The Grammarphobia Blog

A Japanese import?

Q: I cannot tell you how much I appreciate your detailed response to my question about “hunky-dory.” If I am permitted a follow-up, did GIs bring back the word “honcho” from Japan after World War II? In Japanese, hon usually means main or central, and cho can be a suffix that means ultra or most.

A: The word “honcho” was adopted from the Japanese word hancho, meaning “group leader,” and it first showed up in English (in print, anyway) in 1947, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED‘s first citation is from a book by James Bertram, The Shadow of War: A New Zealander in the Far East, 1939-1946: “But here comes the hancho. This boat must be finished to-night.”

The earliest published reference with the spelling “honcho” is from a 1955 article in the journal American Speech. The article defines the term as “man in charge,” and adds:

“This is a Japanese word translated roughly as ‘Chief officer,’ brought back from Japan by fliers stationed there during the occupation and during the Korean fighting.”

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