Dear Straight Dope:
I have been reading your stuff for the last year and love most all of it. I have a question regarding the origin of the phrase Honky Dory. I have heard rumors that this came from the US Occupation Forces here in Japan. It seems that there was a famous 'night spot' frequented by our boys called Honmoku Dori in Japanese. Is this true ? Do you have any more details on this phrase?
Arigato, Daniel Woods, Yokohama, Japan
From William and Mary Morris’s Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins: The story goes that the principal street of Yokohama was Huncho-dori street. (OK, Danny, is that true today?) A sailor on shore leave would feel that everything was OK when he was on the main street.
Another story however (attributed by the Morrises to Charles Earle Funk) traces the origin back to the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam: taking the word hunk as derived from the Dutch word honk for goal. When you reached the goal, everything was hunky-dory. How the dory got into the expression was not clear.
We do know that Christy’s Minstrels of the mid-nineteenth century popularized a bit of corn called “Josiphus Orange Blossom” that contained the lyric “red hot hunky-dory contraband.” The song was a hit and hunky-dory came into the language.
That song arose during the Civil War. Since Japan was not opened to foreign ships until Commodore Perry’s visit in 1854, it seems somewhat doubtful that the Yokohama theory holds water. More likely, hunky-dory was already a slang term when American sailors first had shore leave to Huncho-dori Street.
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