Honchos

I thought that the word honcho as in head honcho (big leader / big cheese) came from Japanese. The OED and the Online Etymology Dictionary both say that it comes from the Japanese word 班長 (hanchō) or squad / team leader, and that it was borrowed by American servicemen in Japan and Korea in 1947-1953.

However, according to The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky, which I’m reading at the moment, the word honcho is a version of the Basque word jauntxo /xaunʧo/, a wealthy. powerful, rural landowner – a word with a ironic, negative undertone. From jaun (sir / lord / god). This sounds kind of plausible, though I haven’t found any other sources which make the same claim.

The book is interesting and includes quite a few bits of Basque language, and even some recipes. It is also somewhat biased in favour of the Basques.

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This entry was posted in Basque, English, Etymology, Japanese, Language, Words and phrases.

2 Responses to Honchos

  1. Christopher says:

    Given the evidence, I’m going to have to go with the OED on this one. What’s interesting to me is that the OED also gives it as a transitive verb, and I’ve never heard it that way. That sounds completely awkward.

  2. Chris Miller says:

    The Basque etymology seems fishy to me. The transmission from Japanese to American English after the war is plausible and as far as I know, the word is typically American English and doesn’t turn up in other languages.

    For the word to come from the Basque jauntxo (which looks to be a diminutive with the palatalised pre-final consonant), you would normally expect it to have passed into (American) English via Spanish. With web searches, I only find “Jauncho”, which seems to appear only as a name, so it seems unlikely that there is or was a Spanish word with the matching sense that would have been borrowed into English.

    For the Japanese origin, the American English spelling ‹o› for the [a] speech sound is expected, whereas it’s a bit of a leap from the Basque diphthong to [a] in English. Taking this into account, I think it’s a good guess that the Japanese etymology is the most likely one.