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shameless pleading

Honk

Truth or Dord? (*)

Dear Word Detective:  Do you have “honk” in America?  I’m always interested to see in which direction language travels.  With the influence of Hollywood and American music, words (and slang in particular) have obviously been passing quickly from the states to the UK in recent times, but some words do, it seems, manage to struggle against the tide and make it in the opposite direction.  So I want to know where the slang term “honk,” meaning “money” over here in the UK, came from.  Is it an American slang word?  Is it from hip hop?  Or is it a UK innovation?  And if so, has it made it stateside yet? — VG, in the UK.

Good question, “VG,” if those are indeed your real initials.  Perhaps I should just address you as “AH,” eh?  It’s true that I can’t remember much of what I did yesterday, but I’m fairly certain I didn’t fall from a turnip truck.  Not for nothing am I often considered the reincarnation of Sherlock Holmes (minus the opium, of course).  No flies on old “WD” here.

On the other hand (he said, slamming on the brakes), your question may be perfectly sincere, so we’ll proceed from that assumption and explain all that “AH” stuff later.

So, we’re dealing with “honk” used as a slang noun meaning “money,” and no, I’ve never heard that usage here in the US.  The noun “honk” in its usual sense means “the noise a goose makes,” as well as, of course, “the sound of a car or truck horn.”  The origin of “honk” is onomatopoeic or “echoic,” meaning that the word itself was formed in imitation of the sound.  The only surprising thing about “honk” is how recent a word it is; both the noun and verb forms first appeared in the mid-19th century.  One wonders what sort of sound geese made before then.  The verbal noun and participle “honking” appeared around the same time and has since become a slang adjective meaning “extremely” (“Joey got fired but Hal got a honking big raise”).

Meanwhile, back at “honk” meaning “money,” what we have here is apparently the Case of the Planted Neologism.  Alex Horne, the “AH” to whom I referred above, is a British comedian and writer with an affection for words.  Back in January 2006, he decided to celebrate his 10,000th day alive (what he calls his “TKDay”) by resolving to introduce a new word into common usage and, eventually, into dictionaries.  That word, plucked from thin air, was “honk” used as slang to mean “money.”  So, over the past two years, Mr. Horne and his friends have been dropping this new “honk” into conversations, interviews, blog posts, etc. (see www.alexhorne.com) and hoping it spreads.  I find “honk” in this new sense weirdly evocative myself and plan to use it soon (although I’m not sure it will do much good, since most of my conversations take place with household pets).

Mr. Horne refers to his experiment as “verbal gardening,” and maintains another website at www.verbalgardening.com where the progress of “honk” and his other creations (e.g., “paddles” for “hands,” which I also really like) can be tracked by people who can put up with the site’s appallingly awful page design.  (Seriously.  It gave me a headache.)

I wish Mr. Horne luck, of course, and, VG, if your question is sincere, that fact is evidence that his experiment is working.  If, however, you are in fact either Alex Horne or a member of his shadowy cabal, the Illuminati would like a word with you.  They run the Oxford English Dictionary, you know, and they don’t cotton to meddling in their bailiwick.

* see wikipedia.

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