Hanky Panky

Meaning of Idiom ‘Hanky Panky’

  1. Hanky panky refers to kissing, touching, and sometimes sexual activity, especially if it is secret or not part of a serious relationship. The term sometimes refers to infidelity or sexual misconduct.
  2. Dishonest or deceitful behavior; trickery; misbehavior. 1Spears, Richard A. McGraw-Hill’s American Idioms Dictionary. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2008.2Jarvie, Gordon. Bloomsbury Dictionary of Idioms. London: Bloomsbury, 2009.3Brenner, Gail Abel. Webster’s New World American Idioms Handbook]. Wiley, 2003.

Usage

Despite the serious undertones in its meaning, this idiom is usually lighthearted.

Examples Of Use

“You kids better by studying. I don’t want any hanky panky,” said Dad.

“I heard there was some hanky panky in the office while I was away,” said the manager.

“The Clinton administration was plagued by rumors of hanky panky in the Oval Office, most of which turned out to be true.”

“The talk show host admitted getting up to hanky panky with various female employees.”

Origin

This rhyming compound is similar to higgledy-piggledy and hocus-pocus. Originally referring to sleight of hand or illusions, the term later transferred to dishonest or deceitful conduct or any sort of trickery. 

The earliest known use in print occurred in September 1841 in Punch, or the London Carivar:

Only a little hanky-panky, my lud. The people likes it; they loves to be cheated before their very faces. One, two, three—presto—begone. I’ll show your ludship as pretty a trick of putting a piece of money in your eye and taking it out of your elbow, as you ever beheld.

It was not until the 1930s the term appears in reference to sexual behavior, as used in George Bernard Shaw’s 1938 play Geneva 4J. St. Clair Stanley, and St Clair S. John. Most Comprehensive Origins of clichés, Proverbs and Figurative Expressions: clichés, Old Sayings, Proverbs, Idioms, Axioms, Similes, Metaphoric Expressions, Common Short Rhymes, Catch Phrases and Curious Words in the English Language: with Definitions and Early Citations. St. Clair Publications, 2013.:

She: No hanky panky. I am respectable; and I mean to keep respectable.

He: I pledge you my word that my intentions are completely honorable.

 

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Sources

1 Spears, Richard A. McGraw-Hill’s American Idioms Dictionary. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2008.
2 Jarvie, Gordon. Bloomsbury Dictionary of Idioms. London: Bloomsbury, 2009.
3 Brenner, Gail Abel. Webster’s New World American Idioms Handbook]. Wiley, 2003.
4 J. St. Clair Stanley, and St Clair S. John. Most Comprehensive Origins of clichés, Proverbs and Figurative Expressions: clichés, Old Sayings, Proverbs, Idioms, Axioms, Similes, Metaphoric Expressions, Common Short Rhymes, Catch Phrases and Curious Words in the English Language: with Definitions and Early Citations. St. Clair Publications, 2013.