Mighty Red Pen

December 27, 2009

Hunker down vs. bunker down

Filed under: Word wars — mighty red pen @ 7:38 pm

What do Iris Murdoch and Stephenie Meyer have in common? They’ve both been on MRP’s reading shelf in 2009. No kidding.

After making my way through two of Murdoch’s early works, which are swimming in giddy literariness and indulgently beautiful language, I find myself knee-deep in the awesome badness of the Twilight saga. Now, I know that being a lady of a, er, certain age, MRP is not really the target demographic for these books, so I’m enjoying them for what they are to me: little slices of pop culture.

But there’s something in them for everyone, it seems, and for us, dear friends, that something lies on page 355 of New Moon:

The animals must be bunkering down. This term bunkering down immediately caught my attention, I wanted to grab my red pen and edit it to read hunkering down. So I had to investigate.

Hunker down gets a nice exposition by our friends at World Wide Words, where they explain:

The Oxford English Dictionary has a fine description of how to hunker: “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 advantage of this position is that you’re not only crouched close to the ground, so presenting a small target for whatever the universe chooses to throw at you, but you’re also ready to move at a moment’s notice.

Hunker down has also taken on the sense of to hide, hide out, or take shelter, whatever position you choose to do it in. This was a south-western US dialect form that was popularised by President Johnson in the mid 1960s. Despite its Scots ancestry, hunker is rare in standard British English.

Okay, it’s of course a totally imprecise method, but I did get some information by Googling bunker down, which gets over a million hits (although some of those lead you to hunker down), but I couldn’t find much confirmation from that that it’s a term with it’s its own definition beyond “something people say mistakenly when they mean hunker down.” My favorite was probably from Urban Dictionary (always good for a laugh), which explained:

A term morons use, particularly when bad weather is afoot, to which they confuse the meaning of “hunker” with. Bunker is a noun, yet hunker is a verb, thus while the words sound similar, when thought of in their linguistic context, one is blatantly wrong.

Bunker means (n): “1 : a bin or compartment for storage; especially : one on shipboard for the ship’s fuel 2 a : a protective embankment or dugout; especially : a fortified chamber mostly below ground often built of reinforced concrete and provided with embrasures b : a sand trap or embankment constituting a hazard on a golf course.” or (v): intransitive verb : to fill a ship’s bunker with coal or oil; transitive verb 1 : to place or store in a bunker 2 : to hit (a golf ball or shot) into a bunker.”

Merriam-Webster doesn’t much like bunker down, and neither does AskOxford, but they both like hunker down. Is it lights out for the Twilight proofreader, or does anyone out there have anything to show that bunker down is more than just a term that folks use when they really mean hunker down? I’d be interested to hear it.

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36 Comments »

  1. Here’s a bit on hunker-bunker from Language Log (2004). They refer to some ADS discussion as well, but looking that up would be serious procrastination!

    7.1. hunker down > bunker down. Last autumn, ADS-L spent some time on the expression bunker down. It started with a example offered by Seán Fitzpatrick on 10/10/03:

    From “Jonestown for Democrats: Liberals follow Gray into the big nowhere”, by Marc Cooper in the LA Weekly http://tinyurl.com/qgfm (emphasis added):

    As the insurgency swelled, the best that liberal activists could do was plug their ears, cover their eyes and rather mindlessly repeat that this all was some sinister plot linked to Florida, Texas, Bush, the Carlyle Group, Enron, and Skull and Bones. By BUNKERING DOWN with the discredited and justly scorned Gray Davis, they wound up defending an indefensible status quo against a surging wave of popular disgust.

    “Hunker down” mixed up with some such phrase as “go into the bunker with”.

    Immediately, Gerald Cohen, who has collected enormous numbers of putative syntactic blends (Cohen, Gerald Leonard. 1987. Syntactic blends in English parole. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.) and is inclined to see them everywhere, firmly rejected this offering: ” ‘Bunker down’ is not a blend. It’s merely ‘hunker down’ with the intrusion of ‘bunker’ (based both on phonetic similarity and the idea of hunkering down in a bunker.” And Clai Rice (10/13/03) offered up a collection of Google hits for bunker down, suggesting that this is (sometimes) not an inadvertent slip, but an eggcorn.

    Comment by Jan Freeman — December 27, 2009 @ 8:59 pm | Reply

  2. Of course, this is the same Stephenie Meyer who wrote about “moats of dust” in the air.

    Comment by Missy — December 28, 2009 @ 8:15 am | Reply

    • Yes, and she also unleashed sparkly undead with ikea interior decorating sensibilities.

