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.
From Upton Sinclair’s 1909 The Second-Story Man:
I’ve seen a man there get caught in one of the cranes. They stopped the machinery, but they couldn’t get him out. They’d have had to take the crane apart, and that would have cost several days, and it was rush time, and the man was only a poor Hunkie, and there was no one to know or care. So they started up the crane, and cut his leg off.1
And from Abstracts of Reports of the [Dillingham] Immigration Commision, Vol. 1, 1910:
MAGYAR (pron. Mä-jár), Hungarian, Hun, or Hunyak in popular language [...] “Huns” and “Hunkies” are names still more incorrectly applied to this race and to Slavs indiscriminately in some parts of America.2
Honyocker makes its appearance in 1912. From Jan Brunvand’s Readings in Folklore:
Don’t ask me my name, a honyocker I am.3
The modern spelling and pronunciation honky comes a bit later. From Mezzrow & Wolfe’s Really the Blues of 1946 (in a reference to the 1930s):
Man, I’m down with it, stickin’ like a honky.4
But in the glossary to their book, Mezzrow & Wolfe define honky as a “factory hand.”5
There are various false origins based on the form honky, which we have seen isn’t the original. One that is commonly touted is that the term comes from white men driving through African-American neighborhoods looking for prostitutes. They would drive slowly, honking their horns to get the attention of the streetwalkers. Another is that the honk comes from the “nasal” qualities of white accents.
1Upton Sinclair, “The Second-Story Man,” in Plays of Protest (New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1912), 145.
2William P. Dillingham, Abstracts of Reports of the Immigration Commission, U.S. Senate, 61st Congress, Doc. No. 747 § v.1, 255 (1910)
3Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 2, H-O, edited by J.E. Lighter (New York: Random House, 1997), 136.
4Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe, Really the Blues (New York: Random House, 1946), 216.
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton