Tuesday, March 28, 2006


Some salty dogs may think that this nautical adjective pronounced 'hên-kee-'do-ree has something to do with a dory - a good small boat. It was surprising to discover that the expression may have nothing to do with any kind of sea vessel. Many resources tell the tale about it arising from the name of a street in the Yokohama, Japan; a waterfront district where sailors on leave could find were bazaars and other entertainments, anything his heart desired. The yarn does make sense because dori is the Japanese word for a road, in particular a broad or important one.
    It is said that Honcho-dori was the Times Square of Yokohama, and thus a favorite hangout of U.S. sailors on shore leave. So popular did this street become among sailors, it is said, that "Honcho-dori" entered naval slang as "hunky-dory," a synonym for "Easy Street," or a state of well-being and comfort.
Nowadays the expression describes something that is `excellent, enjoyable, pleasant or A-OK' and in all probability hunky-dory is a modification of hunky meaning safe or all right. This comes from the Dutch word for goal, honk or "home" in a Frisian variation of the game of tag. The pastime reportedly arrived with the Dutch in New Amsterdam; later New York and is related to another reduplicated term; hunkum-bunkum. To pull off "hunk" or "hunky" in this version of that childhood game was to make it "home" and win the game. To achieve "hunk" or "hunky" in a child's game was to make it "home" and win the game and so "hunky" already meant "O.K."

Another plausible story related to this crackerjack colloquialism is that soon after Commodore Perry's famous trip to Japan in 1853 the term appeared in American everyday speech and by 1877 this marvelous little tale was being cited in Bartlett's. Others are more skeptical of this history saying the birth of the phrase is really anonymous:

    Hunky meaning fine or splendid dates to 1861. The adjective hunk meaning safe or secure is even older, dating to the early 1840s. Given these earlier usages predate Perry's opening of Japan, it is unlikely the word derives from a Japanese source. In short, it's another one of those that we must mark "origin unknown."
The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins has a similar etymology about the Japanese street and the Dutch word meaning "goal." Save for one small detail that "hunky-dory" was first used during the American Civil War, quite some time before American sailors became frequent visitors to Yokohama. This other explanation holds that the whole hunky-dory thing began with a song by the Christy Minstrels during the Civil War. With the title 'Josephus Orange Blossom', it has a line about 'red-hot hunky-dory contraband.' The song was a huge hit and hunky-dory became part of the trendy slang of the period. Because Japan was not opened to foreign ships until after Commodore Perry's visit in 1853, some time after the US Civil War from 1861 to 1865; the Yokohama theory becomes uncertain. Still it remains one likelihood and many surmise that since hunky-dory was already an established slang term when American sailors first had shore leave on Huncho-dori Street it fell into place as an indication that everything's okey-dokey.

Two more examples of the linguistic phenomenon of reduplication for hunky-dory, all used to mean everything's top notch are hunky-doodle, and hunky-dunky. Some synonyms for this first-rate phrase are first-class, splendid, heaven-sent, lucky, dandy, topnotch spiffy and copacetic. Some British might identify tickety-boo as meaning the same thing. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang advocates one more narrative about a popular variety performer named Japanese Tommy who could have established the term in America about 1865. Others say that what he actually may have done is melded the name of the street in Japan with the American "hunky."

At least two different sources; one is a even in print Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, claim the phrase originated during the Civil War "before" Perry's voyage. Spending a lot of time puzzling out the dates of Matthew Perry's arrival in Japan on July 8th 1853 with the text of a proposed commercial and friendship treaty along with his return trip in 1854 asking for humane treatment be extended to sailors shipwrecked in Japanese territory, that the US be allowed to buy coal and that the Japanese ports of Shimodo and more to the point Hakodate be opened to US commerce. When the time line of the two events are compared; Perry's voyages 1853 and 1854 with the American Civil War 1861-1865

Deferring to encyclopedia sources for dates as being the most reliable. The war obviously took place almost a decade after Perry's famous voyage. I would put forth that the evidence suggests a theory that the phrase originated in Japan, then later used in the song lyrics during the war between the North and the South as making the most sense. What seems certain is that hunky-dory was a play on words in all probability obtained from the adjective hunk. It may possibly be that hunky-dory was the result of a bilingual pun, invented because American sailors knew the word dori and prefixed it with hunky as to tell comrades about a Japanese street of earthly delights.


