Tuesday, November 06, 2012
Hunkering down on Hunker
A writer can use everyday words such as walk, look, or think hundreds of times in a book, and no one will notice. But you need to be more careful with "shiny" words; less common words such as serendipity or ubiquitous draw attention to themselves and are therefore memorable. That all seems self evident; but a problem arises when an everyday word for the author is a "shiny" word for most readers. Which brings me to hunker.
Sebastian hunkers down a lot, generally beside dead bodies or to examine evidence. Sebastian may not be a dandy, but we wouldn't want to give Jules Calhoun the vapors by having Sebastian dirty his doeskin breeches by kneeling. He could squat, which is after all essentially another word for hunker. But I spent so many years camping as a kid in Idaho and Oregon that squat brings to mind someone answering a call of nature behind a tree. Not an image I care to evoke.
There is crouch, and Sebastian does sometimes crouch--especially when he needs to examine two bodies in a row. But crouch is a word that for me carries connotations of hiding--so Sebastian is more likely to crouch down behind a wall when some bad guy is shooting at him. He could bend or stoop, but those words are generally used to imply a motion from the waist, not a lowering of the entire body.
That leaves us with hunker. Some people think of hunker as a modern, uniquely American word, but it is not. It's actually a rather old word, from the Norse huka, which meant--yes--to squat. It is thought to have come to English via Scotland, and was in common enough usage to make it into the dictionaries by the beginning of the eighteenth century. This is important; you'd be amazed at the number of words we use that Sebastian's contemporaries didn't--so I can't.
I actually use hunker a fair amount in my everyday speech, which is I suppose why I was surprised when I learned that other people see it as a "shiny" word--shiny enough that my use of hunker is even a subject of conversation on Goodreads (really!). In speech, I probably use it most often in its other meaning--best illustrated by the sentence, "Rather than evacuate for the hurricane, we decided to hunker down in place." But I also use it rather than squat because--as I said--squat is one of those words I avoid except in a certain context.
At first I considered altering my habits and making an effort to avoid a word that leaps off the page for some of my readers. But I've now decided, no. Sebastian will continue to hunker down beside murder victims and dying witnesses. And, who knows, maybe he'll help to popularize a word that really does deserve to be better known.
(By the way, the photo of Steve above shows another advantage of the word hunker, since this position is quite common but is technically a half-kneel, half-squat for which there is no word. A knaut?)