Monday, September 26, 2005

The origins of 'hunker down"

Ron Franscell is a journalist and author of eight books, including true-crime bestseller THE DARKEST NIGHT and the upcoming SOURTOE COCKTAIL CLUB. This post was written while he and his colleagues were hunkered down under Hurricane Rita in September 2005.

We sweat-soaked, bone-weary hurricane survivors have been throwing around the phrase "hunker down" as if it were the first thing our mamas taught us to do. Then somebody asked: "What does 'hunker' mean?" Thanks to Blogger Bryan at Why Now ... the meaning of "hunker down" as defined by one of my favorite wordsmiths, Michael Quinion:

[Q] From W Walker: “When Hurricane Floyd was threatening the American east coast, every weatherman seemed to use the phrase hunker down. Do you have any idea where this word and phrase came from?”

[A] It sounds like the most typically American of phrases, but it seems originally to have been Scots, first recorded in the 18th century.

Nobody seems to know exactly what its origin is, though it has been suggested it’s linked to the Old Norse huka, to squat; that would make it a close cousin of old Dutch hurken and modern German hocken, meaning to squat or crouch, which makes sense. That’s certainly what’s meant by the word in American English, in phrases like hunker down or on your hunkers.

The Oxford English Dictionary has a fine description of how to hunker: “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.” The advantage of this position is that you’re not only crouched close to the ground, so presenting a small target for whatever the universe chooses to throw at you, but you’re also ready to move at a moment’s notice.

Hunker down has also taken on the sense of to hide, hide out, or take shelter, whatever position you choose to do it in. This was a south-western US dialect form that was popularised by President Johnson in the mid 1960s. Despite its Scots ancestry, hunker is rare in standard British English.


Steve Brewer said...

A favor. I worked at the Enterprise as a reporter for six years.
Many of the people who worked with me are still there. Please tell them that Susz and I are thinking of all of you.
You are in our prayers.
Beaumont was good to us and they were some of the best years of my life -- professionally and personally.
If you could get a message to two of my friends -- Pete Churton and Beth Gallaspy -- I would be in your debt. Tell them we love them. Tell Pete that though we've been out of touch that there are some bonds of friendship and respect that always remain strong. I've met a lot of newsmen, some good and some bad. I wasn't bad. But Pete is one of the best. He's also one of the best men I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. I love the guy. Not ashamed to say it. Tell him I'm here for whatever he needs.
Beaumont was such a great place to work and live. I spent a lot of time on that third floor newsroom writing a lot of copy.
Pete told me once I would miss it. I didn't believe him at the time. I do now.
I left the newspaper business after six years as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle. I miss it every day. I also miss Beaumont. What a freakin news town.
Be safe. Be well. And, I really enjoy the blog.
My best to those who might remember me, and even those who don't.
Please pass my message to Pete and Beth. And do me one more favor. Tell Tim I still use the six words he told me to never forget -- "I don't know. I'll find out."
Be safe.

Bryan said...

Glad I could help with the phrase.

Y'all take care, the stress is going to back up on you any time now and you are going to need to sleep it out.

I've been through a few, Opal in '95 and Ivan last year are the best known, but they all take it out of you.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know where to get specific information about Beaumont? I'm in Dallas and still have no idea of when we can go back or even if my house is still there.

Ron Franscell said...

Go to and see our series of blogs, according to neighborhoods and towns.

Right now, still no word on when citizens will be allowed back in the city. Don't be in a hurry. There's no infrastructure to support you and you have no access to services. Fuel is non-existent.

My advice: Stay where you are and be patient for a few more days.