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In a recent question about "hobos", I defined a "hobo" as a "hoe boy," citing Wikipedia as a reference.

A critic wrote: "Your alleged etymology is wholly unsupported both by Wikipedia and Webster's." {Emphasis added.]

That was untrue, and I cited the relevant line: "Author Todd DePastino has suggested it may be derived from the term hoe-boy."

Then the commenter wrote: "The fanciful inventions of one author, 150 years after the fact and without any attestations in literature, are not support no matter how much you would like the hypothesis to be true. For all you know Postino (sic!) wrote that into the Wiki article himself to publicize his book."

The above exchange strikes me as overly skeptical. Certainly, we should take with grain of salt anything we read on Wikipedia (or elsewhere). But I double checked de Pastino's background. He has a PhD from an Ivy League school, has won a literary prize, has multiple publications, and is a professor at a pretty good school (Penn State). Certainly there was nothing to suggest to me that he "wrote that into the Wiki article himself to publicize his book." I'm pretty sure that Wikipedia has controls to guard against such conflicts of interest.

Members of other SE sites have noted: "Wikipedia is your friend." While I wouldn't go that far, I do consider it a source of "ground level" due diligence.

Is Wikipedia considered as unreliable as the commenter suggests? Are either the tone or the content of his comments justified?"

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    I always check what sources a Wikipedia article uses. Some are good, some are decidedly dodgy, and some are non-existent. I think the reliability of Wikipedia often depends on the topic; for example, one has to be wary of articles on Philippine political figures as they often appear to have been written by his/her supporters. – Lars Bosteen May 23 at 11:29
  • In this case, the Wikipedia article does actually make it clear that "The origin of the term is unknown. According to etymologist Anatoly Liberman, the only certain detail about its origin is the word was first noticed in American English circa 1890", and that the theory mentioned by DePastino is only one among several. Note that in the interview article cited as source by Wikipedia, DePastino does not suggest that theory particularly above others. – sempaiscuba May 23 at 11:38
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    Re "I'm pretty sure that Wikipedia has controls to guard against such conflicts of interest.". No; taken as a whole Wikipedia has absolutely no controls whatsoever on content quality. Any such are strictly the purview of the senior editors for each topic - and so quality control varies widely. For science and math topics in general the quality ranges from superb to crap, depending on the political context of the particular topic. For history the range seems narrower, with both less superb and less crap content, but still uncertain. – Pieter Geerkens May 23 at 14:50
  • Even the original founder of Wikipedia was recently in the news as having abandoned the effort at making Wikipedia a truly definitive source absent political control of content, and is investigating a new endeavour that would have centrallzed quality control to prevent the sort of political activism to which Wikipedia has become victim. – Pieter Geerkens May 23 at 14:55
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    As one American president liked to say, "Trust, but verify." – Moishe Kohan May 24 at 17:45
  • The definitive tone of your original first sentence was what was unjustified. The fact that no one "feels inclined to improve Wikipedia at this stage" is exactly why I'd trust it over SE, and why I trust Etymonline over either for an etymology of all things, not that I'd have verified it past Google telling me 'IDK'... all of which are crowdsourced, which is still better than what one person said at some point somewhere. Provenance is notwithstanding no mater what your credentials are. We could start this whole conversation over again with this answer's final paragraph. And we should. – Mazura May 31 at 8:24
  • The only reason to keep rehashing Qs on an 11yo Q&A site is to start typing by hand articles from institutions that you can't C&P because they want you to pay for them. But instead by all means let's continue to get free internet points by pretending to be an authority and quote Howard Johnson. – Mazura May 31 at 8:32
  • @Mazura: I admit that "the definitive tone of my original first sentence was what was unjustified." That's why I fixed it. – Tom Au May 31 at 15:34
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Treat Wikipedia as you would any other popular reference source. There have been several studies published on the reliability (or otherwise) of Wikipedia. I listed a few in my answer to a related question here, but I have no doubt that a quick Google search will find plenty of others (other search engines are available).

However, just as with any popular reference source, you should always check the citations where possible.


In this case, the person posting the comment was correct when they said that your suggested etymology isn't supported by Wikipedia. What the article actually states is:

The origin of the term is unknown. According to etymologist Anatoly Liberman, the only certain detail about its origin is the word was first noticed in American English circa 1890.

citing Anatoly Liberman's article, On Hobos, Hautboys, and Other Beaus on the OUP Blog as its source.


Now, you are correct that the Etymology section of the Wikipedia article goes on to observe that:

Author Todd DePastino has suggested it may be derived from the term hoe-boy meaning "farmhand", or a greeting such as Ho, boy.

This time the cited source was An interview with Todd DePastino, author of Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America. The interview is published on the University of Chicago Press website.

In the interview, DePastino said:

Where did the word "hobo" come from? I've not found a convincing explanation. Some say it derives from the term "hoe-boy," meaning farm hand, or "homo bonus," meaning "good man." Others speculate that men shouted "Ho, Boy!" to each other on the road. One particularly literate wayfarer insisted the term came from the French "haut beau." Whatever its origin, the word "hobo" became widespread in American vernacular during yet another major depression from 1893 to 1897.

So, was the Wikipedia editor right to say that:

"... Todd DePastino has suggested it may be derived from the term hoe-boy ..."?

Well, perhaps. But in that case, the emphasis in that sentence should be heavily on "may" and it really is stretching the point.

Personally, I would say it is certainly not an accurate representation of what DePastino actually said.

It would probably be more accurate to state something like:

"Author Todd DePastino notes that some have said that it derives from the term "hoe-boy", meaning "farmhand", or a greeting such as "Ho, boy", but that he does not find these to be convincing explanations".

Leaving the citation link to the interview unchanged. (If anyone feels inclined to improve Wikipedia at this stage, feel free to use that text).


The point here is that - as with any popular reference source - the reliability of Wikipedia depends both on the accuracy of the sources cited, and the skills of the editors who collaborate to produce the articles.

In this case, had you checked the cited source, you might not have been quite so emphatic when you defined 'hobo' in your answer.

Equally, had the commenter taken a moment to check the source, they might not have been quite so quick to cast aspersions on Todd DePastino's academic reputation.

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    Then it appears to me that both the critic and I should have been less emphatic in our comments. Since this was an "alleged," not solid etymology, I should have "hedged" my statement. (I did so by inserting the word "possibly" before "a reference to...") On the other hand, the commenter should not have been so dismissive of either de Pastino or my answer itself. – Tom Au May 23 at 14:58
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    @TomAu That sounds fair, although I would probably go slightly further. It was not DePastino who suggested the etymology (he merely noted that others had done so, and DePastino expressly said that he didn't find it convincing), so using the fact of his PhD to add credibility to that theory is wrong. – sempaiscuba May 23 at 21:32

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