In 1971, David Bowie released his 4th album, Hunky Dory. For me, one of the highlights is the timeless Life On Mars, which features the haunting piano work of Rick Wakeman, who became the keyboard player for the canonical progressive rock band, Yes in the same year.
The word hunky dory originated in the United States as a slang word meaning “satisfactory” or “fine,” in the sense of all being well. The first part appears to derive from the noun hunk meaning;
In children’s games: The goal, home, or den; as “to reach hunk;” “to be on hunk,” contr. “to be hunk.”
The word traveled to the US along with Dutch immigrants as honk, which means “a den or goal in a game.” Going a little further back, West Frisian has the word honcke or honck for “house” or “place of refuge or safety.” East Frisian has hunk for “corner” or “nook.” Maybe Barnes & Noble could have called their eReader the Hunk rather than the Nook!
There is a wonderful etymology on offer for hunky dory that traces it back to Japan and it’s worth sharing. Allegedly, back in the 1860’s, following the opening up of Japanese ports by Admiral Matthew Perry, American sailors would take shore leave in the city of Yokohama. One destination was a street called Honcho dori, which offered services of a “comforting” nature to men who had spent weeks at sea. The pronunciation was something along the lines of /ˈhɒŋɔˌdɔrɪ/ and became hunky dory to describe how the sailors felt after a trip down the street!
Alas, plausible as it seems, it may be an etymythology after all. The words hunk and hunky meaning “fine” or “good” were being used in the US well before the opening up of Japan.
What is curious is that a maritime etymology has not been proposed – or at least to my knowledge – based on the fact that the word dory is an 18th century word for a type of boat. The OED refers to it as;
A small boat; esp. a small flat-bottomed boat used in sea-fisheries, in which to go out from a larger vessel to catch fish.
Younger readers of this blog – or parents of younger readers – may recall that a major character in Disney’s Finding Nemo is a fish called Dory. Yes, a dory is also the name of a fish, specifically the Zeus faber found in Europe. The dory, or “St. Peter’s Fish,” derives from the French dorer, meaning “to guild,” and ultimately from Latin de- + aurum, which is “gold.”
It doesn’t seem totally unreasonable to imagine someone referring to a well-maintained boat as a “hunky dory”; after all, the phrase “shipshape” has been around since the 17th century and is used to describe things as being in good order. It would be a small step indeed to move from the specific reference to a boat to becoming a more generic referent for “all fine” or “satisfactory.”
This is, of course, speculative, but well within the bounds of possibility. This would also explain the Japanese connection. Rather than the phonetic sound of Honcho dori becoming a word, the already existing hunky dory became reinforced by association. The sailors heard that hunky dory sounded like Honcho dori and the extended meaning was cemented.
As far as possible etymologies go, this one strikes me as being just peachie!