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, my American friend said I was wrong to bunker down at home and get some writing done.

A: Yeah, that sounds fair.

Q: Wrong? Working hard 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 bestsellers to write!

A: No, we meant that they would have thought ‘bunker’ was 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 – originating from Scottish around 1720. It’s perhaps linked to the word “haunch”. According to the Online Etymology folks, to “hunker down” was a southern US dialect phrase from 1902 that became widespread in the 1960s.

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? Lots of people seem to use that for the same thing.

A: Well, it rhymes for starters. But you’re not going crazy – it has popped up more and more in recent decades.

Q: So it IS acceptable?

A: It’s all about location and usage. Here in Australia, the Macquarie Dictionary lists “hunker down” as purely all about crouching and hiding, while “bunker down” relates to “retreating from the outside world to a place of isolation”.

Q: So that seems like I could choose either, right?

A: Yes, but probably only here. In the US, Merriam-Webster doesn’t even acknowledge “bunker down” at all, while “hunkering down” is listed both as the crouchy hide-and-seek, bomb-shelter version AND more generally ‘to stay in a place for a period of time’.

Q: Hmmmm. And England?

A: Well, Oxford Dictionaries do concede that one verb form of “bunker” is to take shelter – much like the noun is a type of shelter (e.g. “underground bunker”). But the idea of “bunkering down” is limited typically to being in a purpose built shelter.

Q: That’s so weird. I always hear Aussie news readers advising people to “bunker down” in a cyclone. But they just mean at home.

A: Yes, as we said. Whether it’s a storm or a global pandemic, Australians seem more at home – literally – with ‘bunkering down’. 

Q: No wonder my American friend said ‘return to sender’ to my usage – they’re all busy “hunkering down” instead, right?

A: Absolutely. In fact, they would regard “bunkering down” as complete nonsense – as do many grammar purists. 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” when describing home quarantine, cyclones or otherwise, be prepared for possible ridicule – even if it’s accepted here in Australia. And remember, if it’s related simply to getting stuck in and working hard, it’s probably “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!

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