Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Post #3: the word "honky"

The word honky makes an appearance in my novel, especially in the first chapter. So I was particularly interested to see that one theory links its origin to Detroit. True, Phil is skeptical about that theory, but even the fact that it is floating out there somewhere worked for me in the metaphorical stew of novel writing. Not to keep repeating, but in case you don't scroll down to the first entry to find out who Phil is, he is Philip Herbst, author of The Color of Words: An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States, and the definition of honky that you are about to read (as well as the other definitions presented on this blog) come from him.

honky, honkie, honkey (pl. honkies, honkeys). Sometimes capitalized. Frequently abusive term used by black people primarily for a white person, often male. According to the Dictionary of American Regional English (1991), honky has been used in Los Angeles for Chicanos as well as white people. Native Americans, adopting the term from popular 1960s black usage, have also applied it to white people or similar, light-skinned, middle-class people. Although the term is derisive, white people may not regard it as such, newspaper columnist Anna Quindlen argues that "being called a honky is not in the same league as being called a nigger," referring to the lack of impact the epithet has on white people, who are less vulnerable to slurs than are people of color. In the 1960s white supporters of the Black Panthers wore buttons that read "Honkies for Huey," referring to Huey P. Newton, one of the founders of the Panthers.

The term's origin is unclear. Many argue strongly that it is a deformation of hunk, or hunky (in turn from Hun, from Hungary), a pejorative word for an immigrant central European laborer. It apparently came to he generalized in black use from the white immigrant workers, many of whom were competitors with black people in the job market, to virtually all white people. Aman (1996, 69), however, demurs at this etymology, claiming that black people had little contact with newly immigrated eastern Europeans. The American Heritage Dictionary (1992) treats it as a blend of Wolof (a language of a West African people) honq (red, pink, of light complexion) and hunky.

Others have unconvincingly said honky comes from the honking sound of pigs, the nasal tone of white people, or the dating practice of white men in Detroit who sat in their cars and honked their horns in front of the houses where their black girlfriends worked as maids. It has also been traced to honk, which was once used by musicians for a brassy music played for poor black people and the places it was played, giving rise to honkytonk, a word that later came to be reserved for the music of poor white people. Many such stories, however interesting, say more about the experiences of African Americans with white people than they do about the origins of the usage.

A “superhonkie” is a powerful white racist.


Anonymous said...

"Honky" actually comes from the fact that white men were known at the time for buying black prostitutes. A honky was a white man who would drive to the ghetto and honk his car outside of a pimp's house in order to pick up a prostitute.

Susan Messer said...

Gosh, it's been so long since anyone has stopped by here. It's good to have you. I wonder about the source of your info. As you can see, Phil looked pretty deeply into it, and a definitive answer proved hard to pin down (though that was many years ago). Your take seems to make sense and overlaps somewhat with one of Phil's theories (but he said girlfriends instead of prostitutes).