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Q From Brad Lytle: I’m not sure how you would spell hunky dorey, but it means ‘just great’, or something like that. Where does it come from?

A The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang suggests that the term may have been introduced in America about 1865 by a popular variety performer named Japanese Tommy. Other references suggest that it may have been sailors’ slang for a street in Yokohama that catered for what one might describe as the special needs of sailors. In Yokohama today a broad thoroughfare called Honcho-dori runs from the centre of the city to the port area, so one that would have been familiar to sailors (dori is the Japanese word for a road, in particular a broad or important one).

What seems certain is that hunky-dory was a play on an existing sense of the word hunky for something that was fine, splendid or satisfactory. In turn, this probably derives from the adjective hunk, which means that one is all right or in a safe or good position. This derives from the Dutch honk, meaning “goal” or “home” in a Frisian variant of the game of tag. This word (and presumably the game, too) was said to have been taken by the Dutch to New Amsterdam, later New York, but was first recorded only around the 1840s. It has links to another reduplicated term, hunkum-bunkum. Though the first part sounds a bit like the hunker of hunker down (which is also of Dutch origin), the words seem not to be related.

It may be that hunky-dory was the result of a bilingual pun, perhaps invented because American sailors knew the word dori and prefixed it with hunky as an imagined Japanese street of earthly delights.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 27 Nov. 1999
Last updated: 11 Dec. 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-hun2.htm
Last modified: 11 December 1999.