Borrowed Words

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

English is a language that is drawn from so many different languages that it can be challenging to learn for foreigners.  Our idioms can be especially challenging when they are drawn from foreign sources.  Many Americans are not even aware when they use words and phrases of Japanese origin, like “head honcho.”

One of those phrases is the phrase “hunkey dory.”  (For Example:  “I was having trouble with my car, but I brought it to the mechanic and now everything is hunkey dory.”).  Did you know this phrase comes from Japan?  The most common origin story for this phrase is that it came back to the United States through United States Navy servicemen who had been based at Yokosuka, Japan.  The road right outside the main gate to the US Naval Base is called Honcho Dori (“book district street” and often the main street in a city).  The sailors called the street Hunky Dory and it came to mean if you came from Hunky Dory then everything had to be good or “hunky dory.” 

However, others contend that the phrase was coined by a performer who called himself “Japanese Tommy” in the 1860s.   “Japanese Tommy” was the stage name of the variety performer Thomas Dilward, who popular in the USA in the 1860s – but who was African-American and not Japanese.  He is said to have based it on the same street name in Tokyo, although the street in Yokohama is the more likely source based on the timing.  Commodore Matthew Perry had opened up trade with the country through Yokohama in the 1850s and there were frequent voyages between the US and Japan by to the 1860s.

Coincidentally, at the time, the adjective hunk in English meant "safe" or "in a good position."  The word “hunky” derived from a Dutch word meaning the goal or "home" in a game.  In the West Frisian language honck means "house" or "safe place"; in East Frisian hunk means "nook" or "retreat" or "home" in a game.  

The phrase “hunky-dory” was first noted in print in George Christy's Essence of Old Kentucky, 1862.  (“I am always to be found, A singing in my glory; With your smiling faces round, 'Tis then I'm hunkey dorey.”)  By 1877, Bartlett’s 4th edition of Dictionary of Americanisms includes a definition of “Hunkidori:” “Superlatively good. Said to be a word introduced by Japanese Tommy and to be (or to be derived from) the name of a street, or bazaar, in Yeddo [a.k.a. Tokyo].”