      Comment by mercy — February 2, 2011 @ 12:26 pm | Reply

  3. Here’s an example of ‘bunker down’ in an Australian newspaper headline:

    http://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/a/-/breaking/6622306/diggers-bunker-down-for-christmas/

    Googling ‘bunker down’ and limiting the search to pages from Australia gives three times as many results as when limiting the search to pages from the UK. The situation is reversed when Googling ‘hunker down’.

    So is ‘bunker down’ an Australianism, or just an eggcorn that is more common in Oz? Or what?

    By the way – ‘moats of dust’ is classic.

    Comment by JD (The Engine Room) — January 1, 2010 @ 6:35 pm | Reply

  4. [...] now, I’m pretty happy to hunker (bunker!) down, drink some tea, do some editing and wait for the big storm to turn Toronto into a white and fluffy [...]

    Pingback by A little planning hiatus « — February 2, 2011 @ 12:36 am | Reply

  5. JD

    That’s because Australian journalists/reporters have no grasp of the English language.

    Comment by kae — February 2, 2011 @ 7:02 am | Reply

  6. There is a news blitz on a cyclone here (Australia) – cyclone yasi. I heard 6 separate repetitions of ‘bunkered down’ in a few hours tonight, referring to people in the path of the storm, and not one hunkered down. But i thought they were all morons because i’ve always thougth this was an ignorant corruption of hunkered down! its such a widespread thing though. If something is repeated by enough morons it becomes legitimate? I think there’s something in that for all of us!!! maybe one day we’ll all be saying ‘somethink’ and ‘nothink’ (argh). Scary thought: this may just be Australia!

    Comment by John Dinn — February 2, 2011 @ 7:49 am | Reply

    • hah, John, I had the exact same reaction, which is how I got to this page!! Have you also heard “somfink” or “pacifically” (for specifically) in Oz too? Maddening for the redpenners! To bunker is essential, to hunker divine…

      Comment by mercy — February 2, 2011 @ 12:23 pm | Reply

    • There is currently another Cyclone in FNQ (Far North Queensland) the reports this far are saying ‘hunker down’.
      When you talk about Australians, you forgot to mention Filum and Albins.

      but referring to yourself as i as opposed to I, upsets others too!

      Comment by john quincy adams — April 11, 2014 @ 8:16 am | Reply

      • Ah, you must’ve been watching a different news broadcast than I was! Channel 9′s news last night discussed Cooktown “bunkering down” and advised people to “bunker down”. I confess to shouting at the TV, although my family continues to insist that they can’t hear me.

        Comment by earleydaysyet — April 11, 2014 @ 4:58 pm

  7. My not-so-mighty red pen is twitching…

    “but I couldn’t find much confirmation from that that it’s a term with _it’s_ own definition beyond “something people say mistakenly when they mean hunker down.”

    Comment by Penny — February 2, 2011 @ 8:15 am | Reply

    • Darnit! It’s/its is my Achilles heel. Thanks for the correction.

      Comment by mighty red pen — February 2, 2011 @ 8:23 am | Reply

  8. The ‘bunkering down’ being used by the Aussie reporters is now up to about 6 a minute. Lol
    Its catching on fast. Now everyone in Australia is gong to be bunkering down if need be.

    Comment by Simon Abadjian — February 2, 2011 @ 9:17 am | Reply

    • It’s gone viral, no getting it back now. The Aussie press holds on to “bunker down” like a blue dog with a bone now, hunkering with it, mouthing it, turning it over, baring teeth, not letting go until it gets to a bunker! Queensland Premier Anna Bligh used it, so if Captain Bligh says Bunker Down, Mate, that might have to be good enough for us! Oh, and Yasi didn’t just make landfall, she at least slammed. Mercy!

      Comment by mercy — February 2, 2011 @ 12:16 pm | Reply

  9. Oh man, just saw your tweet and had to check this out. Just used BOTH terms (bunker + hunker) in a blog post this a.m. Hope I got them right!

    Extreme Content: How is web writing like extreme winter weather? (yeah, i know it’s a bit of a stretch…)

    http://tinyurl.com/5r2a8f5

    Comment by Sally Sisson — February 2, 2011 @ 9:29 am | Reply

  10. Hooray !!- while watching the TV last night- re Cyclone Yasi Nth QLD, I was amazed at how every single reporter/ jounalist (last count 7 )was referring to “bunkering down”- I am 56 years old and was having serious doubts about my knowledge of the English language.!! I kept saying out loud “Hunkering !, Hunkering!”- after a while I thought I must be wrong and that the journalists were correct using this terminology, until I did a little research this morning and regained my confidence that they, the trained jounalists were wrong, and I, was right.

