Sunday, June 27, 2010

a hunka hunka

My maternal grandfather was born in 1908, and he grew up in a world that was far less, um, ethnically sensitive? (I hate the term "politically correct.") To him, the Caucasians of the world could be divided into the following groups:
  • Englishmen
  • Tallys (Italians)
  • Germans
  • The French
  • Hunks
That last category not only took in actual Hungarians, but all the Central and Eastern European ethnicities that didn't fit one of the other four categories. Czech? Slovene? Serb? Pole? Yup, all "hunks." I don't remember him mentioning Scandinavians or inhabitants of the Low Countries, but he was a very smart man who definitely knew his geography, so I think they would have been "Dutch" or "Danish" or what have you rather than subsumed into the "Hunk" category.

I hasten to add that my grandfather never made any claims that any of these groups was superior or inferior to any other in any way. Our corner of the West Virginia coalfields wasn't one of those distressingly homogeneous places that you find so often in central Appalachia; instead, it was a real melting pot. Folks from all over the U.S. and western Europe had been recruited to work the mines from their opening in the 1880s though World War II, which gave eastern McDowell County, WV, a passel of first-generation immigrants back in his day, not to mention a majority African-American population that persists through the present. (We had a lot of coke ovens. Working them was the hottest, most degrading task around the mines, and mine owners recruited blacks from the American South for those jobs.) My grandfather was born there and worked as a carpenter for the mines, so he worked alongside all kinds of folks, and was a friend to them all, rather than being some Archie Bunker troglodyte.

But I explain too much. The point, and I do have one, is that the word "hunk," to me, growing up, denoted "person of Central or Eastern European descent." Then, around 1980, I remember hearing Tom Selleck being described - I think maybe by Sarah Purcell on Real People - as "a hunk."

Sure, my grandfather said "hunk," but even at age 12 or 13, I realized that doing that kind of thing was part of the past, and I couldn't help but be puzzled why Tom Selleck being whatever he might be - with that mustache, some sort of Balkan or Russian background certainly seemed likely* - was relevant. It took me running into the term as applied by the media to "beefcakey-lookin' guy," and to ones that didn't sport facial hair straight outta Sarajevo, a few more times for the context to become apparent.

But yeah, for a while there in 1980, I was genuinely puzzled as to why these muscular guys the women were fawning over were all of Central European descent.

*I just Googled to find out Mr. Selleck's ethnic background, and turns out that Tom's dad is of Rusyn ethnicity, i.e., a Ukranian/Carpathian minority. So I guess both Sarah Purcell and my grandfather would have been on the money. I also discovered that the term "hunk" to describe "sexually attractive male" goes back to the 1940s, when it appears first in Australian slang, then in "jive talk." But I sure don't remember it being bandied about until c. 1980.

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