Q: The recent death of Sherman Hemsley (of The Jeffersons on CBS TV) reminded me of all the times he referred to white people as honkies. You don’t hear “honky” much these days, but it got me thinking about the origin of this black slang term.
A: It’s likely that “honky,” the black American slang term for a white person, originated not with African-Americans, but as an ethnic slur used by white people against other whites.
Both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (Vol. 2) suggest that “honky” is a variant or a dialectal pronunciation of “hunky,” an older word used by whites to refer to someone of Eastern European origin.
Random House, edited by Jonathan E. Lighter, says flatly that this is the case, while the OED is less positive and says this is “perhaps” the origin.
Several other authorities agree with Random House.
Green’s Dictionary of Slang (Vol. 2), for example, says that “the Black use is a development of the White ‘hunky.’ ”
And Geoffrey Hughes, in An Encyclopedia of Swearing (2006), says that “honky” is derived from “hunky” and “Hun,” which he calls “diminutive and contemptuous forms of Hungarian, both words being originally applied to a person of Eastern European ancestry, especially a Hungarian or Slav, and often a manual laborer.”
There’s no disagreement about the early white use of “hunky.”
Both Random House and the OED say it cropped up in the early 20th century as a form of “hunk,” which was a 19th-century ethnic slur or derogatory nickname based on “Hungarian.”
The earliest example of “hunk” in this sense comes from a January 1896 issue of the New York Herald:
“The average Pennsylvanian contemptuously refers to these immigrants as ‘Hikes’ and ‘Hunks.’ The ‘Hikes’ are Italians and Sicilians. ‘Hunks’ is a corruption for Huns, but under this title the Pennsylvanian includes Hungarians, Lithuanians, Slavs, Poles, Magyars and Tyroleans.”
The later form “hunky” (also spelled “hunkie”) first showed up in print in 1909, according to Random House. This later citation, from A Vocabulary of Criminal Slang (1914), by Louis E. Jackson and C. R. Hellyer, is a good illustration of its usage:
“Hunkie, current in localities where North European laborers abound. A corruption of Hungarian, but employed to signify a Continental European who is unwashed and unnaturalized.”
A similar derogatory American slang word from about 1903, “bohunk,” was apparently formed from “bo” for “Bohemian” plus “hunk,” according to Random House and the OED.
Oxford defines “bohunk” as “a derogatory term for a Hungarian” or for “an immigrant from central or south-eastern Europe, esp. one of inferior class; hence, a low rough fellow, a lout.”
Yet another such term, “hunyak (or “honyock”), is believed to combine elements of “Hungarian” and “Polack” (a native of Poland). It also dates from the first decade of the 20th century, a time when waves of new European immigrants were competing with American laborers for jobs in the industrial North.
So when did “hunky,” a term used by white Americans against some other whites, become a black term for all whites? Probably in the mid-1940s.
Its earliest appearance is a matter of dispute, since in the opinion of the OED the first two citations are only possibilities.
Here are the two early quotations, both from a book called Really the Blues (1946), by Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe:
“First Cat: Hey there Poppa Mezz, is you anywhere? Me: Man I’m down with it, stickin’ like a honky.” Later in the book is this definition: “Honky, factory hand.”
As we said, the OED is reluctant to call these definitive sightings of “honky” used as a black slang term for a white person.
Lighter, on the other hand, treats “honky” in the first quotation as being used in that sense. But in the second quotation, he says, it merely represents the old “hunky”—the Eastern European laborer.
Black writers have often spelled “honky” with a “u,” according to citations in Random House.
For example, Lighter quotes this passage from Chester Himes’s novel Cast the First Stone (1952): “Convicts whose minds had gone and who had never had any to start with, one-armed black greasy niggers and one-legged pock-marked hunkies; convicts from the dirty gutters of cheap cities … degenerate and crazy.”
And this sentence is from Woodie King’s Black Short Story Anthology (1972): “He was a black man. There shouldn’t be no hunkies at his funeral.”
All the words we’ve mentioned—“hunk,” “hunky,” “bohunk,” “honyak,” and finally “honky”—are contemptuous as ethnic terms.
But, since we’d like to end on a positive note, there’s another “hunky” that’s quite the opposite. It means, more or less, just dandy.
This “hunky” (dating from the early 1860s) gave us the later term “hunky dory,” the subject of a post on our blog a few years ago.
And, of course, the “hunky” meaning thick-set and solidly built (dating from the early 20th century) gave us the modern use of the word to describe a sexy guy.
Here’s a 1990 OED citation from the Village Voice about the lead singer of the band Faith No More: “Michael Patton pranced his hunky bod around.”
Check out our books about the English language