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shameless pleading

Hunky-dory

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.”

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