What Does It Mean to 'Hunker Down'?

I'm hunkering down. Are you hunkering down? Here's what it means.

Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read
The Quick And Dirty

"Hunker down" was originally an American phrase and means to dig in or settle in to ride out troubled times.

"Hunker" is a word that's been popping up a lot lately, and readers have asked what it means.

What it means to hunker down

You're most likely to hear "hunker" followed by the word "down," especially when people are talking about settling in to ride out a disaster like a hurricane or a pandemic.

  • We have all our groceries, and we're hunkering down.
  • People around the world are preparing to hunker down.

When you're hunkering down, you're preparing to spend a long time somewhere.

Etymology entries say "hunker" probably comes from an Old Norse verb that meant "squat."

'Hunkering down' was originally an American term

Although the word first appeared in English in the 1700s, it seems to have only entered common use around 1960 and has become increasingly popular since.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the figurative sense of hunkering — to dig in to protect yourself — arose in the United States and was frequently used in military contexts. It's not surprising then that "hunker" also appears to be more popular in American English than in British English, at least in books that have been scanned by the Google Books project.

a Google Ngram showing hunker is more popular in American English

'Hunker' examples

[Americans] should be prepared that they’re going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (3/15/20)

I particularly liked this example of the more rare use of "hunker" alone without "down."

It is a condition of monsters that they do not perceive themselves as such. The dragon, you know, hunkered in the village devouring maidens, heard the townsfolk cry 'Monster!' and looked behind him.

Daughter of Smoke & Bone

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.