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Marking time in September 2018

Saturday 15 September 2018

Hunkering down

From my mother I learned a concern for the rightness of words. She had a good ear for them, and a leaning towards linguistic pre­scriptiv­ism. She had strong opinions about some words…

I am my mother’s child, although I find myself gradually leaning more towards descriptivism. I watch with interest as meanings of words shift, and new words and usages emerge. I generally hold back the peevishness.

But, each summer, as radio news reporters describe people bunk­er­ing down as the cyclone comes closer, the spirit of my mother rises in me, and I think to myself “hunker, you idiot, not bunker!”

The Urban dictionary has this definition of bunker down:

A term morons use, particularly when bad weather is afoot, to which they confuse the meaning of “hunker” with. Bunker is a noun, yet hunker is a verb, thus while the words sound similar, when thought of in their linguistic context, one is blatantly wrong.

Yes, the tone is nasty, and the expression is clumsy, but the sentiment is right.

The online Macquarie Dictionary takes a descriptivist line and, at some time since the hard copy second edition was published (1991), has added this under the headword bunker: Also, bunker down: to re­treat from the outside world to a place of isolation. In the dic­tion­ary blog (be­hind a pay wall, sorry), one of the editors an­swers the question Do you hunker down or bunker down?:

It depends on what kind of emergency you are facing. A bunker in the First World War was a reinforced concrete underground shelter, designed to withstand a bomb. To bunker down is to find shelter against attack, whether that shelter is physical or metaphorical. People preparing for a cyclone would bunker down.

They go on to discuss the origins and meanings of bunker and hunker, but …

Okay, I give up. I’ll get used to hearing it. Which does not mean I’ll say it myself.

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