Q&A: Hunker vs bunker

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness.  This week we hunker down and debunk bunkering down!

Q: Hi AWC, sorry I don’t have time for a question this week – I thought I should bunker down and get some work done instead.

A: Um, that’s wrong.

Q: Wrong? Doing work is wrong? Well it may be fine for you to kick back in your ivory tower of semantic smugness, polishing your apostrophes and sipping cocktails with ampersands… but some of us have to work!

A: No, we meant that saying ‘bunker’ is wrong.

Q: Oh. Really?

A: Yep.

Q: What should it be?

A: Hunker down.

Q: Is “hunker” even a word?

A: Yep, but not all that common, which doesn’t help. It’s a verb meaning to squat/crouch down OR apply oneself to a task.

Q: Oh wait – I HAVE heard of it. Elvis used it when he sang “hunker, hunker, hunker, hunker burning love” – right?

A: Well, many said he hunkered on stage a lot, but no, The King was in fact singing “hunk of, hunk of burning love”.

Q: I’m all shook up at that news. So what about “bunker down” then? Where did I get that from?

A: Well, it rhymes for starters. But you’re not going crazy – it seems to have become common usage outside of America, since World War II.

Q: So it IS acceptable?

A: Not how you were using it. Macquarie Dictionary and more recently Oxford Dictionaries concede that one verb form of “bunker” is to take shelter – much like the noun is a type of shelter (e.g. “underground bunker”). The idea of “bunkering down” in a storm has caught on in recent decades, especially in Australia.

Q: Yeah, it’s now or never I guess. Aussie news readers love to cross live while “bunkering down” in a cyclone.

A: Yes, they do.

Q: Yet Americans prefer to ‘return to sender’ and instead “hunker down” in a bunker, yes?

A: Absolutely. In fact, they would regard “bunkering down” as complete nonsense – as do many grammar purists. And it does appear to be a corruption formed by the act of hunkering in a bunker.

Q: Suspicious minds might say that that’s how languages evolve, right?

A: That’s true. Although user beware, as Urban Dictionary doesn’t give “bunker down” a glowing recommendation: “A term morons use, particularly when bad weather is afoot, to which they confuse the meaning of ‘hunker’ with..”

Q: Don’t be cruel. So we’re gauging things with Urban Dictionary now, are we?

A: Haha, no, but it’s worth noting that if you DO wish to use “bunker down”, do it only in the context of sheltering from something (i.e. weather or an attack – in an actual bunker or secured home etc), and be prepared for possible ridicule. In your original context, just meaning to get stuck in and work hard, we maintain that it’s “hunker down” you should be hankering for.

Q: What a clunker. You’re quite the debunker. Danke.

A: No problem. Now, haven’t you got some hunkering to do?

Q: I do indeed. A little less conversation. Thank you kindly. Thankyouvermuch.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!