Online Etymology Dictionary
Mar 10 2003.

Word Origins
Accessed Mar 10 2003.

World Wide Words
Accessed Mar 10 2003.

Accessed Mar 10 2003.

Accessed Mar 10 2003.

Sunday, March 26, 2006


Hornswoggle is a verb and is pronounced 'horn-swah-gêl. It used to connote the idea that someone has been cheated. Sometimes a hornswoggle can be disguised as a noun or adjective. Someone who hornswoggles, of course, is a hornswoggler or to decribe a moment of surprise,"Well, I'll be hornswoggled! ! !"

Typically a hornswoggle includes money but is not required. "J.A. hornswoggled more than a dozen of us with his scheme to develop property in the Sonoran Desert."

Some synonyms for hornswaggle would be along the lines of a deception. To play a trick on, fool, make one look silly, outsmart, bluff, sham, fudge, outwit, hoodwink, wheel and deal, sell a gold brick, fake someone out, diddle, bamboozle, make a wally of, and rip off.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language says that they aren't really sure where the word originated but think it may have been in the northen and western areas of the US. Perhaps as a way to poke a little fun at greenhorns from back east. "Hornswoggle" first appeared in print in Kentucky in 1829 probably from Mathews' 1829 Beginnings of American English: "Hornswoggle, to embarrass irretrievably."Why there's even a joke to be found online about a hornswaggle of another kind.

    Two women in a one horse town both had daughters, each of marriageable age. But there were no prospective husbands in town due to shootings, running off with outlaws and drunk riding. And there was no chance at all of any bridegrooms turning up.

    The two mothers pooled their meager resources, advertised, and sure enough, they got results: twin brothers in the next town were looking for wives. The twin bridegrooms were sent for but along the way they met up with outlaws. One was killed, but the other escaped. Upon his arrival, the mothers were in immediate conflict as to whom the surviving twin belonged. They were going to kill each other over it. After all, each had a daughter's future at stake. They took the case to Judge A.K. Hornswoggle, alcoholic, disbarred, but with Solomonic frontier wisdom.

    After due deliberation, Hornswoggle ruled that the young man be chopped in half and one half awarded to each daughter. The first mother was outraged. If Hornswoggle wasn't drunk or stupid, he was a monster for suggesting such a thing. The second mother thought it would not be a bad solution. And pointing to the second mother, Hornswoggle said, "Your daughter gets him. You're the real mother-in-law."

Some dictionaries call it a fancfied word meaning that someone may have just pulled it out of thin air and mentioning words of similar kind from the mid 1800's; "absquatulate, also first appearing in the 1820s, skedaddle, first attested in 1861 in Missouri, and discombobulate, first recorded in 1916. hmmmmm I never heard any southerners use a word like absquatulate though. "Bamboozle" which is closer to what it means today first appeared in England around 1700, indicating an earlier tradition of such concocted words says, Dr. Language at yourDictionary.com.

A Dictionary of the Old West by Peter Watts published in 1977 relates this interesting but hard to pin down explanation. According to him, a cow that has been lassoed around the neck with a "catch rope" will "hornswoggle" that is it will twist and wag its head around frantically in an attempt to get free of the rope. A cowboy who allows the cow to succeed is then said to have been "hornswoggled." Perhaps it's the horn part of the word that brings to mind steer wrestling, or maybe because it sounds like hogtied . Charles Earle Funk points out in Horsefeathers and Other Curious Words (1958), turn-of-the-century Kentucky is well known for a culture of frontiersmen who were always trying to outdo each other with "highfalutin words."

Still it's a handy word to have around and I kind of like the way it rolls off the tongue.