I recently came across a relic of my childhood that I had forgotten: the ridiculous commercial extolling the virtues of cheese that I have always thought of as “Hanker for a Hunk o’ Cheese”. When I watched the video on YouTube I was transported back to the early 80’s in a way that I found a bit startling. As far as I can recall, this was the most commonly played commercial during Saturday morning cartoons.
Beyond the memory shock and amusement of seeing the commercial again, I got thinking about the word hanker and what it meant. As with many of the words that I end up exploring, the meaning of hanker, “to desire” or “to want”, is clear to most native English speakers, but it gets used rarely and generally only in specific contexts. In this case, that context is related to food or drink. In other words, hanker seems at first glance to be a variant form of hunger, but with a clear twist that is worth exploring.
When I looked into it, I found that the word represents a nice poetic metaphor for unfulfilled desire. Hanker comes from the Dutch word hankeren, meaning “to hang”, while the Dutch word for hunger is honger. The fact that the two words are so closely related makes the metaphorical aspect of hanker clear. To hanker for something is to be tormented or punished by the lack of something. This connection between hanging and lacking can also be used in more mundane contexts, such as in the phrase, “I left him hanging.”
I particularly like the symbolism of hanging, as this is often equated with an initiatory ordeal that involves deprivation and suffering, following which the person undergoing the experience receives special status or knowledge. A few diverse examples of this that come to mind are the symbolism associated with the Hanged Man tarot card, Odin hanging on the tree Yggdrasil for nine nights without food or water in order to obtain the runes and the tribal initiation ritual undergone by Richard Harris’s character in the film A Man Called Horse.
In the end, I’m guessing the makers of the commercial chose to use hanker for simple alliterative purposes and because it fit with their vision of the commercial’s Wild West setting. That said, now that I have thought through the more subtle meaning of the word, I find its use even more amusing.
But was the campaign successful in its main mission? The answer, I think, is both yes and no. I like cheese just fine, but I don’t hanker for it.