This week there was a lot of hub-bub about “unfriend” becoming the new word of the year. I’ve got nothing against new words, but I do think about all the good old words that are getting pushed out. For example, I’m going to make an effort to this week to pay homage to the great word of the past… hunky-dory.
Hunky-dory is a slang phrase that basically means that something is good, in a safe, reliable way. So when “everything is hunky-dory” it means things are going well, but let’s not make a big fuss about it. It’s quite certain that the word is an American made term which popped up in the 1850s, however the original inspiration is still fuzzy.
A vaudeville entertainer by the name of Japanese Tommy took credit for introducing the term through his performances, but as the word became popular so quickly, it’s tough to nail down. He was definitely not Japanese, though… he was a black dwarf billed as being “three feet broad and three feet long”. He performed as a songster and contortionist, and generally made appearances as a “novelty”.
The word hunky is certainly of Dutch origin, as it started from honk meaning home or goal in a game of tag. (the equivalent of “home-free”) Eventually the it evolved to mean safe and good. The term hunker down comes form the same lineage, and in fact a couple decades before hunky-dory, the saying hunkem-bunkem was used to mean “okay”.
There may truly be a Japanese connection from the word dori to mean a main street. In Yokohama there is a main thoroughfare called Honcho-dori that runs through the center of town down to the port. As sailors arrived, they’d be able to find all the good stuff on this strip. These American sailors, who first started arriving in Japan around 1850, would have known the word hunky already, so it’s not a big stretch to turn Honcho-dori into hunky-dori… “the good street”.
Wherever it started, the word was in popular use by 1868 when the hit-song “Josiphus Orange Blossom” was published. This was the day when a hit-song was measured by the sale of sheet music. It was a novelty song about a black man (a newly liberated slave at the time) who thought himself quite the ladies man.
My name it is Josiphus Orange Blossom,
I’m the gayest colored ge’man in the land.
With the pretty girls I always plays the possum.
I’m a red-hot hunky-dory contraband.