Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Monday morning. A colleague of mine is blasting country music from his cube...fantastic.

After hearing the word "honky" and "honky tonk" quite a few times, I'm intrigued. This is obviously a Southern term, but does anyone have more information on the origin and actual meaning?

share|improve this question
add comment

2 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Etymonline says:

honky-tonk, "cheap night club," 1924, earlier honk-a-tonk (1894), of unknown origin. As a type of music played in that sort of low saloon, it is attested from 1933.

Wikipedia adds:

The origin of the term honky tonk is unknown. The earliest source explaining the derivation of the term (spelled "honkatonk") was an article published in 1900 by the New York Sun and widely reprinted in other newspapers. It states that the term came from the sound of geese, which led an unsuspecting group of cowboys to the flock instead of to the variety show they expected. The [Oxford English Dictionary] also states that the first use in print was in 1894, [...] written "honk-a-tonk". However, the terms honky tonk, honk-a-tonk, and honkatonk have been cited from at least 1889[.] The "tonk" portion of the name may have come from a brand name of piano. [...] It is unlikely, however, that a Tin Pan Alley piano manufactured in 1889 would have influenced the vocabulary in Texas by January of that same year.

The Phrase Finder has some additional discussion.

share|improve this answer
add comment

I found an 1889 example of honky-tonk: some 35 years earlier than the OED's 1924 honky-tonk, and some five years before their 1894 honk-a-tonk.

The Fort Worth Daily Gazette (Fort Worth, Tex.), of January 24, 1889:

A petition to the council is being circulated for signatures, asking that the Honky Tonk theater on Main street be reopened.

I found a good definition in The Iola Register (Iola, Kan.), June 23, 1893:

When a particularly vicious and low grade theater opens up in an Oklaholma town they call it a "honky-tonk." The name didn't just "come from" anything; it just growed.

The Sun (New York [N.Y.]), November 26, 1897:

BURNED DOWN THE "HONKY TONK"

Louisiana "regulators" break up a Vicious Resort and Shoot a Man.

NEW ORLEANS, Nov. 25.-Last night a party of regulators, about thirty-five in number, appeared at the Gramercy sugar refinery, in St. James parish, to break up a "Honky Tonk" there, where gambling, drinking, and all manner of vice prevailed. The regulators severely whipped the eight negro women in the "Honky Tonk" as well as the men they found there. Some of the negroes ran under the house to escape the beating. The building was set on fire and burned to the ground. Fears are entertained that some of the negroes were burned to death under it.

Oscar Dressner, a white storekeeper, who lived near the "Honky Tonk," came out to see what the regulators were doing, and they, fearing that he would recognize them, opened fire on him. He received four dangerous wounds in the back. Ho was brought to the Turo Infirmiry in New Orleans for treatment. He says he can Identify five of the men engaged In the affair.

More: 1898, 1898, 1898, 1898, 1898, 1899, 1899

share|improve this answer
1  
Nice finds. Judging from the first few citations, the origin seems to be Texas/Oklahoma/Louisiana. –  Peter Shor Jan 16 '13 at 4:57
    
I've sent these antedating to the OED. –  Hugo Jan 16 '13 at 13:07
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.