Hunker Down

Hunker hunker freezin’ hell.

Dear Word Detective: During the recent visit of the Polar Vortex to the US Midwest, I heard a TV weather-person advise us all to “hunker down in front of the fireplace” until the thermometer rises to a more reasonable reading. We don’t have a fireplace, but after dislodging the cat from the heating vent in the floor so I could stand on it, I began to wonder how one “hunkers down” anyway, and what kind of weird word “hunker” is. Was it just invented out of thin (presumably freezing) air, or does it have a real history? — Dave.

I’m gonna go ahead and assume that you were standing on the vent, not on the cat. Yeah, that Polar Vortex thing was fun, assuming your idea of fun is 17 below zero. If it happens again I’m moving to Guatemala. Since we don’t watch the TV news, it took me a while to realize that El Vortex (as it’s not known in Guatemala) is a real meteorological thing and not just more fear-hooey. Seriously, those people deliberately make their weather maps look like posters for slasher movies.

“Hunker” is indeed a “real” word, with a real history, and more than one meaning. If you’ve ever wondered exactly how one “hunkers” in the literal sense, the Oxford English Dictionary has some helpful instructions in their definition (apparently written in 1899, though the procedure seems timeless): “To squat, with the haunches, knees, and ankles acutely bent, so as to bring the hams near the heels, and throw the whole weight upon the fore part of the feet.” (The “hams” mentioned there, by the way, are the backs of your thighs just above your knees; “ham” meat is the equivalent part of a pig.) So “to hunker” just means “to squat” all the way down, a posture that may be uncomfortable but also makes you a smaller target in situations where that is desirable.

I suppose it’s possible that the weather-person was seriously suggesting that you literally crouch in front of the fireplace; the temptation to order viewers to do silly things must be nearly irresistible for people on TV. But it’s more likely that “hunker down” was intended in its more common figurative sense of “stay indoors, marshal your resources, stockpile doughnuts, etc.” In non-emergency contexts, “hunker down” is also used as a synonym of “buckle down,” i.e., to settle in and concentrate on finishing an onerous task (“Larry finally hunkered down and worked on his term paper for the entire weekend”). “Buckle down,” by the way, dates to the mid-19th century, and comes from the 16th century “to buckle oneself,” originally meaning to literally strap on armor before a battle.

The exact source of “hunker” is, alas, uncertain. It’s probably related to the Old Norse “huka,” to crouch, with relatives in Middle Dutch, Middle Low German and the modern German “hocken,” meaning “to sit on one’s hams.” Although the specific phrase “hunker down” is apparently a US invention, first appearing in print in 1902, “hunker” by itself was originally Scots, first appearing in print in 1720.

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