Q: I keep hearing the phrase “bunker down” during storms. Shouldn’t it be “hunker,” not “bunker”?
A: If your meaning is to settle in for a long time or wait for a difficult situation to end, the customary verb phrase is “hunker down.”
The verb “bunker” (minus the adverb “down”) usually means to hit a golf ball into a sand trap or to store fuel in a tank.
We checked the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as six standard dictionaries, and didn’t find a single entry for “bunker down” used to mean “hunker down.”
As you’ve noticed, however, a lot of people do indeed use “bunker down” in the sense of “hunker down,” never mind the dictionaries.
Here’s an example from New Moon (2006), the second novel in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight vampire romance series: “The skies had a ferocious plan in store for today. The animals must be bunkering down.”
Language types have been discussing the usage since it showed up in an October 2003 article in LA Weekly that described how liberals ended up on the losing side when Gov. Gray Davis lost a recall election in California:
“By bunkering down with the discredited and justly scorned Gray Davis, they wound up defending an indefensible status quo against a surging wave of popular disgust.”
Within a few days, contributors to the Linguist List forum were discussing whether “bunker down” was a syntactic blend or an eggcorn.
A syntactic blend is an unusual combination of two similar constructions (“it’s not rocket science” + “it’s not brain surgery” = “it’s not rocket surgery”). An eggcorn is a word or phrase substitution (like “egg corn” for “acorn”).
In 2004, the linguist Arnold Zwicky included “bunker down” in a list of “fresh eggcorn candidates” that he submitted to the Language Log in a post entitled “Postcards From Eggcornea.”
In 2008, Greg C. Clarke explained the usage this way on the Eggcorn forum: “A bunker is a place you hunker down in to protect yourself, so I think it’s pretty clear how the substitution came about.”
When the verb “hunker” showed up in English in the early 18th century, according to the OED, it meant (and still means) to “squat, with the haunches, knees, and ankles acutely bent, so as to bring the hams near the heels, and throw the whole weight upon the fore part of the feet.”
Oxford says “hunker” is of unknown origin, but it notes similar verbs in other Germanic languages, such as húka in Old Norse, hucken in Middle Dutch, and hûken in Middle Low German.
The dictionary’s first English example is in Streams From Helicon: or, Poems on Various Subjects, a 1720 collection by the Scottish physician and poet Alexander Pennecuik: “And hunk’ring down upon the cald Grass.”
In the early 20th century the verb phrase “hunker down” took on new, figurative meanings, the OED says: to “concentrate one’s resources, esp. in unfavourable circumstances; to dig in, buckle down.”
Oxford says the phrase, which appears chiefly in American English, is frequently used in military contexts in the sense of “to shelter or take cover, lie low.”
The dictionary’s first example for the new meanings (used here in the buckling-down sense) is from a 1903 issue of Dialect Notes, a journal of the American Dialect Society:
“Hunker or hunker down, v.i. To squat down. To get down to one’s work.” (We’ve expanded the citation from Dialect Notes.)
The word “bunker” first showed up in the 18th century as a noun meaning a seat or bench, according the dictionary. In the 19th century, it came to mean a sand trap in golf as well as a receptacle for coal on a ship.
The military sense didn’t appear until the 20th century. The first Oxford citation is from the Oct. 13, 1939, issue of War Pictorial: “A Nazi field gun hidden in a cemented ‘bunker’ on the Western front.”
When the verb “bunker” (also of uncertain etymology) showed up in the 19th century, it meant either to hit a golf ball into a bunker or to fill the bunkers on a ship with coal or oil.
In the late 19th century, according to the OED, the verb took on a colloquial sense similar to the one you’re asking about: “To be placed in a situation from which it is difficult to extricate oneself. Also, to place in such a situation.”
The dictionary’s earliest example for this sense is from the Sept. 6, 1894, issue of the Westminster Gazette: “The Liberal peers were powerless. To use a golfing simile, they were bunkered.”
Did the golfing “bunker” or the military “bunker” give us the eggcorn “bunker down”? We don’t know. We’re bunkered!