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A man holds a package of Skittles as he stands with New York City Council members wearing hoodie sweatshirts on the steps of City Hall in New York, March 28, 2012. (MIKE SEGAR/MIKE SEGAR / Reuters)
A man holds a package of Skittles as he stands with New York City Council members wearing hoodie sweatshirts on the steps of City Hall in New York, March 28, 2012. (MIKE SEGAR/MIKE SEGAR / Reuters)

Warren Clements

The problem with hoods Add to ...

The hoodie is much in the news, with the outrage over the failure to charge a white Florida man for the shooting death of a black Florida teenager, Trayvon Martin, who wore a sweatshirt with an attached hood. Fox News commentator Geraldo Rivera went so far as to say Martin was partly responsible for his own death by wearing the hoodie, a remark for which he semi-apologized after one of his sons told him it was shameful.

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By his original logic, the cowled monks of history and Little Red Riding Hood of fiction were lucky not to have been mown down on the excuse that their clothing was asking for it. Heaven knows what Rivera might have made of the fact that in Charles Perrault’s 1697 version of Little Red Riding Hood (the earliest known), the wolf gobbled up the girl after eating her grandmother, but in the version by the Brothers Grimm – in which, says folklorist Andrew Lang, the girl was called Little Red Cap rather than Riding Hood – the grandmother and girl were rescued from the wolf’s stomach.

The word hoodie (or hoody) entered the language around 1990 to describe the hood-and-sweatshirt apparel, although it had been around earlier as an adjective related to hoodlum, someone up to no good. In a 1982 book review in The Globe and Mail, John Melady wrote, “At each step along the way, his entourage of hoody friends increases, as do the jobs he pays them to do.”

But hood, describing the covering for head and neck, was part of English from the start. The Anglo-Saxons spelled it hod, from the Old High German huot, also the source of hat. By Middle English, it described the hoods worn by professionals and other distinguished types.

Another Old English word, had, turned into a different sort of hood. It referred to a state or quality, and became the suffix “hood” in childhood, brotherhood and falsehood. Neighbourhood, which combined the Old English neah (close by, source of nigh) and gebur (someone who lived in a bur, a dwelling), referred in the 1400s not to a place but to neighbours as a community – the state or condition of being neighbours.

It was only in the late 1600s that it began to describe a locale. By 1969, black U.S. slang had shortened the neighbourhood to the hood (or ’hood), as in the title of John Singleton’s 1991 film Boyz N the Hood, set in south central Los Angeles.

To hoodwink someone is to trick him, but its meaning in the 1500s was to blindfold someone. The placing of a hood over the head had the effect of a wink, which as early as 897 meant the closing of both eyes. Winking as the shutting of one eye didn’t show up until the 1300s (as in aiming at a target) and the 1800s (as in flirting, teasing or signalling complicity).

During the reign of Elizabeth I, the “hoodwinke” game was another name for blind man’s buff, in which a blindfolded contestant had to locate a target. The meaning of hoodwink as deceive or fool appeared around 1610.

But I digress. Hood as the short form for hoodlum has the etymologists stumped. It is tempting to tie it to the outlaw Robin Hood, but he was named centuries before the criminal sense of hood took hold. Hoodlum appeared in print by 1871, referring to thugs making life miserable for Chinese immigrants in San Francisco. The first citation for the short form hood dates from 1930.

You can take your best guess about hoodlum’s origins. It may derive from hodalum in German dialect, meaning rascal. It may be a printer’s corruption of Noodlum, the backwards spelling of Muldoon, who led a San Francisco street gang. One source even points to a gang’s cry of “huddle ’em.”

Whatever the case, if every teenager who wore a hoodie could be considered a hood, no hood would be safe.

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