Everything was just ‘hunky-dory’

As one of my guest service team members said thank you and goodbye to one of our regular guests from Ireland yesterday as he was about to depart from our hotel, the guest said, “Thanks for another great stay; everything was just hunky-dory.” This was the first time my team member had heard such an unusual expression, so I felt it was worth looking into, as I wanted to explain the meaning to my team in case they heard it again.

I am glad I took the opportunity to do a little research on the origin of “hunky-dory,” as I found the history of the expression very interesting, and as a result may now do the same for other unusual expressions that occasionally appear on our guest feedback comment cards.

Hunky-dory meaning: Satisfactory; fine.

Hunky-dory origin:. There’s no agreed derivation of the expression hunky-dory. It is American, and the earliest example of it in print that I have found is from a collection of U.S. songs, George Christy’s Essence of Old Kentucky, 1862:

“Hunkey Dorey” (as sung by Christy’s Minstrels)

Air – “Limerick Races”
One of the boys am I,
That always am in clover;
With spirits light and high,
‘Tis well I’m known all over.
I am always to be found,
A singing in my glory;
With your smiling faces round,
‘Tis then I’m hunkey dorey.

The Christy Minstrels were a “blackface” minstrel group formed by Edwin Pearce Christy, George Christy’s father. Both men were born in the United States, but Christy is an Irish surname, and the tone of the above lyric, along with the Limerick-based tune, all point to an Irish association with the phrase.

Not long afterwards in October 1866, U.S. magazine The Galaxy seemed unclear why the phrase was used, which also indicates that it wasn’t very long in the tooth at that date: “I cannot conceive on any theory of etymology that I ever studied why anything that is ‘hunkee doree’, or ‘hefty’ or ‘kindy dusty’ should be so admirable.”

That citation does at least suggest that “hunky-dory” was in common enough use in 1866 for the author not to see fit to explain its meaning, although it’s a pity “hefty” and “kindy dusty” weren’t explained, as these have now disappeared from the language. It seems that The Galaxy writer had been perplexed by the recent popularity of the expression, which appears in several publications in 1866; for example, The Galveston Daily News, June 1866, had this piece of advice: ‘In the morning wash with Castile soap, in soft rain water, and you are all Hunky-dore — as fresh as a lily — as sweet as a pink.’

We do know that hunky-dory wasn’t conjured from nowhere but was preceded by earlier words — “hunkey,” meaning “fit and healthy,” and “hunkum-bunkum,” which had the same meaning as hunky-dory. Hunkey was in use in the United States by 1861, when it was used in the title of the Civil War song “A Hunkey Boy Is Yankee Doodle.” Hunkum-bunkum is first recorded in the U.S. sporting newspaper The Spirit of The Times, November 1842: “Everything was hunkum-bunkum for immediate flight.”

It’s clear that the “hunky” part of hunky-dory is from the above usages. What isn’t clear is how “dory” came to be added. By 1877, John Russell Bartlett suggested a Japanese influence. The 4th edition of Dictionary of Americanisms includes a definition of an earlier spelling of hunky-dory: hunkidori. Superlatively good. Said to be a word introduced by Japanese Tommy and to be (or to be derived from) the name of a street or bazaar, in Yeddo [a.k.a. Tokyo].

Japanese Tommy was the stage name of the variety performer Thomas Dilward, popular in the USA in the 1860s — and conspicuously not Japanese. Dilward was a black dwarf before cosmologists ever thought of the term.

There is no direct evidence to support Bartlett’s supposition. It is highly unlikely that Thomas Dilward ever visited Japan, but he may have popularized the expression, which he could have picked up from those who had.

Commodore Matthew Perry had opened up trade with the country in the 1850s, and there were frequent voyages between the United States and Japan by the 1860s. The Japanese term “honcho-dori” means something like “main street,” and many cities there have one. U.S. sailors would have known the word hunky and could have added the Japanese word for road (dori) as an allusion to the “easy street” they found themselves in, in Japan.

There certainly were honcho-dori streets of easy virtue in Tokyo and Yokohama that catered to the age-old requirements of sailors in port after a long voyage.

Other hoteliers may have received similar unusual colloquial, colonial or contemporary expressions of satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) used by their international guests. If so, please share them with your fellow readers in case we also come across them in the future.