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Some kids these days might think this term comes from the current meaning of hood, as in that place downtown where you might want to watch your wallet. I haven't researched the hood etymology as in neighborhood, but I'm fairly sure it's that simple.

Some folks have thought the word hoodlum comes from the tales of Robin Hood. Others have said it comes from folks who wear hoods over their heads as they commit criminal acts. The 1950's term for bad kids was shortened to hood (think James Dean), but it came from hoodlum. So where did hoodlum come from?

The term seems to have originated in San Francisco around the 1870's and was in use all across America by the next decade. The word's true origin seems to have gone missing, and newspapers back in those days had several articles trying to find reasonable explanations for the origin of the term.

Today, most folks who care about this sort of stuff say that it comes from a Bavarian version of German and the word is Huddellum, which means ragamuffin.

Warning: My daughter says any time she hears someone use this term, she immediately thinks, "Old man word."
According to one theory, generally viewed as a bit of urban folklore, this term originated with a cowardly newspaperman and an uncomprehending typesetter.

Allegedly, there was a gang leader in San Francisco named Muldoon sometime around the turn of the century. Muldoon was so feared that a newspaper reporter who did a story on him attempted to disguise the identity of his subject by spelling the name backward as "Noodlum". The typesetter misread it as "hoodlum" and a new word was coined.

Bill Duke, if you've heard of him at all, probably comes to your recollection as that big, bald, black guy who fought with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando, and alongside him in Predator (he died in both), and who has generally appeared in films and on television as an intimidating bad guy. But an interesting tidbit is that in addition to his 50+ film and television appearances, he has directed almost as many things as he's been in. One of these is a 1997 film -- Hoodlum -- about gang wars between organized crime factions in Great Depression New York, and specifically about the oft overlooked African American gangsters, who managed to carve out Harlem turf amidst the typically more politically powerful Irish and Italian organizations.

Laurence Fishburne (here just a few years prior to his most famous role in The Matrix) plays Elmore "Bumpy" Johnson, who we see released from prison in the beginning, and joining the organization of Madame Queen, who runs Harlem's numbers racket (essentially a low rent three-number lotto). Eventually, Johnson becomes Queen's enforcer, and when Queen is jailed, she insures that he goes from enforcer to boss, playing the Robin Hood card to a degree by helping out Harlem's people with the largess afforded by that position. But Johnson is not alone in seeking to harness this power, and so he must contend against the scenery chewing of Tim Roth as Dutch Schultz (whose real name, for what it's worth was the much less gangsterish 'Arthur Flegenheimer'), who wanted to horn in on that action, and Andy Garcia as Italian mob boss Lucky Luciano. Queen wants Johnson to run things diplomatically and nonviolently (to the extent that such is possible), and Johnson's new love interest, Francine (played by Vanessa Williams) hopes to curb his vengeful bent as well. But what sort of gangster movie would this be, then? Instead, Johnson and Luciana make a deal which shuts Shultz out; and violence erupts, beginning with the brutal murder of one of Johnson's closest friends, and devolving from there into a bunch of tit-for-tat attacks and counterattacks, with a few clever twists (displays of Johnson's strategic cleverness) as to how they are pulled off.

The film, like the bullets flying about in it, is hit-and-miss. I'll not spoil the ending except to note that I found it to be disappointing and a bit too Hollywood -- does Bumpy Johnson manage to reign in his conflicting desires and find redemption? And it has been noted that it deviates from history on a number of points, perhaps unnecessarily so -- most indiscriminately in that prosecutor (and future governor/failed presidential candidate Thomas Dewey) is portrayed as being quite chummy with Luciano, quite the opposite of the true situation. Still, the film is crisply imagined in terms of bringing the viewer right into the 1930s, and has some great moments. If you've got a stomach for violence and occasional bouts of plot holes, wooden dialogue, characters making ill-thought-out choices, those great moments and that sumptuous scenery may very well be for you.

Hood"lum (?), n.

A young rowdy; a rough, lawless fellow.

[Colloq. U.S.]


© Webster 1913.

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