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TWTS: Hunkering down in the time of COVID-19

At a time when so many of us are being asked to hunker down in our homes, we've been getting questions from listeners about the word "hunker."

Suffice to say, we'll be hearing this one a lot more in the weeks and months to come.

The verb "hunker" is originally from Scots, where it first appears around 1720. It means "to squat," so "to hunker" means to physically get down with your haunches on or close to your heels.

This use of "hunker" is still around in the US. You can also find "hunker up" or "hunker over" which means to make yourself small by bringing your limbs in close to your body.

The hunkering down we're doing right now during the coronavirus pandemic is a more figurative use of the word. This use comes about around the beginning of the 20th century.

As it moves into use in the U.S., "hunker down" comes to mean things like "to concentrate one's resources," especially if conditions are bad. It can also mean "to dig in" or "to buckle down." For example, you might hunker down to get some work done.

"Hunker down" gets a lot of use in the media when there's a hurricane making headlines, so much so that there are  "hunker down" drinking games. Lake Superior State even added it to the university's banished words list in 2006.

In the coming weeks and months, keep your eyes and ears open for other words and phrases that pop up repeatedly. We're not suggesting that you make a drinking game out of it, but we're not NOT suggesting it either.

In all seriousness, stay healthy and safe while you're hunkering down out there.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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