‘cahoot’: meaning and early occurrences

The noun cahoot (also, in early use, cohoot) originated in the southern United States of America in the early 19th century. It is used almost exclusively in the phrase in cahoots (in early use in cahoot, in cohoot), which means colluding or conspiring together secretly.

The origin of cahoot is unknown. Two theories have been put forward; this noun may be derived from:

– either French cahute, denoting a cabin, a hut—the image being of two or more persons hidden away working together in secret;

– or French and/or Spanish cohorte, denoting a cohort—as explained by the U.S. historian and linguist John Russell Bartlett (1805-1886) put forward in Dictionary of Americanisms. A glossary of words and phrases, usually regarded as peculiar to the United States (New York: Bartlett and Welford, 1848):

CAHOOT. Probably from cohort, Spanish and French, defined in the old French and English Dictionary of Hollyband, 1593 1, as “a company, a band.” It is used at the South and West to denote a company or union of men for a predatory excursion, and sometimes for a partnership in business.

1 This refers to A Dictionarie French and English: Published for the benefite of the studious in that language (Imprinted at London by T. O. for Thomas Woodcock, 1593), by Claudius Hollyband (Claude de Sainliens).

I must add that the author of Domestic Slang, published in the City Gazette and Commercial Daily Advertiser (Charleston, South Carolina) of Friday 14th May 1830 [cf. below, 4], suggests that cohoot originated in a Native-American language of modern-day Georgia.

These are the earliest occurrences of the noun cahoot that I have found, in chronological order:

1-: From Barney Blinn—No. 2, by ‘The Wanderer’, published in the Augusta Chronicle and Georgia Advertiser (Augusta, Georgia) of Wednesday 20th June 1827—the narrator, “a traveller journeying throughout our State”, gives an account of a speech delivered by Barney Blinn, “candidate for the Legislature”:

Barney began with a few rolls of his little grey eyes, after pouring down a goodly draught, hitching up the waistband of his inexpressibles, and mounting a stump that was just at his elbow:—“Afore I begin the preambulation of what I am going for to say, I’ll just mention, by way of introjection, that I hate the present ministration as I do a pole cat.”—(Here a deep groan was heard among the auditors, and Barney made a pause—“an awful pause”—lowering his shaggy eyebrows and glaring around with a most ominous expression of countenance; but nobody knew from whence it came, so Barney proceeded)—“I have done my damndest to castigate all them which supports it; for the very root of it is rotten; so, sap, tree and fruit must be rotten too. I ha’nt read newspapers for nothing—Gin’ral Government and the ministration are going in cahoot to undermine and overrule the undertakings of the free People of Georgia.—Aint our principles free liberty gratis for nothing? (Hear, hear.)

2-: From Provincialisms, in English grammar, in familiar lectures, accompanied by a compendium; embracing a new systematick order of parsing, a new system of punctuation, exercises in false syntax, and a key to the exercises: designed for the use of schools and private learners (Cincinnati: N. & G. Guilford, 1828), by Samuel Kirkham:

Md. Va. Ky. or Miss. — Corrected.
Carry the horse to water. — Lead the horse to water; or, water the horse.
Toat the the [sic] wood to the river. — Carry the wood to the river.
Have you fotcht the water? — Have you fetched or brought the water.
He will soon come of that habit. — He will soon overcome, or get rid of that habit.
I war thar, and I seen his boat was loaded too heavy. — I was there, and I saw that his boat was too heavily laden, or loaded.
Whar you gwine? — Where are you going?
Let em go dah. — Let them go.
Hese in cohoot with me. — He is in partnership with me.

3-: From the following notice, published in the Statesman and Gazette (Natchez, Mississippi) of Thursday 14th August 1828:

Notice.—Whereas, I have reason to beleve [sic], that a certain clan, cahoote [sic] of connexion, and othrs [sic] residing in the vicinity of my residence are predisposed to create, unnecessary and illegal liabilities on me, thro, the agency of my wife, LOUISA HOLMES. Now therefore, take notice, that from this date, henceforth, I shall cease to be liable for any debts of her contracting; for, or on my account. And in no case will I consider myself liable, for any of her contracts, unless sanctioned at the time of the contract made by my signature.
WM. HOLMES.
Natchez, July 17, 1828.

