Honky

honky tonk girl

Honky is a racial slur for white people, predominantly heard in the United States. The first recorded use of honky in this context may date back to 1946, although the use of ‘Honky Tonk’ (a type of bar common in the South) appeared in films well before that time.

The exact origins of the word are generally unknown and postulations about the subject vary. Honky may derive from the term ‘xonq nopp’ which, in the West African language Wolof, literally means ‘red-eared person’ or ‘white person.’ The term may have been brought to the US by slaves.

Honky may also be a variant of ‘hunky,’ which was a deviation of ‘Bohunk,’ a slur for Bohemian-Hungarian immigrants in the early 1900s. Honky may also have come from coal miners in Oak Hill, West Virginia. The miners were segregated; blacks in one section, whites in another. Foreigners who could not speak English, mostly from Europe, were separated from both groups into an area known as ‘Hunk Hill.’ These male laborers were known as ‘Hunkies.’ Another documented theory, and possible explanation for the origins of the word, is that honky was a nickname black people gave white men (called ‘johns’ or ‘curb crawlers’) who would honk their car horns and wait for prostitutes to come outside in urban areas (such as Harlem and red-light districts) in the early 1910s.

Another theory places the term’s origin in the meatpacking plants of Chicago. According to Robert Hendrickson, author of the ‘Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins,’ black workers in Chicago meatpacking plants picked up the term from white workers and began applying it indiscriminately to all whites. ‘Father of the Blues’ W.C. Handy wrote of ‘Negroes and hunkies’ in his autobiography.

Honky was adopted as a pejorative in 1967 by black militants within Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) seeking a rebuttal for the term ‘nigger.’ National Chairman of the SNCC, H. Rap Brown, on June 24, 1967, told an audience of blacks in Cambridge, ‘You should burn that school down and then go take over the honkie’s school.’ Brown went on to say: ‘[I]f America don’t come ’round, we got to burn it down. You better get some guns, brother. The only thing the honky respects is a gun. You give me a gun and tell me to shoot my enemy, I might shoot Ladybird.’ Honky has occasionally (and ironically) been used even for whites supportive of African-Americans, as seen in the 1968 trial of Black Panther Party member Huey Newton, when fellow Panther Eldridge Cleaver created pins for Newton’s white supporters stating ‘Honkies for Huey.’

In Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong itself, the term is used in a casual nature to refer to people originating from Hong Kong. It may also be a familiar short form of a common Ukrainian last name, sometimes transcribed as ‘Honcarenko’ instead of Honcharenko, and thus it has been used in Canada, the U.S. and Australia to refer to a person of Ukrainian origin.

The word ‘honky-tonk’ refers to a particular type of country music or entertainment, most commonly provided at bars for its patrons, or, more commonly, may even refer to the bar, itself. A tack piano is also referred to as a honky-tonk piano. Country musicians have used the words ‘honky’ and ‘honky-tonk’ in popular songs such as: ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’ by Kitty Wells, ‘Honky Tonk Women’ by The Rolling Stones, ‘Honky Cat’ by Elton John, ‘Honky Tonk Blues’ by Hank Williams, ‘Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow’ by Alan Jackson, and ‘Honky Tonk Man’ by Johnny Horton.

The phrase ‘Honky Tonk Man’ has also been used for popular culture purposes including The Honky Tonk Man (a ring name and persona for professional wrestler Roy Wayne Farris) and ‘Honky Tonk Man’ (an album by innovating country rock musician Steve Young). Other uses of honky in music include ‘Honky’ (an album by Melvins), The Chicago Honky (a style of polka music), MC Honky (DJ stage persona), and ‘Honky Château’ (an album by Elton John). The uncensored version of the 1976 disco/funk hit ‘Play That Funky Music,’ by Wild Cherry, uses ‘honky’ in the final chorus of the song.

In a popular sketch on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor used both nigger (Chase) and honky (Pryor) in reference to one another during a ‘racist word association interview.’ During this period, Steve Martin (as musical guest and stand-up regular on SNL) performed a rendition of ‘King Tut’ which contained the word ‘honky’ in its lyrics. On the TV series ‘The Jeffersons,’ George Jefferson regularly referred to a white person as a honky (or whitey) as did Redd Foxx on ‘Sanford and Son.’ This word would later be popularized in episodes of ‘Mork & Mindy’ by Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters.

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