Little more may be done with the word “hobo” than to repeat the several theories that have been advanced to explain its origin. Any one of them might be true, but there is no proof as yet.
Slightly less than four centuries ago the French musical instrument, the hautbois, came into English use. Its name was literal, from haut, high, and bois, wood, for the instrument was made of wood and its tone was high.
Later, from Italian spelling, it came to be called, as at present, the “oboe.” The English, as they frequently did with French words, corrupted the spelling into hautboy or, often, into hoboy, giving it the latter pronunciation in either case.
There are, therefore, many people who think that our term hobo, which is of American origin, came somehow into use through itinerant players of the hoboy. Jack London, who had a lot of firsthand experience among tramps and vagabonds and who wrote much about them at the turn of the century, gave this theory the stamp of his approval.
Another explanation credited the source to the lumber camp. French-Canadians, they say, when felling a tree, instead of giving the shout, “Timber-r-r!” would cry, “Haut bois!”, literally, “high timber.” From this cry, which might be rendered “ho bo” in English, it has been suggested, the itinerant Canadian lumberjack came to be called a hobo by his English-speaking fellow workers.
Another theory, advanced by a recent authority, is that the word may be derived from an ironic use of the word “beau,” together with the word of greeting, “Ho.” Thus, “Ho, beau!”, just as, in present popular speech, we hear, “Hi, fella!”
It is our own thought that the source might go back three hundred years. There is record of a slang term in use about that time applied to a man engaged in the most menial of all labor, one whose work it was to go about London at night and clean latrines. Such a man was called a hoboy. Possibly the name was of gypsy origin, as was much of the underworld slang of that period and some that is still alive.
It is therefore possible that hoboy persisted among gypsies, changing to hobo through the years, and applied either to a tramp or to a migratory worker.