Weird Words, Part 8

American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 1973 edition


That’s a word you don’t hear very often any more. I’ll call it a word and not a phrase because it is hyphenated. I’m not picking nits. It’s just that I like to make my article titles accurate and relevant to the body of the article. Really. Well, mostly anyway. Now, where was I? Oh yes. As a kid, I heard hunky-dory quite a lot and never gave it a thought. If you are at least as old as I am, you know that it basically means something is satisfactory or just fine.

So … let’s take it apart (ask my husband, Bernd, and he’ll tell you that I love deconstructing things; houses, boxes, jewelry, you name it; if it comes apart I’m your gal). According to one source, hunky is (was?) a disparaging term for a laborer from east-central Europe. Or it referred to a person of Hungarian (wouldn’t that then be Hungy or Hung as in “well hu …” uh, maybe we shouldn’t go there) or Slavic decent. I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever heard this word used in that way. But I haven’t been everywhere and I am only 67 years old. There’s still time. I hope. At any rate, I can’t see that this is where the first part of it came from.

Taking a look at the word hunk doesn’t really offer any enlightenment either. Most commonly it means a large piece or chunk. So why not just say chunk? Although chunky-dory just doesn’t have the same feel to it. Actually, that doesn’t sound good at all. Less commonly, or maybe that’s just my age showing, hunk refers to a sexually attractive male human with a well developed physique. They do still call the cuties hunks, right? But one has to wonder … hunk of what? If you’re a die-hard Elvis fan then I guess it might be burnin’ love.

Then there is dory. So far as I know, that’s a small boat propelled by oars and having a fairly shallow draft and a pointy bow. There are usually a couple of seats across the width of it. But don’t confuse it with a canoe. And why do we say “can-ooh” instead of “can-oh?”

Therefore, I guess that hunky-dory really should refer to a large piece of a sexually attractive male Hungarian boat. Wouldn’t that be a hoot?

I did a little research (a very little research) and found a bewildering amount of fanciful speculation. There is no agreed upon origin for hunky-dory, but it’s believed to be an American invention (why doesn’t that surprise me). It first appeared in print around 1862 in a collection of songs (“George Christy’s Essence of Old Kentucky”) and Hunky Dorey was the title of one of the songs.

According to another source, hunkey originally meant fit or healthy (why?) and hunkum-bunkum meant much the same as hunky-dory. Hunkum-bunkum’s first recorded usage was in a sporting newspaper around 1842. So it would seem that the hunky part of hunky-dory came from that original hunkey. But what about the dory?

There just might have been a Japanese influence. Of course, “Japanese Tommy” wasn’t at all Japanese. He was a Black (back then that would have been Negro) dwarf and variety show performer. The word hunkidori was supposedly introduced by Japanese Tommy (Thomas Dilward) and is supposedly derived from the name of a street in Yeddo (a.k.a. Tokyo). The Japanese term, honcho-dori, does mean main street or something like that. Hmmm? Could that be where “head honcho” comes from? And if so, wouldn’t that be redundant?

Also, consider that American sailors in Japan would have been familiar with the word “hunkey” and could have added the Japanese word for street (dori) as an allusion to the “easy street” where they found themselves after long, long, looong stretches at sea.


After all that, I just had to take a look at this word. How could I not?

Along with hunkum-bunkum we also get hunky, okey-dokey, hunky-dunky, and hunky-doodle used to help define it. Obviously the more commonly accepted usage of bunkum does not apply here. Most often bunkum refers to talk that is empty, insincere or merely for effect; humbug (oh the possibilities). So how does hunkum-bunkum become something that is good?

I don’t know, but this search led me to another source that offered up a more credible origin for “hunk.” It pointed out that the use of hunky-dory predated the prevalence of American sailors in Japan. It traced hunky-dory to the Civil War times and the Dutch word “honk” which translates roughly as a goal (a safe or satisfactory result or ending) in a children’s game. It was later rendered as “hunk” by Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam (New York).


With my limited knowledge of the Spanish language, I always assumed this was a Spanish word. Now I am thinking that it is not. And because I love alliteration, I just had to have a look at this word as well.

Honcho generally means someone who is in charge or an important and influential person. It can also mean “officer in charge” and probably came from the Japanese word hancho meaning group leader (“han” or squad plus “cho” meaning head or chief).  Honcho is thought to have been used by American servicemen in Japan and Korea around 1947 to 1953.

So, laying all the bunkum aside, I should probably go and wake the head honcho and see what he thinks would be hunky-dory for dinner.

Published by Dianne Lehmann

I'm a writer. But I'm also a wife and a mom to a couple of fur babies. You could call me a cook (but never a chef, I'm not that good) and provisioner as well. Laundress? Yeah. Probably. I design jewelry and I crochet. But mostly I love to write. I love words and how they sound. I love their meanings and origins. I love stringing them together. And of course, I love to read. Thinking about it just now, I realize that what I love most is life and the people around me with a special place set aside for my wonderful husband, our adorable dog and our inscrutable cat. It's the world and the people in it that fuels my writing. So thanks to you all for being the amazing beings that you are.

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