humble pie

The term humble pie (or alternatively umble pie) dates from the 17th century. It comes from umbles or numbles, which mean the internal organs of an animal. An umble pie was therefore originally a pie made from the organ meat of an animal. From Kenelm Digby’s The Closet of Sir K.D. Opened, written before 1648:

To season Humble-Pyes.

In the 19th century the term acquired the modern sense of submission or humility. This sense is certainly a play on the earlier sense of a meat dish coupled with the sense of humble meaning humility. From Robert Forby’s 1830 The Vocabulary of East Anglia:

“To make one eat humble pie"—i.e. To make him lower his tone, and be submissive. It may possibly be derived from the umbles of the deer, which were the perquisite of the huntsman; and if so, it should be written umble-pie, the food of inferiors.

Humble, meaning dismissive of one’s abilities, derives from the Old French umble and eventually traces back to the Latin humilem and humus (earth). From a Kentish sermon written c.1250:

Ure lord god almichti...þurch his grace maked of þo euele manne good man, of þe orgeilus umble.
(Our lord god almighty…through his grace makes of an evil man a good man, of the prideful humble.)

Umbles, the meat, comes from the Old French numbles which in turn comes from the Latin lumbus meaning loin. Its English usage dates to the 15th century. From Babees Book, c.1475:

Brawne with mustard, umblys of a dere or of a sepe.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

huckleberry

In the latter half of the 19th century, the word huckleberry came to denote a fellow or man in American slang. It was usually used as term of affection to a friend, but could denote a foolish or incompetent person as well. Sometimes it was used to mean a person particularly well-suited to a job or task, often in phrases like I’m your huckleberry.

The sense meaning a general person or fellow dates to 1868. From the New England Base Ballist of 3 September of that year:

Now then, my huckleberry, look sharp! you’re wrong!

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hooligan

Hooligan is a variant of the Irish name Houlihan or O hUallachain, and somewhere along the line some street tough of that name left it for posterity. But the specific person whom the term originally referred to has been lost to the ages. Often suggested is a Patrick Hooligan or a Hooley gang who (separately) terrorized a section of London in the 1890s. From the 26 July 1898 Daily News:

It is no wonder...that Hooligan gangs are bred in these vile, miasmatic byways.

And from 8 August:

The constable said the prisoner belonged to a gang of young roughs, calling themselves "Hooligans."

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

hooky

This Americanism meaning to skip school probably comes from the Dutch hoekje, a name for the game of hide and seek. It is first recorded in the late 1840s. The metaphor behind it is one of skipping school to play games.

From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of 17 June 1842:

“When I was a child,” says the apostle, “I thought as a child,” &c., “but when I became a man, I put away childish things."—That is, if we rightly understand the language, he no longer drove the hoop, shot marbles, flyed kites, (not even after the Wall street fashion,) hunted birds’ nests, played “hookey,” and chased butterflies, with eyes nearly starting from their sockets with excitement.1

And from 5 June 1846:

A mother, perhaps, has a favorite young son, who “begs off” from school, or “plays hookey.”2

It is often suggested that it may instead come from the phrasal verb to hook it, meaning to run away or clear out. This verb is about a century older in Britain, but does not appear in the US until well after the 1840s,3 so it is unlikely to be the origin of the Americanism.


1”Public Amusements,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn), 17 June 1842, 2.

2”City Intelligence,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn), 5 June 1846, 2.

3Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 2, H-O, edited by J.E. Lighter (New York: Random House, 1997), 144.

honyock

See honky.

hunyak

See honky.

hunky

See honky.

hooker

The origin of this word for a prostitute is unknown. But while we don’t know the origin for sure, there are a couple likely explanations, the most likely being that it is simply a reference to the prostitute’s ability to snare, or hook, clients. And we do know for sure that the story of hooker being an eponym for a Civil War general is false.

The earliest appearance of the word is in Norman E. Eliason’s Tarheel Talk in a citation from 1845:

If he comes by way of Norfolk he will find any number of pretty Hookers in the Brick row not far from French’s hotel.1

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hoodwink

Everyone knows that hoodwink means to deceive or to fool someone, but the meaning is not apparent from the word’s roots. The hood makes sense enough, but what about wink?

Hoodwink is a bit redundant. Both roots mean to blind. The hood is a reference to a covering of the head, and while wink today usually means to close one eye, it originally meant to close both. The verb, in a literal sense of to cover the eyes, to blindfold, dates to 1562. From An Apology of Private Mass from that year:

Will you enforce women to hoodwink themselves in the church?

The sense of to fool or deceive dates to 1610 and John Healey’s translation of Augustine’s City of God:

Let not the faithlesse therefore hood-winck them-selves in the knowledge of nature.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

honky / hunky / hunyak / honyock

These are all contemptuous terms for white people, usually used by African Americans.

These terms are originally references to Eastern European immigrants. The origin may a blend of Hun + Polack. From the Chicago Daily Tribune of 14 May 1906:

Hun, Pole, Austrian, Bulgarian, Bohemian—the “Hunkies” of Illinois Steel colloquialism—indifferent to pain of shattered, burned, mangled body, grow frantic as the stretcher bearers near this fortress hospital.

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