clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

What’s the origin of “honky”?

Dear Cecil:

Your tireless research into etymology is to be applauded. The word I want you to trace for me is "honky" — where does it come from and how long has it been in use?

PS: I love your books. The only thing wrong with living in France is that I can't get your column or barbecue potato chips.

David J., Paris, France

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Dear David:

I like a man who’s got his priorities straight. Honky comes from bohunk and hunky, derogatory terms for Bohemian, Hungarian, and Polish immigrants that came into use around the turn of the century. According to Robert Hendrickson, author of the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, black workers in Chicago meat-packing plants picked up the term from white workers and began applying it indiscriminately to all Caucasians. Probably thought they all looked alike.

Another source for honky

Dear Cecil:

Your source for the origin of honky only gave you half the story. Another probable etymon for honky, cited by David Dalby in his “African Element in American English” (to be found in my Rappin’ and Stylin’ Out: Communication in Urban Black America) is the Wolof term honq, “red, pink,” a term frequently used in to describe white men in African languages.

— Tom Kochman, professor of communication, University of Illinois at Chicago

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via