Oonch

You’re it.

Dear Word Detective:  I read in a Superintendent Gently novel by Alan Hunter published 1964 a reference to two ladies being “oonch-fanciers.” I think it is possibly connected to the dialect of East Anglia in the UK. It is also possible that the term has an unsavory meaning. I tried the publishers amongst many other places of reference but so far have been unable to find any meaning or indeed repeat use. Unfortunately Alan Hunter died some years ago. — Fred Mitson.

Oh boy, a mystery. A mystery about a mystery, in fact, since Alan Hunter (1922-2005) was a very prolific English mystery writer who churned out almost fifty books, most of them mysteries featuring Chief Inspector George Gently, and most of those set in Hunter’s native East Anglia. Hunter managed to concoct titles for almost all his Inspector Gently novels that  included the word “gently” in them, often in a punning or playful sense (e.g., “Gently to a Sleep,” “Gently Floating”). Hunter’s obituary in the Telegraph (UK) mentions that he was a great admirer of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret mystery novels, as am I, so I really ought to give his books a shot.

“Oonch-fancier” is (as I suspect Hunter knew it would be) a genuine mystery to those of us who are used to looking up obscure terms in very large dictionaries. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of “oonch,” let alone folks who fancy whatever it might be, and no dictionary of slang I own contains it either. But I have found two possible sources for “oonch,” and everyone likes something, so if we can pin down the “oonch,” the “fancier” may not be far behind.

Our first lead on “oonch” comes courtesy of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). DARE actually has an entry for “oonch,” and defines it as a term meaning “to push, generally with the shoulder,” usually in the form “oonch along” or “oonch over” (“For me, the natural way to ask someone to move over without getting up is to say ‘oonch over,’” 1993). This “oonch” sounds a lot like the “scooch” I grew up with, but I find it hard to believe that “oonch” has actual “fanciers,” so I’m going to rate it as a false alarm.

The other lead is based on the fact that the book you read was published in 1964, which makes it almost certainly Hunter’s “Gently Sahib.” The Urdu word “Sahib” (“master”) was, of course, a common form of address for European men during the British colonization of India. But Hunter’s story takes place in a small town in England, where someone has been devoured by a tiger that had escaped from a private zoo owned by a local collector. I’m going to take a small leap and assume, based on that tiger and “Sahib” in the title, that there is at least a tangential connection to India or Pakistan somewhere in the story. If so, then “oonch” may begin to make sense.

It turns out that a children’s game called “Oonch Neech” (Hindi for “up and down”) is very popular in India and Pakistan. Apparently the game is similar to “tag” as played in Europe and America, with the complication that the child designated “It” has to remain either uphill or downhill of the other players.

Fortunately for Hunter’s heirs, but unfortunately for the rest of us, “Gently Sahib” is not available online, and the publisher’s brief summary of the book gives no clue as to how “oonch” might apply to those ladies. My guess is either that Hunter meant that the women played a metaphorical form of “tag” in their social dealings, or that he was using “oonch” (“up” or “higher”) as an oblique reference to some social-climbing behavior on their part. That’s about three guesses in a row for me, but I hope it sheds some light on your “oonch” mystery.

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