The Grammarphobia Blog

Hunky-dory

Q: Some time ago, I read that “hunky-dory” was a corruption of a Japanese word by American sailors. It was apparently the name of a red-light district, and I guess the sailors felt hunky-dory after visiting it. Is there any truth to this?

A: Over the years, a few word sleuths have suggested Japanese connections for “hunky-dory,” but others have pointed out holes in these theories.

In 1877, for example, John Russell Bartlett suggested in his Dictionary of Americanisms that the expression was derived from a street or bazaar in Edo (he spelled it “Yeddo”), a former name for Tokyo.

He said the phrase was believed to have been introduced in the US around 1865 by Thomas Dilward, a black minstrel performer known as Japanese Tommy.

But scholars have raised doubts about the existence of a street named “hunky-dory” (see below), and the only thing Japanese about Tommy, as far as I can tell, was his stage name.

Other language types have theorized that the expression comes from “honcho dori,” the name of a street in Yokohama frequented by American sailors visiting Japan in the 19th century.

Anatoly Liberman, a University of Minnesota etymologist, has said this idea “deserves some credence” because many people in Japan believe it. But Liberman, commenting on an Oxford University Press blog, then went on to point out two big holes in the theory.

First of all, according to Liberman, “honcho dori” isn’t exactly the name of a street in Yokohama. It means, he said, something like “the street where the head honcho lives.” Second, the first part of the expression, “hunky,” may very well have Dutch, not Japanese roots.

So what is the origin of “hunky-dory”?

The Oxford English Dictionary says the first part comes from the Dutch word honk, meaning the goal in a game, and can be traced to earlier Germanic words for a home, a place of refuge, or a safe abode.

The Dutch, of course, had a great influence on the English spoken in New York (aka New Amsterdam). In the mid-19th century, New York schoolchildren used the phases “to reach hunk” or “to be on hunk” to describe being safe or reaching home in games.

The word “hunk” soon came to mean safe or in good condition, as in this 1856 citation from the New York Tribune: “Now he felt himself all hunk, and wanted to get this enormous sum out of the city.”

The OED says the origin of the second part of “hunky-dory” is unknown. The first published reference in the dictionary for the full phrase (more or less) is from an 1866 article in Galaxy magazine: “I cannot conceive on any theory of etymology … why anything that is ‘hunkee doree’ … should be so admirable.”

Sorry I can’t be more definitive.

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