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Your Mattness:

On the TV show Sanford and Son, Fred would often refer to white characters as "honky." What is the meaning of that word, as used by Fred Sanford?

-- R.V., Midcity

Fred (Redd Foxx) was not a subtle, nuanced character. When he called somebody a honky, he meant exactly the same thing everybody else meant. By 1972, when Fred Sanford first staggered around the TV tube, clutching his chest and wailing to his dead wife, "I'm coming, Elizabeth! This is the big one!", honky was a solid part of American vernacular. There's general agreement among the vaguely reliable word-origin crowd that it dates from the early to mid-20th Century, probably from the upper Midwest or Pennsylvania, where there were lots of Eastern European immigrants (Poles, Czechs, Hungarians). "Bohunks" was the derogatory term applied to them as a group by whites and blacks. Bohunk was shortened to "Hunky," and that became "honky." In the black community it came to mean all white devils, no matter what their origin. It entered the wider American vocabulary in the 1960s with the rise of black militant movements.

Honk if You're a Honky!

Ya see, the way this word-origin game goes, there are all kinds of stories floating around about why we say the goony things we say, and a lot of them sound good -- maybe too good. And that should be your first clue that something's wrong. We traced the origin of "honky" back to an early 20th-century slur (used by blacks and whites), "Bohunk" or "Hunky," referring to whites of Eastern European descent. David Rooney of P.B. offered a version he'd heard -- that white men would motor up to Harlem, sit in their cars, and honk at the attractive black women walking by, ergo, honkies. You'll read this explanation in some unofficial sources, but professional word-origin dweebs say it's very unlikely to be the true story. It has all the earmarks of an explanation that was made up long after the word came into use, maybe as somebody's idea of a joke etymology, then got passed around because it sounded good, and was added to that big pot of reeking trivia called "common knowledge."

Honk if You've Heard Just About Enough!

A very exasperated Paul Bullard of S.D. writes, "You seem to have some kind of block when it comes to figuring out where 'honky' comes from." Paul grew up in the '50s and '60s in a mixed-race neighborhood in North Carolina, which means he should know best. He insists "honky" comes from "honky-tonk," a typical kind of Southern hillbilly music bar to which blacks were not admitted. Those who were admitted, I guess, were honkies. Okay. I give up. No etymologist or linguist will agree with that story. But whatever your pet theory is about the origin of the word "honky," stick to it. Don't listen to me. Whado I know?

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