I’ve been watching coverage of hurricane Ike today (on KHOU Houston — thanks, DirecTV! — and on The Weather Channel), and after hearing the verb “hunker down” at least a hundred times, I thought I’d look it up.
One definer on urbandictionary.com thinks it’s slang, a Bush invention, “irritating,” and that CNN manufactures malfunctions just so they can use it:
First introduced and popularized by George H.W. Bush, this southern-American slang means to toughen up and get ready for a rough time. This irritating phrase is now used regularily [sic] on CNN in conjunction with phony technical malfunctions and microphone tilts towards the wind in an effort to sensationalize their hurricane coverage.
“We’re going to have to hunker down and fight the evil-doers” – George H.W. Bush
Another urban dictionary definer similarly points to the hurricane connection:
a phrase used very commonly by radio announcers as hurricanes pass by. it basically means “hang in there” or “be strong.”
Another hurricane’s coming toward Florida, so it’s time for us to hunker down.
But it turns out it’s been around at least since 1720. And the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it as
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.
See now that works perfectly to describe what people have to do who find themselves stuck in a hurricane. That’s one strong verb. Yes, the hurricane reporters may be guilty occasionally of using it with a sprinkling of melodrama. They definitely use it more more dramatically and seriously than did John Steinbeck, in 1945, who used it to describe a card game: “Mack and the boys sat on the floor, played cards hunkered down.” But let’s hear it for a strong verb which shows rather than tells and which carries such a rich range of meaning — it describes the physical position as well as the psychological determination.
I hereby nominate it the official verb of hurricanes. Anyone second the motion?
Oh, and not surprisingly, it comes from northern European root words (is not from the Latin, in other words). According to Merriam-Webster, it is
probably akin to Middle Dutch hucken, huken to squat, Middle Low German hōken to squat, peddle, Old Norse hūka to squat
Heheh, but I am glad that we have the word “hunker,” and so don’t have to use “squat.” I wouldn’t want to be stuck having to say, for example, “Those who were not able to evacuate will simply have to squat and ride out the storm.”
That just wouldn’t be the same.