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?

4 Answers 4


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:


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

  • 1
    Nice finds. Judging from the first few citations, the origin seems to be Texas/Oklahoma/Louisiana. Jan 16, 2013 at 4:57
  • I've sent these antedating to the OED.
    – Hugo
    Jan 16, 2013 at 13:07

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.


It's from the word "tonkin" , the name of north Vietnam under the French colony, many of those people were migrated by French to their islands to be workers, at that time "tonkin" sometimes called "tonk", and people in the west thoughts they are part of China too.

  • Do you have a link to support this?
    – Nicole
    Apr 22, 2015 at 12:41
  • This is almost certainly incorrect. The earliest attested U.S. usage (as Hugo points out in an answer above) is from a newspaper in Fort Worth, Texas—hardly a hotbed of cultural exchange with French Indo-China at the time. French Indo-China, by the way was formed in 1887, and the area known as "Tonkin" was at least as often spelled Tonquin as Tonkin in English references of that era.
    – Sven Yargs
    May 17, 2016 at 4:05

I read in a newspaer article called AJ Boyd if I rememer right that in the old west in cowboy saloons there was always a piano where the piano player whatever he knew. In time some man started writting piano music for those saloons, standarizing popular songs that caught on. His name was ______Tonk. In time people starting requesting from the piano player to play some of that Tonk music. Eventually they rhymed it with Honky Tonk and those saloons came to be known as Honky Tonks.MN

  • 2
    I checked both Peter Watts, A Dictionary of the Old West (1977) and Ramon Adams, The Cowboy Dictionary (1968)—and although both have entries for honky-tonk, neither even hints at the origin you give above. If you have some documentation to offer, please provide it.
    – Sven Yargs
    May 17, 2016 at 3:57

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