Where Did The Phrase “Head Honcho” Come From?

During game 1 of the NBA finals, Golden State Warriors head coach was not happy with his team’s performance so he decided to take out his frustration on his clipboard.

Here’s the video if you haven’t seen it…

After the game I saw the following headline to a recap of Kerr’s karate chop:

Watch how the Warriors head honcho puts his fist straight through his clipboard here during the NBA Finals game 1 on June 2!”

That got me wondering…

Where Did The Phrase “Head Honcho” Come From?

As a great NPR article points out, most people think the phrase has Spanish origins, but it actually has Japanese roots.

Merriam-Webster says “honcho” 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.”.

In his 1947 book, The Shadow of a War: A New Zealander in the Far East, 1939-1946, author James M. Bertram created the first published usage of the word:

But here comes the hancho. This boat must be finished to-night.”

However, it was believed that the word was often used prior to the book, mainly by American soldiers who fought in the Pacific during World War II. Army medic, Ernest O. Norquist kept a diary during his time in the Bataan Death March in 1942.

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!”

The phrase “head honcho” didn’t come about until years later when, in 1964, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona declared that he would be running against President Lyndon B. Johnson. In an article titled “Honcho, Hooch, and Hooch Honcho,” Gordon B. Chamberlain says that Goldwater was asked during a press conference about his campaign director, Denison Kitchel.

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

“A: Kitchell — is — we call him the honcho out here — he’s the head honcho.”

The phrase stuck and both “honcho” and “head honcho” began to be used quite frequently from then on.

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