Stupid Question ™
March 6, 2003
By John Ruch
Q: Where does the word “hunky-dory” come from?
A: Thankfully now replaced by the less goofy-sounding “OK,” this term is US slang first known from 1866 (which means it’s probably at least a few years older than that).
“Hunky” was already a slang term, also meaning “OK,” and dating to about the same time period. “Hunky” was being used both as a term for the state of being OK (“Everything’s hunky”) and as an adjective (“A hunky boy,” in one of the earliest references).
“Hunky” came from “hunk,” which began as New York slang for home base in children’s games such as tag. This was an adoption of Dutch honk, which meant the same thing. Dutch picked it up from Frisian, where it meant “house” and by extension any safe place.
This meaning of “hunk” dates to the early 1800s. By the 1840s, it had already expanded into meaning “OK” and was even used in such colloquial phrases as “to get hunk with,” meaning to settle a dispute or account.
It should be noted that his “hunk” has no relation to US lingo’s other two “hunks”—the one that means “a large piece of something” and the one that means “someone of Eastern European descent.” Similarly, our other “hunky” (meaning “well-built” and thus attractive) comes from the “large piece” sense.
Why “dory” (or “dorey” or “doree”) was added to “hunky” and what it was supposed to mean are unknown. It’s probably just a nonsense sing-song attachment along the lines of “okey-dokey.”
“Dory” can, of course, be an actual word, with the most common meaning being a small boat. It’s conceivable that “hunky-dory” originally had some boat-oriented meaning among New York’s wharf-frequenting children, but that seems like a stretch.
In the early Dark Ages of popular etymology, it was often claimed that “hunky-dory” was Japanese, perhaps the name of a street of prostitutes frequented by foreign sailors. There is no evidence for this. The American linguist H.L. Mencken suggested the idea was popularized by a US tour of a Japanese acrobat whose English consisted entirely of “all right” and “hunky-dory.”
Another odd suggestion, and one with a spelling that might have suggested a Japanese origin, was a breath freshener called Hunkidori that apparently debuted in 1868.
At least one pop etymologist strong suggests Hunkidori as the origin of “hunky-dory,” in part by incorrectly saying it debuted the same year as the first known use of the phrase. The claim, which clearly confuses cause and effect, also ignores the prior use of “hunk” and “hunky.”