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shameless pleading






At the corner of Easy Street and Peasy Parkway.

Dear Word Detective:  Where does the saying “hunky-dory” come from? — Di.

That’s a good question, but I have another: where did “hunky-dory” go? I know I haven’t heard anyone use the term in quite a long time, and most occurrences of it online at the moment seem to refer to David Bowie’s 1971 album by that name. “Hunky-dory,” meaning “fine,” “satisfactory” or “all right” (“My boss says it’s OK to take Friday off, so everything is hunky-dory”), is a handy phrase. It may be a bit worn around the edges, having made its debut in US slang back in the 1860s, but I think we should all pledge to use it at least once a week. It certainly beats the leaden and boring “no problem.”

Although we’ve been assuring each other that things are “hunky-dory” for more than 150 years, the origins of the term remain mysterious. As usual in such cases, there have been no shortage of theories. The most durable and popular theory traces “hunky-dory” to a street called “Honcho-dori” in Yokohama, Japan, where sailors on shore leave found bars, nightclubs and the other sorts of things sailors on shore leave go looking for. So popular and relaxing was a visit to “Honcho-dori,” goes the theory, that American sailors began to use the Anglicized form “hunky-dory” to mean “all good” or “very satisfactory.”

There is indeed a street in Yokohama called “Honcho-dori” (not surprisingly, since it translates roughly to “Main Street”), but “hunky-dory” was almost certainly not born in Yokohama. The “hunky” part is probably drawn from “hunk,” an old New York City children’s term for “home” or “goal” in a game. This “hunk” (unrelated to “hunk” meaning “piece”) came from the Dutch word “honk” meaning “goal or home” in a game. (New York City was originally the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, of course, and many Dutch terms and place names remain in use.)

“Hunk” meaning “home” in children’s games eventually produced an adjective, “hunky,” used more broadly to mean “in good shape; safe and sound” (“I’ll be all hunky. Nurse Dainton tends me like I was made of glass.” 1926).

Of course, this still leaves the question of where the “dory” part of “hunky-dory” came from, and there we have a real mystery. It’s possible, since “Honcho-dori” was indeed known to US sailors on leave in Japan, that the “dori” was grafted onto the established adjective “hunky” in a sort of pun. But it’s probably more likely that “dory” arose as what linguists call a “reduplication,” the repetition of part of a word in modified form (as in “okey-dokey,” “pitter-patter,” “knick-knack,” etc.). Such elements in reduplications are usually meaningless, just added for effect, so we’re unlikely to find a real “backstory” to “dory.”

8 comments to Hunky-dory

  • Howard Shakespeare

    When I lived in Japan I was told that the saying originated from Yokohama as mentioned. The only difference was that sailors would become hopelessly lost in Yokohama. But as soon as they cane across Honcho Dori they knew where they were. All was fine, so Hunky Dori!

  • Nancy olexick

    I use this phrase all the time and even have a metal sign of it in the kitchen. I am 71. Grandpa used it often.

  • Chris

    This came up today, found your site, plot thickens as I located a Hunk E Dore, from the cartoons and comedy in 1830s. Happy hunting

  • Kamis A. Rahman

    My first encounter with hunky dory was in 1973 when I was 19. I was strolling through a mall when I spotted this shop selling all those groovy posters and t-shirts, and on one of those was printed the words hunky dory. I thought, it’s just some fancy words to decorate the t-shirt. Years later I saw it again, in a magazine and so I thought, hmmm, hunky dory could mean something. And sure enough, I found its meaning, but still didn’t know its origins, until now. Thank you.

  • Marco Garci

    Before the internet I heard the story (probably urban legend) that Hunky Dory was the name of a port section of British-controlled China that was so full of crime and kidnapping that the Brits stationed long-term a bunch of military police, which made the place so safe that whenever someone asked how things are going the reply would be, just hunky-dori.

  • In 1956 my Cultural Anthropology professor told the “Yokohama” story as truth, with a little embellishment: As sailors left their ships for a night on the town, they were required to state their destination, for practical reasons. When the hundreds went past the recipient of the advice, the constant repetition of “Honcho Dori” became tiresome for all parties, and eventually it became customary for the earlier debarkers to say, “Looks like everything is Hunky Dory” and save all the subsequent passers the trouble of speaking out with what was likely inevitable. Might be fantasy, but I like it.

  • Jim Bartlett

    My father, an English paratrooper officer, had a liaison job with the US Airborne towards the end of WW2. I remember him using the phrase, meaning everything is fine.

  • Kristen Constable

    I imagine going home (“hunk”) and “dory”, which is a small boat used to get from a sailing ship to shore, both with origins in Dutch culture, that perhaps “rowing home” is the true meaning. It’s Hunky Dory to go home after months at sea.

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