In A Nutshell
Hobo, tramp, and bum are all terms for a person who’s homeless and without a steady job. While most folks use these words interchangeably, there is a slight difference between the three—especially to those who live this lifestyle. To be precise, a hobo is someone who travels from place to place looking for work, a tramp is someone who travels but avoids work whenever possible, and a bum doesn’t care to work or travel.
The Whole Bushel
In our age of political correctness, even the beggar on the street corner might get offended if you call him a bum when he considers himself a hobo or a tramp. This is because there are small yet important differences between the meanings of these three words, and some homeless people use these terms to define their own habits or ethics.
For instance, a hobo is a homeless person who travels from town to town, picking up odd jobs along the way. They are sometimes migratory laborers and may take long breaks between jobs before eventually returning to some sort of work. So, a hobo—who often works for a living—might take offense if he is simply called a “bum.” This is because bums almost never work and they don’t even bother to travel. They are the dispossessed who stay in the same town, and likely the same sidewalk, day in and day out. The word “bum” derives from the German verb bummeln, which means to loaf around or saunter.
While no one is quite sure how the word “hobo” developed, it seems to have originated in the American West after the US Civil War—a time when many discharged veterans were looking for employment. The hobo population also increased during the Great Depression, as unemployed men took to train-hopping with the hopes of finding better prospects on the road. Although “hobo” is a slang word, its meaning was well known by the late 19th century and Funk and Wagnalls even listed “hobo” in the 1893 edition of its dictionary, defining it (rather harshly) as “An idle, shiftless wandering workman, ranking scarcely above the tramp.”
The word “tramp” comes from a Middle English verb meaning to “walk with heavy footsteps,” and, like “hobo,” it also became widely used after the Civil War. It initially referred to migrant workers searching for permanent work, but it was later used to designate those who “prefer the transient way of life.”
The term “tramp” is somewhat antiquated (and has taken on other meanings), yet it’s never completely fallen out of the common lexicon. It was even used in the name of the 1960s rock band Supertramp, after the members were inspired by William Henry Davies’ 1908 book The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp. Nowadays, the word’s experiencing a bit of a resurgence as many wanderers have adopted the title to more clearly differentiate their way of life from hobos. Some, for example, intentionally avoid participating in the economic system and therefore take pride in their “tramp” status and may even view themselves as superior to hobos.
Despite their differences, hobos, tramps, and bums all use similar methods of survival, and while some enter this lifestyle due to circumstance, for others, it’s a choice.