons” have evidently lately branched out into recklessly operating motor boats and jet skis, which must make going to the beach fun. Perhaps the police can deputize a few Great Whites.

The interesting thing (to me, anyway) about all this is that a slang term (“hoon”) has become so widespread and accepted that it is now used in the name of laws. Unfortunately, popularity does not automatically produce clarity, and no one seems to have a plausible idea of where “hoon” came from.

The verb “to hoon” seems to date from the early 1980s, but the noun form “hoon,” meaning “lout, a ‘tough,’ a hooligan,” is much older. The OED dates it to 1938 in the basic “lout” sense, but the Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English also lists it as meaning “a man who lives off the earnings of prostitutes; a pimp” as of 1949.

One theory about the origin of “hoon” (attributed to Australian lexicographer Sidney Baker in a show on “hoon” broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Company in 2008) suggests that “hoon” might have been derived from “houyhnhnms,” the civilized, anthropomorphic horses in Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels.” But, as the show’s host noted, the “houyhnhnms” were civilized; the louts in Swift’s story were the human “yahoos.”

It’s more likely, as has been suggested, that “hoon” is an adaptation of a Maori word, the Maori being the indigenous inhabitants of New Zealand. “Hoon” might, on the other hand, have originally been nothing more than a combination of “hooligan” and “goon,” both terms well within the “hoon” semantic ballpark.

1 comment to Hoon

  • Michael Hooning

    As you can see, my family name is Hooning — thus I am concerned about the proliferation of laws against hooning. I first came across this word a few years ago when I searched the web for my family name. The references were puzzling at first, but it soon became clear that it was similar to “tearing” as in “tearing around in the woods on a bike.” (At the time it seemed to be popular among mountain bikers and other young hooligans in New Zealand and Australia.) Unlike the down-under slang term, our name is of Dutch origin, and is pronounced with a long-o (as in honing, I guess we’re sharp!) I’ve been told that it means “honey”, although it seems they’ve introduced simplified orthography in Holland, so modern usage spells it “honing.” That spelling would probably be pronounced correctly by Anglophones more often than the one we use.

    Thanks for your ruminations on this word — I’m always entertained by your writing.

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