Some new words and phrases have entered out lexicon, hand in hand with COVID19: social distancing, N95 facemasks, PPE, shelter-in-place and more. One term I have seen used all over the place – and used myself – is the phrase hunkering down. Everyone is hunkering down these days.
Hunkering sounds to me like something out of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel, something a sailor might be doing, crouched on an island in a shelter made out of palm fronds along with bits and pieces rescued from a broken sailing vessel. Or a man stranded alone in the mountains, protected from the elements by pine and fir branches, perhaps staring out at a small fire sputtering in the drizzle directly outside.
It is rare if not impossible to find hunkering all by itself. You can’t just hunker. “I’ll be hunkering over here for a while” just doesn’t work. You have to hunker … down.
Dictionary.com has five definitions but it is the third one on the list that definitely applies at this moment:
“to settle into the safety of one’s home or other designated shelter for a potentially long time, as would be necessitated by a natural disaster or an outbreak of a contagious disease”
It’s first recorded usage dates back to the early 1700’s and is possibly derived from the Old Norse hüka which means ‘to crouch’ This in turn is similar to the old Dutch huiken or modern German hocken, both of which mean ‘to squat or crouch’ so that theory seems to make perfect sense.
To my untrained ear it sounds very old-British and some have even traced its use back to Scotland. I fact, the Oxford English Dictionary describes how to hunker: “squat, with the haunches, knees and ankles acutely bent, so as to bring the hams near the heels (hams? really?) and throw the whole weight upon the fore part of the feet”.
An interesting and digressive factoid: the term was popularized in south-western United States dialect form by U.S. President Johnson in the 1960’s.
No matter its origins; while the hunkering down we are doing is less about crouching on haunches in the wild, it is about staying in one place, safe from the outside world and its inherent and contagious dangers, and staring – like the shipwreck victim or the mountain man – balefully out at the bleak world just beyond our shelter.