In the distinctive language of British journalism, the English football fans who caused so much trouble in Marseilles variously “went on the rampage”, “ran amuck”, were guilty of “thuggish behaviour”, or “caused mayhem”. They were variously described in news stories as louts, yobs, thugs and ruffians, but the word that was universally employed was hooligan.
It’s an odd word, which the Oxford English Dictionary says started to appear in London police-court reports in the summer of 1898. It became instantly popular, with several compounds appearing in newspapers within weeks (a sure sign of acceptance), including Hooliganism, hooliganesque, Hooliganic, and the verb to hooligan, of which only the first has survived. The long-defunct London newspaper the Daily Graphic wrote in a report on 22 August that year, “The avalanche of brutality which, under the name of ‘Hooliganism’ ... has cast such a dire slur on the social records of South London”. The word soon reached literary works; Conan Doyle employed it in The Adventure of the Six Napoleons in 1904: “It seemed to be one of those senseless acts of Hooliganism which occur from time to time, and it was reported to the constable on the beat as such”, and H G Wells included it in his novel Tono-Bungay in 1909: “Three energetic young men of the hooligan type, in neck-wraps and caps, were packing wooden cases with papered-up bottles, amidst much straw and confusion”.
Several suggestions have been made about its origin that link it to the Irish family name variously spelt Hooligan or Houlihan. It seems there was a popular music-hall song of the period about a rowdy Irish family of that name; the OED comments that there was a series about a similarly-named comic Irish character that appeared in a periodical called Funny Folks. Some reports say it was a mishearing of the term Hooley’s gang but nobody has come up with a source for this.
However, a book by Clarence Rook named Hooligan Nights, which was published in 1899, gives some helpful evidence. Mr Rook claimed that the word derives from a Patrick Hooligan, a small-time bouncer and thief, who lived in the Borough, on the south side of the river. With his family and a small gang of followers he frequented the Lamb and Flag public house in Southwark (not to be confused with the older and more famous hostelry of the same name across the river in Covent Garden). Mr Hooligan murdered a policeman, was put away for life and died in prison. Another writer, Earnest Weekley, said in his Romance of Words in 1912: “The original Hooligans were a spirited Irish family of that name whose proceedings enlivened the drab monotony of life in Southwark about fourteen years ago”. It would seem from the other evidence that spirited and enlivened are euphemisms.
Whatever its origins, it quickly became established. At first this was most probably because of its novelty and news value. Later, as its sense shifted slightly, none of the possible alternatives had precisely the undertones of a (usually young) person, a member of an informal group, who commits acts of vandalism or criminal damage, starts fights, and who causes disturbances but is not a thief. Last week’s newspaper reports show that it continues to serve a useful purpose.