honcho

So a gaucho and a muchacho are sitting under a quebracho on a rancho when a honcho in a poncho comes up, a bit borracho (he’s drinking Concha y Toro), squats on his haunches, and says, “Escucho.” The gaucho says they want some chile ancho to make some nacho and gazpacho, and asks if the honcho has any. Says the honcho: “Mucho.”

Well, that will make a nice munch for lunch. But is there an odd one out in the bunch? I’ll give you a hint: the honcho is making a lasso, and he’s just tied the honda. Um, honda? Car? No, that’s Honda. You see, honda is a Spanish word for the eye of the knot through which the rope passes to make a noose, while Honda is a Japanese surname. And what other word in my first paragraph might be Japanese?

Well, you surely have a hunch, since you’ve looked at the title of today’s note. Yes, honcho is not a Spanish word (or a Latin American one – some of those words come from indigenous languages via New World Spanish). It’s from Japanese hancho, from han “squad” and cho “leader” – so it means “group leader” or “squad leader” (Avalon Hill fans, raise your hands now). And when would English have picked it up? Why, during a time when American soldiers were in and around Japan – in the later 1940s and into the 1950s (post-WWII and during the Korean War).

I’m sure you know what word travels most often with honcho: head. “Who’s the head honcho here?” Works nicely because of alliteration, doesn’t it? And it seems so suited to a gang of desperados – or field workers from Mexico. The ch voiceless affricate has a definite affinity for the Spanish flavour, as does the final o, and the nasal /n/ before the affricate doesn’t hurt either. The problem is that initial /h/, not a phoneme in Spanish (the written h can be a glottal stop in Spanish, though, so the word looks OK). But in Japanese /h/ is a sound in its own right – and all the other sounds work fine with Japanese, of course.

Another difference is in the nch combination. In Spanish, that would be at a syllable boundary: ran-cho, pon-cho. In English it can be the end of a syllable all together – with a gathering and compressing air as in pinch, bunch, munch, crunch, plus other effects from flinch, launch, stanch, stench, drench, et alia. But in Japanese, in this word, the /n/ is thought of as a separate syllable: /ha n tʃo/.

Which is not to say you should try to say it as three syllables in English. We’re not speaking Japanese here now! We haven’t dropped the /h/ even if we may have thought it was from Spanish, after all.

So, now, the question is: if you previously thought that this word came from Spanish, or if you never really stopped to think about where it came from, does the fact of its Japanese origin affect your perception of it? Or is it so well worn into your English vocabulary that the shift from sombrero to kimono happens in the dim background with little effect on your actual taste and usage of it?

2 responses to “honcho

  1. Your daily posts are terrific!

  2. Totally assumed it was Spanish and didn’t even think about the ‘h’. Thanks for the post.

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