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  • Writer's pictureM. Linda Graham

Katy Bar the Door- Time to Hunker Down

Updated: Mar 25, 2020

When I was around nine or ten, my family hosted a U of IL graduate student from Taiwan named Tommy Kuo. In addition to being a brilliant engineer, Tommy was an outstanding figure skater. The Figure Skating Club was, I think, how my parents met Tommy in the first place, since my whole family, all eight of us, skated weekly. One day, exhausted following skating practice, I said “I gotta hunker down.” Tommy’s English was excellent, but this phrase baffled him: “What does this “hunker down” mean?”.

A question for our times.

Or as my Dad would say, “Katy bar the door [gerdammit] an’ hunker down ‘til the reconnaissance unit sounds the all clear.” – Z.M.Graham, spoken-regularly-for-as-long-as-I-can-remember

There was no one named Katy in my family when I was growing up, so this phrase baffled me. Who was this Katy? What was she doing to our door? Tommy was not alone in his confusion translating idioms. The expression Katy bar the door! has links to a melody [possibly], and is rumored be a variation of a medieval Scottish expression. It warns of trouble:

“[W]hen we abandon the belief in absolutes — such as telling the truth, being honest, and doing what is right — then Katy bar the door because there is no compass to guide us and our actions.”- Galveston County Daily News (Galveston, Texas), 9 Nov. 2013.

“Hunker,” almost always linked with “down,” emerged in the early 1700s – it also comes from the Scottish language, and “…originally referred to squatting down on the balls of one’s feet, keeping low to the ground but still ready to move if necessary.”*

The common Scottish origins for both of these expressions accounts for my Dad’s regular usage, connecting us, through language, to our ancestry. Thank you, Mom and Dad, for teaching me how to ask Katy to “bar the door,” how to “roll with the punches and come up swinging,” and “hunker down” with grace, and for teaching me these idioms in the context of family stories of survival.

From the Spanish Flu of 1918, WWI, the Depression (“we used the Sear’s Catalog for toilet paper in the outhouse- it was a little rough - hahahahaha”), to WWII, Vietnam, 9/11 and more, family stories remind us of who we are and who we can be at our best. Like it or not, we are in the middle of another story right now, a story whose outcome will be shaped by our resourcefulness and resilience. We may not be able to gather around a fire, but we can connect and learn by sharing our stories through our social links.

As you hunker in your bunker, what idioms will you use to tell this tale?

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