    Comment by Joff Elliott-Australia — February 2, 2011 @ 8:17 pm | Reply

    • Dead right Joff.
      I was also on the point of throwing my dictionary at my TV but resisted only because my dictionary is also my computer.
      The really sad and scary thing is that the phrase was repeated so many times over that 24 hours that they may have forcibly created a new reality.
      Let’s all heave a big sigh together.

      Comment by Mark Ridgway — February 3, 2011 @ 5:31 am | Reply

  11. The two terms are miles apart.

    Hunkering down is assuming a posture (presumably in the open) to minimise your visibility or exposure.

    Bunkering down is when one retreats to a place of security and strength to ride out an event.

    Comment by Tony Graham — February 7, 2011 @ 7:27 pm | Reply

    • I agree. Xxxxxx

      Comment by Carol — July 3, 2014 @ 7:49 pm | Reply

  12. @Tony Graham – codswallop! There is no such term as ‘bunkering down’ except maybe in Australia! The term is ‘hunker down’ and that may be done in a ‘bunker’ regardless of what and where that ‘place of security and strength’ may be. A bunker is a noun and to hunker down is the verb so how is it possible to ‘bunker?’ I thought that only Americans made up words but clearly, Australians do too.

    Comment by Tania — February 12, 2011 @ 3:01 am | Reply

    • I agree with both Tania and Tony. It is a new formation (but so what?) and is an Australianism.

      I like it and I think it’s here to stay. According to the OED “Hunker” is US, and “hunker” and “hunker down” have several different meanings. It makes a lot of sense in an Aus/Brit English context to use “bunker down” in the very specific sense noted by Tony (and with more occasion for use in Australia’s extremes of climate than elsewhere), rather than trying to adopt an alien, obscure, and vaguer term.

      At least if you “bunker down” this has some connection with the noun “bunker” whereas “hunker down” has an obscure and misleading connection with its noun.

      BTW bunker is a verb – in golf and naval provisioning. In both cases apparently derived from the noun – a common means of word creation.

      Comment by Geoffrey — February 23, 2011 @ 11:33 pm | Reply

  13. @Tania- Codswallop?

    If something doesn’t exist except in Australia, Uganda or Lower Uzbekistan East, it exists.

    Comment by Tony Graham — March 8, 2011 @ 1:51 am | Reply

  14. I was rather confused when I came across an article that started off proclaiming that “bunker down” was the correct term. Happily, the writer had also come across that same Urban Dictionary entry.
    I am from New Zealand and, I must admit, I have not done my research re: Google searches limited to NZ, yet, however, I had never heard of “bunkered down” until today. Hopefully this means that this “Australianism” hasn’t spread here.

    Comment by Deb Howell — April 4, 2011 @ 10:31 pm | Reply

  15. It’s a Brit WW2 (and might be WW1) expression – nothing to do with hunkering, it’s a widespread Brit expression which encapsulates the idea of hiding away in a safe small, cosy, place against the elements – to keep the horrible outside away. Could be used as Iris used it or, for example, let’s go home and bunker down with a good film and a bottle of wine.. or similar.

    Comment by glynis — September 12, 2011 @ 11:34 am | Reply

  16. Well this moron was saying bunker when my husband corrected me. I can’t say I recall hearing anyone saying “hunker down”. I’m guessing the morons have over powered! Lol when I think “bunker down”, I’m picturing preparing for a storm and going to a storm shelter aka bunker. So therefore I’m bunkering down. :)

    Comment by Jkline — February 18, 2012 @ 7:26 pm | Reply

  17. Ever since the first world war we’ve been Bunkering down. It means going to a shelter (a bunker) to weather out the onslaught outside. I only recently heard an american news reader use the word hunker & wondered why the corruption of the correct term. One can shelter or hide in a bunker, I can’t see how one can do the same in a “hunker” LOL

    Comment by Paul Chippendale — October 2, 2012 @ 7:32 pm | Reply

    • But “hunker” just means “to crouch” … it’s not about getting under any sort of shelter. So, which word is correct will depend on the context.

      Comment by DebE — October 2, 2012 @ 8:46 pm | Reply

    • Here here @Paul Chippendale

      Comment by Carol — July 3, 2014 @ 7:56 pm | Reply

  18. I’m on Tony Graham’s side and, as a Kiwi, will provide counter-balance to Deb Howell’s anti-Australianism.

    The guy from Urban Dictionary’s argument seems to be solely based on “hunker” being a verb and “bunker” being a noun — clearly full of holes as pretty much every noun eventually becomes a verb; the greatest push for this practice, incidentally, coming from the US. And Gerald Cohen strikes me as having a closed mind on the matter. So I’m dismissing the “experts”.

