Tuesday, April 14, 2020

It beats the hell out of "squat"

Sigma Chi brothers at the University of Alabama "hunkering" in 1959

     For weeks, people have been saying it.
     "How's it going at your place?" I'll call to a neighbor, doing my best impression of bluff cheerfulness, as we warily approach each other on opposite sidewalks, the street safely between.
     "We're all hunkering down," he'll inevitably say.
    One state over, the Mississippi of the North is urging its besieged citizens to "Hunker Down Hoosiers." 

    And it pops up in headline after headline, of course.
     "Hunkered Down, and Suddenly Irritatingly Together" the New York Times wrote last week, as if some copy editor lost a bar bet and had to see how bad a headline they could get into the Grey Lady. (We can write one that means about the same but is shorter and better by the time you count to 10. Ready? One...two... "Safe from the virus but not from each other.")
     Far better is the pun atop Gene Collier's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette column, "The Hunker Games" though he then inexplicably lashes out at the word.
     "A stupid, inelegant, vapid word of dubious origin," Collier writes, before going on to nevertheless use it 19 times in a single column, a figure which, just to show off, is eight times more than we will require here.
     He is right about the uncertain provenance. I first started musing on the word a couple weeks ago and played my game of guessing the derivation. Its sound and meaning—retire to some safe defensive position—seems vaguely military. Maybe a derivation of "bunker." I vague recall "hunk" being early 20th century slang for Hungarian. Could that be it? Nah....
     Off to the Oxford, which, as Collier suggests, throws up its hands, "Origin obscure" before picking over various Dutch-sounding roots. The definition, "To squat, with the haunches, knees, and ankles acutely bent, so as to bring the hams near the heels, and throw the whole weight upon the fore part of the feet" is unfamiliar: it's one of those words whose figurative sense outshines the literal. 
     This isn't its first burst of popularity. In 1959, it was briefly "America's most boring fad," at college campuses. On advocate called it "a respite from a world of turmoil. The main purpose of hunkerin' is to get down and hunker together. It's a friendship thing: get your friends to hunker with you. The man you don't know is the man you haven't hunkered with."
     Speaking of which. By his picture, Collier seems about my age, so it's odd he didn't point out an even better known pre-COVID-19 frame of reference of the word that wouldn't show up in the Oxford: it's one of Hunter S. Thompson's favorite buzzwords, showsing up eight times in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" alone, most memorably here:
     “Every now and then you run up on one of those days when everything’s in vain … a stone bummer from start to finish; and if you know what’s good for you, on days like these you sort of hunker down in a safe corner and watch.”
     Excellent advice form Dr. Gonzo, from beyond the grave. Now if only we can take it.


  1. "Hunk" was short for "Hunkie" (or "Hunky") an ethnic slur aimed at central and eastern European laborers, mostly of Hungarian descent (my Hungarian friends use it to describe themselves, though. Go figure). It originated in the coal regions of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Another variation was "Bohunk", an all-purpose generic slur aimed at both Czechs ("Bohemians") and Hungarians ("Hunks"). Opponents of Chicago mayor Anton Cermak called him that--along with "Pushcart Tony"--in the early Thirties.

    Working-class immigrants from central and eastern Europe came to Chicago to perform hard manual labor in the factories and the stockyards. On the job, they were eventually called "honkies"...which is derived from the African-American pronunciation of "hunkie", the disparaging term originally used for a Hungarian laborer. Its use as an insulting term for a white person dates from the 1950s, and it became far more widely used during the civil rights movement of the Sixties.

    Those words were all unknown to me as a kid on the North Side. It wasn't until I went off to college that I began to meet South Siders, who used all those terms casually and freely, along with another one--"Lugan"--for Lithuanians. (One of my grandfathers was born there). I learned so much in college. Some of it was even in a classroom.

    1. Thanks Grizz, for carrying the ball a bit further on this one. I touched upon "hunk" as an ethnic characterization, but didn't think to keep going and associate it with the admiration for male beauty, nor the potential link to "honkie." Well-done.

    2. Thanks Grizz. A question of mine for 50plus years is answered. Having been called one thousands of times - but never being offended - i always wondered what Hunkie/Honky meant. I really never claimed an ethnic identity, but the tribalism of racial and ethnic slurs and thdir roots has always fascinated me. My household was a racial hodepodge for the late 60s and get togethers often had the look of a U.N. post-meeting hub bub. And in some areas of this city it was source of constant conflict.
      I labored as a young man in the steel mill where ethnic slurs often were incorporated into daily greetings to friends and coworkers.
      "Hey Ski, you old DP, how's your wife and my kids doing?"
      But being called a Hunkie was hard to get offended or angered by because there wasn't an origin behind it. And now that i know. It is even more comical.
      No sir. You are mistaken. I am not Hungarian.

    3. Oh man, you guys really make me miss talking to other Chicagoans!

    4. Wow. Where I grew up, if you called someone a DP (displaced person), you'd better be ready to fight...it was like the n-word to eastern European ethnics. Especially with the "56ers" (Hungarian refugees). And those big heavy clunky workboots? They were called "DP shoes"...and they were extremely unfashionable footwear among North Siders in the Sixties.

  2. Somehow HST (not Truman) almost always got it right in spite of the apparent drug induced haze in which he lived. The problem here is that there’s a big difference between hunkering down for a day as opposed to at least a year. This has turned into a matter of perspective. Are we going to allowed ourselves to feel trapped or are we going to accept that this too will pass and life will go on, most likely in a similar fashion as before. Accepting our fate and making the best of it is the only way to come out of this alive. Dread only brings on more dread. With that being said, it sure would be easier if we had someone more like FDR than the charlatan we have now.

  3. Glad I hunkered down here today. Two awesome columns: One from Neil and one from Grizz....Grizz always has such great comments.

    1. Thanks muchly to all. Yes, Wikipedia CAN come in handy on occasion. I got most of my information from the long list of epithets that I found on their "Ethnic Slurs" page. Very informative, edifying, and enlightening. And that list is just for starters. There is also a site called "The Racial Slur Database" that goes on forever. Look for it, if you're into that sort of thing. It'll blow your [insert slur here] ass away.

  4. After rereading the column and Grizz’ I realized that what all are experiencing is loss. Some losing considerably more than others. With loss I am reminded of Kubler-Ross book “On Death & Dying” where it identified five stages one may experience as they near death. These stages, denial, depression, anger, bargaining, and acceptance, can occur with any loss situation. They can occur in any order. Some may not occur at all. They can alternate. The goal is acceptance. We have no real choice.

  5. My modest contribution to "hunker" is that in 1957 at Mt. Carmel College (really a high school preparatory seminary) in Niagara Falls, Canada, "Hunkie" was the term used in our annual intramural basketball games for one team and "Micks" was the name of the opposing team. I think the one Black student in my class was on the "Micks." The Black student was not known for his athletic ability, but his memory is perpetuated in my mind by his retort to a racist insult: "Well, A....ski, I might be a Black Nigger, but you're a White Nigger." I believe everyone, including eventually A....ski, laughed uproariously at the quip.


  6. It was a nice diversion. Just as I was beginning to feel the Cavalier Poet Richard Lovelace was being prescient about the social effects of pandemics when he wrote "Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage."



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