After this last weekend I’ll be perfectly happy never to have to hear the phrase “hunker down” again. Although this time around it was used mostly to mean “dig in,” “stay put,” and “procure extra D batteries by any means necessary,” the technical meaning of the phrase is to squat down on one’s haunches in order to present as small a target as possible. Though generally believed to be of Scots origin, its earlier etymology is a bit of a mystery. According to to a 1999 entry on World Wide Words,
[I]t has been suggested it’s linked to the Old Norse huka, to squat; that would make it a close cousin of old Dutch huiken and modern German hocken, meaning to squat or crouch, which makes sense.
Dictionary.com also cites the Old Norse hoka or hokra, “to crawl.” You’d think there would be some connection to the root for hock, the angled joint in an animal’s hind leg that corresponds to a human ankle, but that comes from the Old English hōh, for heel—although to confuse things a bit, the British phrase “on one’s hunkers” means to squat on one’s heels or suffer a downturn of fortune.
Hunker used as a proper noun, on the other hand, once referred to the conservative faction of the New York State Democratic party during the mid-19th century. The more radical Democrats were known as Barnburners, so named because they were the types who would burn down a barn to get rid of the rats—or in their case, take down the existing financial institutions entirely in order to root out corruption. The Hunkers, on the other hand, “hunkered”—that is to say “hankered”—after political office and were in favor of more moderate reform, small government, and keeping the focus off the issue of slavery. After the 1848 elections the Hunkers themselves split into the Softs and the Hards, which has nothing whatsoever to do with this week’s usage except in terms of how the wind is blowing at any given moment. There’s also a Hunker, Pennsylvania, which wasn’t in Irene’s path, so presumably no one had to hunker down in Hunker.
World Wide Words proprietor Michael Quinion also gives an instructional, via the Oxford English Dictionary, on best hunkering practices:
squat, with the haunches, knees, and ankles acutely bent, so as to bring the hams near the heels, and throw the whole weight upon the fore part of the feet.
Good to know, although maybe not of that much use while waiting out a hurricane creeping up the east coast. Our personal hunkering style tended more to red wine, Nutella, and taping garbage bags to the front of any bookcases near windows, but all ended well, and we sincerely wish the same for all our readers. Here’s to a more disaster-free week, on all fronts.
(Photo is of Michelangelo’s Crouching Boy, c. 1530-1534.)