Are All the Words In Your Historical Novel Hunky-dory?

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by Theodora Bryant, Developmental Copy Editor, Manuscript Evaluations/Critiques

First, I’d like to define historical: Any novel you’re writing that takes place before you were born. You have banks of words in your head you grew up with and added to as you matured. Chances are, if your story is centered in your immediate lifetime, is not a fantasy or sci-fi, all’s well.

Some words and phrases have origins that are much younger than you think and can’t be used without thought. My classic favorite is “okay,” which wasn’t invented until 1839, wasn’t used in a popular, slang sense until 1898, and then didn’t get going in the culture like wildfire until the 1980s. I know, it feels like we’ve always used it. We haven’t.

Second, I am fascinated with word and phrase etymologies, which makes me more aware perhaps than other editors who don’t see the date traps. I was working on a book set in the 1830s about the crew of a whaling ship operating around Hawaii. One of the crew said everything was “hunky-dory.” Hm, I thought. A little research turned up the following. I suggested the author not use it. As you’ll read, the -dory part fits with a stretch (☺), but not the date. It would be better not to rely on others to catch word and phrase mistakes; check them out first.

Hunky-dory. Meaning: Satisfactory; fine.

Origin: A possible “father of” hunky-dory is hunkum-bunkum (same meaning as hunky-dory), first recorded in the US sporting newspaper The Spirit of The Times, November 1842: “Everything was hunkum-bunkum . . . .” Another earlier word could have been hunkey, which was in use in the USA by 1861, when it was used in the title of the Civil War song “A Hunkey Boy Is Yankee Doodle,” meaning fit and healthy. Or it could reference the archaic American slang word, hunk, meaning “safe,” from the Dutch word honk.

The earliest use of hunkey-dory is in print in a collection of U.S. songs, “Essence of Old Kentucky,” 1862. Spelling wandered. The Galveston Daily News, June 1866, had this: Hunky-dore. In October 1866, the magazine The Galaxy used it as hunkee doree.

Where did the -dory come from? By 1877, John Russell Bartlett (American historian and linguist (1805-1866) suggested a Japanese influence. The 4th edition of Dictionary of Americanisms includes a definition of an earlier spelling of hunky-dory: 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 [aka Tokyo]. “Japanese Tommy” was the stage name of the variety performer Thomas Dilward, popular in the USA in the 1860s — and conspicuously not Japanese. Dilward was a black dwarf.

The Japanese term honcho-dori means something like “main street.” US sailors would have known the word hunky and could have added the Japanese word for road (dori) as an allusion to the “easy street” they were on in Japan. There certainly were honcho-dori streets of easy virtue in Tokyo and Yokohama that catered to the age-old requirements of sailors in port after a long voyage.

Credits: http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/11717/what-is-the-origin-of-the-phrase-hunky-dory ; http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/hunky-dory.html ; http://mentalfloss.com/article/50042/whats-real-origin-ok


Theodora Bryant is an experienced editor with a flair for etymology.

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