October 25’s Globe and Mail Saturday Crossword carried this clue: “bindlestiff.” The five-letter answer was “tramp.”
Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang defines bindlestiff as, “a noun of U.S. origin from the early 1900s — a tramp, especially one carrying a bedroll; formerly called a
migrant.” Slang and Euphemisms says a bindle-stiff (bindle-man) is, “a knight of the road, swagman, tatterdemalion, ragman, ragpicker.”
This word’s history is murky but two other words that arose about 1890 could be the genesis of bindlestiff. These are, “blanketstiff” and “mission-stiff.” Stiff is a slang expression dating back to 1889 when it meant, “a penniless man; a waster.” A bindle is a late 19th-century U.S. noun meaning, “a bundle containing clothes and possessions, especially a bed-roll carried by a tramp.”
A mission-stiff was a tramp or vagrant who
frequented charitable missions seeking handouts, food, and shelter.
The thesaurus offers 37 synonyms for tramp, including “vag,” “toe-ragger,” and “whaler” (waler) — all Australian. Also listed are the British terms “mumper” and “dosser,” and our well-known “hobo” and “bum.”
Bum is what everyone said during the Great
Depression when thousands of men seeking work crossed Canada by rail. This mode of travel was called, “riding the rods.” Bum, considered U.S. slang, was first recorded in 1859, but Funk suggests it entered vocabulary during the San Francisco Gold Rush of 1849.
Bum almost certainly comes from the German, das Bummler (loafer; idler).
Tramp, in this sense, is the fourth listed meaning in the OED, the definition being, “A person on the tramp; one who travels from place to place on foot, especially in search of employment; a vagabond.”
Tramp can be dated to 1664. From the Late Middle English trampen, it evolved from the Old Teutonic trep (steps; stairs). As a verb, to tramp means to travel or wander especially as a beggar.
Hobo is late 19th century and also American in origin. Its etymology is unknown, although some sources suggest the word is from hoe-boy, a migrant farm worker. Cassell defines hobo as a noun: “a tramp, vagrant, itinerant worker, often using the rail system for free transportation.” The verb, “to hobo,” is obsolete. It meant, “to live or travel as a tramp.”
Although the words discussed involve begging, (the noun “beggar,” is “one who solicits alms for a living”), beggars aren’t usually associated with the idea of wandering. They are more often found on the streets of cities. Another term for such a person is, “panhandler” (1897), defined as, “One who begs, especially by accosting people on the street.”
An exception to this is the “mendicant” who may or may not have wandered. In English since 1474, mendicant was especially applied to religious orders or persons who lived entirely on alms. Hence, the Mendicant Friars (1530). Think of St. Francis of Assisi (c.1181-1226).
This year is the 100th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp. The “Little Tramp” is still a popular movie and still makes one laugh. Chaplin (1889-1977) was only 24 when he came up with the wonderful Little Tramp. I’m glad he didn’t call him the Little Bindlestiff.