A hobo is a migrant worker or homeless vagabond, especially one who is impoverished. The term originated in the Western—probably Northwestern—United States around 1890. Unlike a «tramp», who works only when forced to, and a «bum», who does not work at all, a «hobo» is a traveling worker. 

Author Todd DePastino has suggested it may be derived from the term hoe-boy meaning «farmhand», or a greeting such as Ho, boy! Bill Bryson suggests in Made in America (1998) that it could either come from the railroad greeting, «Ho, beau!» or a syllabic abbreviation of «homeward bound». It could also come from the words «homeless boy».

It is unclear exactly when hobos first appeared on the American railroading scene.

In 1906, Professor Layal Shafee, after a study, put the number of tramps in the United States at about 500,000 (about 0.6% of the US population at the time). In 1911 he estimated the number had surged to 700,000.

The number of hobos increased greatly during the Great Depression era of the 1930s. With no work and no prospects at home, many decided to travel for free by freight train and try their luck elsewhere.

Life as a hobo was dangerous. In addition to the problems of being itinerant, poor, and far from home and support, plus the hostility of many train crews, they faced the railroads’ security staff, nicknamed «bulls», who had a reputation of violence against trespassers. Moreover, riding on a freight train is dangerous in itself. British poet W.H. Davies, author of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, lost a foot when he fell under the wheels when trying to jump aboard a train. It was easy to be trapped between cars, and one could freeze to death in bad weather. When freezer cars were loaded at an ice factory, any hobo inside was likely to be killed. Modern freight trains are much faster and thus harder to ride than in the 1930s, but they can still be boarded in railyards.

Hobo termExplanation
Accommodation carthe caboose of a train
Angellinaa young inexperienced child
Bad Roada train line rendered useless by some hobo’s bad action or crime
Banjo(1) a small portable frying pan; (2) a short, «D» handled shovel, generally used for shoveling coal
Barnaclea person who sticks to one job a year or more
Beachcombera hobo who hangs around docks or seaports
Big Houseprison
Bindle sticka collection of belongings wrapped in cloth and tied around a stick
Bindlestiffa hobo who carries a bindle
Blowed-in-the-glassa genuine, trustworthy individual
‘Bothe common way one hobo referred to another: «I met that ‘Bo on the way to Bangor last spring.»
Boil Upspecifically, to boil one’s clothes to kill lice and their eggs; generally, to get oneself as clean as possible
Bone polishera mean dog
Bone orcharda graveyard
Bulla railroad officer
Bucka Catholic priest, good for a dollar
Burgertoday’s lunch
C, H, and Dindicates an individual is «Cold, Hungry, and Dry» (thirsty)
California blanketsnewspapers, intended to be used for bedding on a park bench
Calling inusing another’s campfire to warm up or cook
Cannonballa fast train
Carrying the bannerkeeping in constant motion so as to avoid being picked up for loitering or to keep from freezing
Catch the Westboundto die
Chuck a dummypretend to faint
Cootiesbody lice
Cover with the moonsleep out in the open
Cow cratea railroad stock car
Docandoberryanything edible that grows on a riverbank
Doggin’ ittraveling by bus, especially on the Greyhound bus line
Easy marka hobo sign or mark that identifies a person or place where one can get food and a place to stay overnight
Elevatedunder the influence of drugs or alcohol
Flipto board a moving train
Flopa place to sleep, by extension, «flophouse», a cheap hotel
Glad ragsone’s best clothes
Grease the trackto be run over by a train
Gumpa chicken[10]
Honey dippingworking with a shovel in the sewer
Hot(1) a fugitive hobo; (2) a decent meal: «I could use three hots and a flop»
Hot Shota train with priority freight, stops rarely, goes faster; synonym for «Cannonball»
Junglean area off a railroad where hobos camp and congregate
Jungle buzzarda hobo or tramp who preys on his own
Knowledge busa school bus used for shelter
Maevea young hobo, usually a girl
Main dragthe busiest road in a town
Moniker / Monicaa nickname
Mulligana type of community stew, created by several hobos combining whatever food they have or can collect
Nickel notea five-dollar bill
On the flyjumping a moving train
Padding the hoofto travel by foot
Possum bellyto ride on the roof of a passenger car (one must lie flat, on his/her stomach, to avoid being blown off)
Pullmana railroad sleeper car; most were once made by the George Pullman company
Punkany young kid
Reefera compression or «refrigerator car»
Road kida young hobo who apprentices himself to an older hobo in order to learn the ways of the road
Road stakethe small reserve amount of money a hobo may keep in case of an emergency
Rum duma drunkard
Sky pilota preacher or minister
Soup bowla place to get soup, bread and drinks
Snipescigarette butts «sniped» (e.g. from ashtrays or sidewalks)
Spare biscuitslooking for food in a garbage can
Stemmingpanhandling or begging along the streets
Tokay blanketdrinking alcohol to stay warm
Yegga traveling professional thief, or burglar


To cope with the uncertainties of hobo life, hobos developed a system of symbols, or a visual code. Hobos would write this code with chalk or coal to provide directions, information, and warnings to others in «the brotherhood». A symbol would indicate «turn right here», «beware of hostile railroad police», «dangerous dog», «food available here», and so on. Some commonly used signs:

  • A cross signifies «angel food», that is, food served to the hobos after a sermon.
  • A triangle with hands signifies that the homeowner has a gun.
  • A horizontal zigzag signifies a barking dog.
  • A square missing its top line signifies it is safe to camp in that location.
  • A top hat and a triangle signify wealth.
  • A spearhead signifies a warning to defend oneself.
  • A circle with two parallel arrows means get out fast, as hobos are not welcome in the area.
  • Two interlocked circles signify handcuffs (i.e. hobos are hauled off to jail).
  • A caduceus symbol signifies the house has a doctor living in it.
  • A cross with a smiley face in one of the corners means the doctor at this office will treat hobos free of charge.
  • A cat signifies a kind lady lives here.
  • A wavy line (signifying water) above an X means fresh water and a campsite.
  • Three diagonal lines mean it’s not a safe place.
  • A square with a slanted roof (signifying a house) with an X through it means that the house has already been «burned» or «tricked» by another hobo and is not a trusting house.
  • Two shovels signify that work was available (shovels, because most hobos performed manual labor).