4-: From the City Gazette and Commercial Daily Advertiser (Charleston, South Carolina) of Friday 14th May 1830:

DOMESTIC SLANG.—We cannot well conceive how, after the extracts from the ‘Cracker 2 Dictionary, yesterday, and the addenda which we give our readers, to-day, any of these should find fault with us for the occasional coinage of a nondescript, wherewith to express ourselves with peculiar significance. We have been, at times grievously complained of, when taken in the manner, for an indulgence of this nature, We hope now to hear no further complaints. Our readers will understand these euphonious jawbreakers to originate in our younger sister Georgia—she is horribly polished in her ways
Co hoot—Copartnership (Ocmulgee 3 dialect.)
Ramscrugious—Tolerably rapid.
Breezy—Halt-seas-over.
Conflustration—A large pack or gang of dogs &c.
Snolus-bolus—Nolens, volens,—whether or not.
Snorter—Piece of a roarer.
Whejee—A carriage with a fifth wheel, or any strange vehicle.
Cozy—Half drunk.
Ring-tail-scrouger—A double ring-tail-roarer.
Sort of a consarn—A curious thing, not describable.
Whaler—Half horse, half alligator—prodigious.
Screamer—A roarer.
Tetotiaciously exflunct—Dead as a door nail.
Think of a lady who should say—“I am about to enter into Cohoot with Jeremiah Digs, who is a ramscrugious snorter when breezy. he goes to work snolus-bolus with a conflustration, at his heels mounted on his whejee and driving a sort-of-a-consarn-cozy and like a Ring-tail-scrouger.”

2 Here, cracker is a contemptuous name given in the southern United States of America to the ‘poor whites’, whence, familiarly, to the native whites of Georgia and Florida.
3 The Okmulgee Indians were a Muskogean tribe of modern-day Georgia.

This is the above-mentioned Cracker Dictionary, published in the City Gazette and Commercial Daily Advertiser (Charleston, South Carolina) of Thursday 13th May 1830:

CRACKER DICTIONARY.

Bodiaciously—Corporeously.
Catawampusly—Obliquely,—bias.
Chawed-up—Having ear, nose, and lip bit off.
Contraption, Combesticle—Contrivance appendant; between a contrivance and a trapping.
Corn-Stealer, Tater-Grabber—Thumb and four digits.
Fitified—Subject to fits.
Flugeus—Fire and Faggots.
Forked—How came you so.
Fotch—Did fetch.
Flustrated—Flustered and prostrated; greatly agitated.
Jimber-Jawed—Having the tongue always moving.
Lambasting—A very severe licking.
Moccasin—Green Whiskey.
To Mosey—To clear out.
Obsquatulate—To mosey, or to abscond.
Pernickety—Squeamishly fastidious.
Pisin—Violent in politics on the wrong side, i.e. against us.
Magmatorial Writ—A process which takes a man as well where he is not, as where he is.
Ramsquaddled—Rowed up Salt River.
Ring-Tailed-Roarer—A most violent fellow, Co-Telescope.
Rip-Roarious, Rumbunctious—Ripping and tearing; very outrageous.
Scrouger—A Ring-tailed roarer.
Scrimption—Minutest atom. The little end of nothing sharpened.
To Swanger—To strut with free negro dignity.
Sockdolager—In fighting, a lick that tells.
Slantendicular—Slanted from perpendicular.
Spontinaceoulsy—Of one’s own accord.
Sarsafari—Legal proceedings of any kind.
Smartie—One who thinks himself right sharp.
Swipsey—Forked.
Sniptious—Finically nice.
To chunck—To brick-hat with chuncks; not with stones.
Tetotally twisted—Confoundedly contorted.