…To be in a secret partnership with an individual, group or enterprise, usually with the aim of being up to no good.
“John McCain likes to talk about ‘Joe the Plumber’ but he’s in cahoots with ‘Joe the CEO.’ ”
– Presidential Candidate Barack Obama, October 22, 2008
First a few words about my grandfather Otto. Labor leader, politician, Otto was a larger-than-life character: powerful, caring and perhaps more than a little bit formidable to deal with. If he had lived in the South, which he didn’t, I am sure he would have been called “Boss” by friends and foes alike.
But I remember Otto mostly as a storyteller, a person who could hold grownups and children alike enthralled with tales about his life and times –stories just the way you wanted them, with a solid beginning, middle, and end.
And one time while riding in his big four-door, fire-engine-red Mercury sedan towards Rhinelander, Wisconsin in the summer of 1958, he told me about the legendary bank robber John Dillinger and introduced me to the word “cahoots.”
“See now,” Otto said, “Dillinger and his moll – that’s the word crooks used for their girlfriends – were in cahoots with Baby Face Nelson and his gang, and they all went up to the Little Bohemia Lodge, just a little ways from here. And that’s where they got ambushed, but they shot their way out.”
Robbers with names like “ Dillinger” and “Baby Face”, with their “molls “ – I loved it. And I loved hearing the word “cahoots.”
Use the phrase “in cahoots,” and you’ve instantly added a dash of roguishness and adventure into your conversation, and no wonder because according to most accounts, this American expression dates back at least to 1829, which was a time when wild and over-sized personalities like Andrew Jackson shaped a rapidly expanding nation.
The French Connection
Among the most colorful denizens of this period were thousands of French colonists, mostly male, mostly traders and trappers, who became part of our great country courtesy of the Louisiana Purchase. These individuals were a rough and ready breed who made their own laws, living hard and working closely with Native Americans in a tough neighborhood that spanned most of the Midwest and some of the South.
And while respected, these French inhabitants were also known to cut a few corners when it came to business dealing and ethics in general. It is from them we get the idiom “in cahoots.” This comes for their word “cahute,” which translates as “hut.” The idea being, in common parlance, that someone was so involved with certain shady individuals that it were as if that person was actually living with them. Other familiar expressions, such as persons being “thick as thieves” or someone being “in bed” with an individual or organization convey similar meanings.
There is another school of thought that “in cahoots” came from the French word “cohorte,“ which like the English term “cohort,“ is used to describe a group of friends or like-minded associates.
Both of these words, in their respective languages, are also used to denote a grouping of about 500 Ancient Roman soldiers, with ten cohorts comprising a Roman legion.
The Band called “The Band”
Boomer music lovers will also remember Cahoots was the title of a 1971 album of The Band, and it featured hits like “Life is a Carnival” and Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” The title captured this group’s musical persona, which I thought always had a sly, old-timey feel.
Long Live Idioms
So there you have it. From President Obama to my grandpa Otto, from John Dillinger. to the French of the American Wild, from Ancient Rome to Bob Dylan and Levon Helm, to a word that is still kind of fun to use.