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Talk To The Head Honcho; He Speaks Japanese

The Japanese army presses forward in the Pacific theater during World War II.
Getty Images
The Japanese army presses forward in the Pacific theater during World War II.

Picture the "head honcho" of an organization and what comes to mind are boardrooms, power and wealth, an individual at the top of his or her game.

But where did the word "honcho" originate? While the word is often mistakenly believed to have Spanish origins, it actually traces its roots to American soldiers who fought in the Pacific during World War II.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a "honcho" as "[o]riginally, the leader of a small group or squad; hence, anyone in charge in any situation; the 'boss.' " Merriam-Webster goes a bit further into the etymology of the word, noting that it comes from the Japanese word "han" (which means squad) and chō (which is defined as head or chief). According to Fighting Talk: The Military Origins of Everyday Words and Phrases, the Japanese army would call squad leaders or sergeants in the army "hon-cho."

The first published references to the word came in 1947, when New Zealand-born journalist James M. Bertram used it in his book The Shadow of a War: A New Zealander in the Far East, 1939-1946. ("But here comes the hancho," wrote Bertram. "This boat must be finished to-night.") While Bertram's memoir was written in 1947, there are several indications that the word "honcho" had been used by soldiers and other military personnel for years before that.

Ernest O. Norquist was an Army medic during the Battle of Bataan in the spring of 1942. Norquist was one of the thousands of American and Filipino prisoners of war that were forced to take part in the Bataan Death March.

Norquist kept a diary throughout his time as a prisoner of war, recording his days on "scraps of paper, candy and cigarette wrappers, whatever he could find," as his son John (a former mayor of Milwaukee), noted in the foreword of the published version of his father's diary, which was released in 1989.* The elder Norquist made frequent references to the "honchos" who ran the prison camp in his diary. In his entry on July 2, 1945, Norquist wrote:

"When the galley 'honcho' comes around to us and asks 'soupu joto?' ('The soup is good?'), you have to answer 'Hai' ('yes') or get whacked. The soups lately are usually a semi-nauseating mixture of green-stems and fish scraps — boiled!"

On Aug. 13, 1945, Norquist noted: "A job honcho says he is tired of the war and thinks it will be over in six months. (I should hope so.)" And, in fact, the war did end mere weeks after Norquist wrote that entry.

It was just five years later that the United States became involved in what's widely referred to as "America's forgotten war" — the Korean War.

During the Korean conflict, American troops frequently used the word honcho in two different ways, both of which signified being a "boss" or "leader." Eric H. Vieler was a rifle platoon leader who served in Korea during the later portion of the war. In his memoir of his time stationed in Korea, Destination Evil: Remembering the Korean War, Vieler recalled that each unit had members of the Korean Service Corps fighting alongside them. The KSC was an auxiliary civilian formation put together by the South Korean Army that was meant to provide laborers to both the Korean Army and American forces.

Vieler recalled that:

"A KSC detail usually had a 'honcho,' a Korean corporal who supposedly had some knowledge of English, oversaw the KSCs and served as a link between them and us. They were good, valuable workers doing all kinds of heavy-duty manual labor, to include evacuation of our wounded. ... They could carry heavy loads on their backs that would have given any one of us trouble."

In addition to referring to the Korean corporals they served with as honchos, the military would also use the term when discussing the established Soviet pilots who unofficially flew North Korean fighter jets during the war. "Air Force pilots called the Russians 'honchos,' their Chinese and North Korean acolytes 'tyros,' " noted David Sears in his book Such Men as These: The Story of the Navy Pilots Who Flew the Deadly Skies.

The word honcho didn't pick up steam among American civilians until the mid-1960s.

On Jan. 3, 1964, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona declared that he would be running against President Lyndon B. Johnson later that year. In his delightfully titled article "Honcho, Hooch, and Hooch Honcho," Gordon B. Chamberlain notes that Goldwater was asked about his campaign director, Denison Kitchel, during the press conference. From a New York Times article published the next day:

"Q: Kitchell [sic] is the top man then?

"A: Kitchell — is — we call him the honcho out here — he's the head honcho."

Both the words "honcho" and the "head honcho" began to enter the mainstream slowly thereafter. And today, the word "honcho" has morphed into a favorite of headline writers everywhere.

*After the war, Norquist became a Presbyterian minister and was extensively involved in the civil rights movement. The story of the preservation of Norquist's wartime diary is fascinating in its own right. Norquist was held in two prison camps, one in what was then-known as the Philippine Islands and one in Japan. Before leaving the Philippines, Norquist buried his diary in a waterproof container that was later found by a Filipino family and returned to the U.S. Army, which eventually sent it to Norquist's home. In fact, this portion of Norquist's diary returned to the United States before Norquist himself did.

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Lakshmi Gandhi
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