• Language: English
  • Pronunciation: ˈhuːlɪɡən
  • Etymology: poss. from Irish proper noun Houlihan

Recently, archives from Margaret Thatcher’s time in office were made public. The documents proved once again just how far removed the Tory party was from the problems facing football in the 1980s.

Perhaps the most outlandishly terrible example comes with Bernard Ingham’s ‘Goalies Against Hoolies’ campaign. To combat hooliganism, Ingham proposed that the league’s most eloquent goalkeepers give interviews in the press. As the stoppers were “first in line of hooligan fire”, they could use their position to talk down the switchblade-happy firms. Hooligans would see the error of their ways, the thinking went, if only Gary Bailey were to point it out to them via a well-placed think-piece on Radio Manchester.

Englishness and the modern age

Football in the 21st century has seen the development of new stadia, heightened safety regulations and high ticket prices. For these reasons (and many others) hooligans, and the word hooligan, are perhaps not as prevalent in football* as they were when Ingham turned his highly-charged political superbrain to the problem.

However, speaking as an expat, hooligans are – after high tea and the Queen – what people mention to me most as an example of quintessential Englishness. Like it or not, this is an image that clings. With that in mind, it is worth looking at the possible back-stories to this unusual word.

Thatcher at the Den

Thatcher gets tasty outside the Den

Of unknown origin

According to the OED, the true origin of the word is unknown. What follows is the most probable reason behind its journey into common usage.

First mentions

An early mention of the word hooligan came in a London newspaper, The Era, in October 1891. This talked about a music hall song entitled The O’Hooligan Boys, featuring the goings-on of a rowdy Irish family. The inspiration for this song was possibly a notorious Irish family in the London borough of Southwark in the 1880s.

The name Hooligan is likely a variant of the Irish surname Houlihan. Houlihan is an anglicised form of the Gaelic Ó hUallacháin (‘descendant of Uallachán’), itself deriving from a diminutive of úallach, meaning ‘proud’ or ‘arrogant’.

Moving into common use

The O’Hooligan (or Hooligan) characters quickly became used in theatre, music hall and cartoons. The Hooligan’s raucous, clownish antics were usually used in humorous contrast to English notions of correctness.

From there, the story goes, London street gangs adopted the word. Following the hot, tetchy summer of 1898, in which these gangs were particularly active, the press caught on and hooliganism became a byword for violence and theft among young men.

The word in its new form then made appearances in literature, with Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Six Napoleons (1904) talking of ‘senseless acts of Hooliganism‘. By the time H.G. Wells used it in Tono-Bungay in 1909 (‘young men of the hooligan type‘) the capital H had been dropped, marking a move away from the word’s origins as a proper noun and its arrival into common use.

What might have been

All of which would have been so unnecessary if the likes of Ingham and, say, Neville Southall had been around in that sultry summer of 1898 to reason with the ruffians, prevent the violence and eliminate the need for a word such as hooligan.

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And finally…

  • One other suggestion for the word’s origin is that it may have referred to a specific Irish gang (“Hooley’s Gang“). This suggestion is particularly appealing given its link to the Irish hooley, meaning ‘rowdy party’
  • It has also been suggested to derive from Uillega´n, a Gaelic nickname for William. However you look at it, you can’t escape the Irish connection
  • Except you can. There is another school of thought suggesting that the word comes from the Russian chuligán (find fault with, revile), itself coming from the Mongolian or Tungus words for thief (chulagan and chulacha respectively) 

* or, maybe, just not as visible