    Here’s how I look at it. In 1945, as the Soviets closed in on Berlin, was Hitler “hunkered down” or “bunkered down”. We know he was in a bunker; famously so. And we can be sure that he didn’t assume the position as described by the OED (not for extended periods, anyway).

    So, with the climax of the war providing the perfect opportunity to use one of these expressions, how to characterise Hitler’s last days – hunkered down or bunkered down?

    To paint the truest picture, my money is on bunkered down.

    Comment by Graphite — May 20, 2013 @ 5:11 pm | Reply

  19. I never heard it in England in all the years I lived there.

    I noticed Australian news reporters starting to use it a few years ago (probably coinciding with Cyclone Yasi), but I had definitely heard it first on American news reports, in a similar context. I think it’s just one of those phrases that keeps getting repeated by people who don’t have “hunker down” in their vocabulary at all, Just another example of general ignorance producing a new word in the English language.

    Comment by Mel — June 13, 2013 @ 1:47 am | Reply

  20. (I posted this to my blog, and a friend of mine replied with this info, suggesting that the term was probably coined specifically because of the author’s name – Bunker. Fascinating.)

    “Suggests first usage comes from the Bunker mission to and report on Indo, by Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker.

    First actual use I can find comes from 1997:

    Shared Hopes, Separate Fears: Fifty Years of U.S.-Indonesian Relations – Page 192

    books.google.com/books?isbn=0813331900
    Paul F. Gardner – 1997 – Preview – More editions
    … just in from the United States, drove up. Sukarno insisted on taking his guests on a ride through the Palace grounds in his latest acquisitions.59 In keeping with the Bunker mission’s recommendations, the embassy began to “bunker down”…

    http://bit.ly/14rcyPE

    Comment by earleyeditorial — August 12, 2013 @ 9:32 pm | Reply

  21. I did not realise until getting on this site that there was such a big deal about bunker V hunker.
    I have always been under the impression hunker was an American term. Why, even Elvis sung about hunkering. He made it sound sexy and cool. As an Aussie, I would never use the term “hunker down”. However, I would certainly. “bunker down” if a cyclone was coming or if I was in a war zone. Meaning: getting down into the bunker or into a safe place and making sure my possessions were secure (not causing more damage by being picked up by the wind). I object to being called a “moron” or other such ignorant names for using this terminology. I do NOT mean to “hunker” at all. I am NOT squatting anywhere!!

    Comment by Carol — July 3, 2014 @ 7:37 pm | Reply

    • Hi Carol, I totally agree with you. When faced with a severe storm with very strong winds we bunker down in a room which has cavity brick al around–i.e. the safest room in our house. I cringe when I hear some of our news readers on TV say people are ‘hunkering’ down as the storm approaches–fortunately most don’t, they use the correct term, bunker down. I am amused that someone would think that just squatting down (i.e. hunkering) would offer some protection–I definitely want to be in a bunker, or the closest to it I can find, which will hopefully protect me from harm.

      Comment by Paul Chippendale — July 4, 2014 @ 4:27 pm | Reply

  22. I realize this is an old post, but I had to comment, because I hear it all the time now and it irritates me. I guess we just have to let this go as another evolution (degradation) of the language.

    Another degradation is the expression people use, when they want to express the fact that they grasped a new concept: “A light bulb went off in my head.” If it’s a flash bulb “going off”, it might make sense. If it’s a light bulb, it should go “on”, because your mind is a little less dim, as a result. Saying the light bulb “went off” makes the speaker sound a little more dim, to me. I guess you have to be of a, er, certain age to remember what a flash bulb is. :)

    Comment by davidbest — July 18, 2014 @ 3:16 pm | Reply

    • Then you need to read the rest of the thread and accept what it says. It certainly isn’t common to say “hunker down” outside America, nor is that the image the user of the expression wants you to be left with. “Bunker down” seems to be in (not very) common usage most other places, and means just that – seeking shelter in a bunker (physically or metaphorically) – and has been since at least WWII. It’s even sort of clever, because bunker means both a reinforced shelter and the rations you need to stock up on to survive a storm.

      The other example you came up with is nothing alike – to have a light bulb go off suggests that light went out. Since light (as in enlightened) in this context is associated with insight, the image that the expression conjures is the reverse of what the speaker is after.

      Comment by Hobo — October 17, 2014 @ 11:23 am | Reply


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