Hunky-dory means fine or splendid. It is an Americanism from the mid-19th century. Its origin, in particular the -dory part, is not known for certain, although it may have been influenced by the name of a street in Japan.
The hunky portion comes from the Dutch honk, meaning goal, objective of a game. It entered the language via Dutch settlers in New York and was preserved in the speech of New York children. By the 1840s, it had become a slang term meaning safe, secure, in a good position. From Joseph Field’s Drama In Pokerville of 1843:
Well, I allow you’re just hunk, this time, then...for we have got the sweetest roaster for dinner you ever did see.
The addition of a y, as in hunky, dates to 1861, and means good or splendid. From Vanity Fair of 15 June of that year:
He (Moses) folded her to his hart, with the remark that he was “a hunkey boy.”
The -dory appears in 1866. From the Galaxy of 1 October:
I cannot conceive on any theory of etymology...why anything that is “hunkee doree”...should be so admirable.
It has been conjectured that hunky-dory is of Japanese influence. In 1877, John Russell Bartlett, in his 4th edition of his Dictionary of Americanisms, wrote:
Hunkidori. Superlatively good. Said to be a word introduced by Japanese Tommy [a popular variety performer c.1865], and to be (or to be derived from) the name of a street, or bazaar, in Yeddo.
There is no direct evidence to support this, but the circumstantial evidence is rather strong. The addition of -dory to hunky happens shortly after Commodore Perry opened up trade with Japan, and there is a major thoroughfare in Yokohama named Honcho-dori. So it seems likely that hunky-dory comes from a base Dutch root, with a Japanese ending tacked on by American sailors fresh from the Far East, although we can’t say this with any certainty.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton