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Honky (also spelled honkie or sometimes honkey) is mainly 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 1903, although the use of "Honky Tonk" occurred in films well before that time. The exact origins of the word are generally unknown and postulations about the subject vary.
Possible meanings, origins and uses
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 originated with Wolof-speaking slaves brought to the U.S.
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 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.
The term may have begun in the meat packing 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 Power 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 [sic] 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".
It may also be a familiar short form for Ukrainian: Гончаренко ("Honcharenko"), which is a common Ukrainian last name, sometimes transcribed as Honcarenko instead of Honcharenko. It has been used in Canada, the U.S. and Australia to refer to a person of Ukrainian origin.
Use in music and entertainment
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 such as David Allen Coe and other successful artists have used the words honky and honky-tonk in popular songs such as: "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" (Kitty Wells), "Honky Tonk Women" (The Rolling Stones), "Honky Cat" (Elton John), "Honky Tonk Blues" (Hank Williams), "Chasin' That Neon Rainbow" (Alan Jackson), "I'm a Honky Tonk Girl" (Loretta Lynn), and "Honky Tonk Man" (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 may refer to Honky (an album by Melvins), The Chicago Honky (a style of polka music), MC Honky (DJ stage persona), Honky Château (an album by Elton John), Talkin' Honky Blues (an album by Buck 65) and Honky (an album by Keith Emerson). Honky's Ladder is a 1996 EP by The Afghan Whigs.
Use in television and film
In a popular sketch on Saturday Night Live (SNL), 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.
The neighbor on the British sitcom Love Thy Neighbour, played by Rudolph Walker, would often refer to his bigoted white neighbor (Jack Smethurst) as 'honky'. In the Family Guy episode "Brian Sings and Swings", Peter Griffin uses the word to try to get out of jury duty.
These and other shows, as exemplified by the controversial All in the Family, attempted to expose racism and prejudice as an issue in society using the subversive weapon of humor. However, the effect that this theme had on television created both negative and positive criticism and the use of anti-racist messages actually escalates the use of racial slurs. The presence of higher education may countermand this effect.
In film, there were some movies using "honky" without any derogatory connotation. Honky Tonk is a 1929 American musical film starring Sophie Tucker. And Honky Tonk is also a 1941 black-and-white Western film starring Clark Gable and Lana Turner.
Honky is a 1971 movie based on an interracial relationship, starring Brenda Sykes as Sheila Smith and John Neilson as Wayne "Honky" Devine. Honky Tonk is also a 1974 Western film starring Richard Crenna and Margot Kidder. Additionally, Honkytonk Man is a 1982 drama film set in the Great Depression. Clint Eastwood, who produced and directed the film, stars in the film with his son, Kyle Eastwood.
- "honky". Oxford English Dictionary (Second ed.). 1989. Retrieved 2010-10-19. "1946 Mezzrow & Wolfe Really the Blues xii. 216 First Cat: Hey there Poppa Mezz, is you anywhere? Me: Man I'm down with it, stickin' like a honky."
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- The Oxford English Dictionary states that the origin of the term honky tonk is unknown. The earliest source explaining the derivation of the term was an article published in 1900 by the New York Sun and widely reprinted in other newspapers, such as the Reno Evening Gazette (Nevada), 3 February 1900, pg. 2, col. 5. "Every child of the range can tell what honkatonk means and where it came from. Away, away back in the very early days, so the story goes, a party of cow punchers rode out from camp at sundown in search of recreation after a day of toil. They headed for a place of amusement, but lost the trail. From far out in the distance there finally came to their ears a 'honk-a-tonk-a-tonk-a-tonk-a,' which they mistook for the bass viol. They turned toward the sound, to find alas! a dock [sic] of wild geese. So honkatonk was named. N. Y. Sun.
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