Honcho is one of the few English words of Japanese origin whose use is not linked in any way to Japanese culture. Indeed, I venture to guess that most people aren’t aware of its Japanese roots, and probably would argue that it is really of Spanish or Italian origin. Hence the interesting variation on it which is gaining popularity: honcho has developed a feminine form — honcha.

This is joke in a number of ways. Japanese has no masculine / feminine grammatical construction (gender in Japanese takes the form of classes for counting — different words are used to count round things, skinny things, flat things, living things, flying things, cyclical things, etc. , but no difference for boy things vs. girl things). So there is no reason at all why honcho shouldn’t be equally applicable to men and women, at least in its original form.

The root of honcho is actually read hancho in Japanese, literally “squad leader”. han is “squad” — in the military or emergency rescue (think earthquake preparedness drills) context, and -cho” is a common suffix for leader ( shacho for company president, kocho for principal, bucho for company department head, etc.).

On the other hand, honcha in Japanese is most likely to be read as “true (green) tea” — meaning a pure variety of Japanese green tea,

I can only guess that naive English speakers feel that honcho isn’t feminine enough to describe the Martha Stewarts of the world, and have turned a somewhat latin-sounding word into a somewhat more latin-sounding word, but I’d love to hear from anyone who has an alternative explanation. Meanwhile, honcha gets thumbs down in my dictionary.

Earliest reference I can find in 5 minutes: March 1, 1996 Booklist, from a review by Whitney Scott of She Came by the Book, a mystery by Mary Wings:

Fans of Wings’ lesbian detective, Emma Victor, will welcome her return, too, and find her resourceful, irreverent, and sexy as ever as she attends the opening of a gay and lesbian archives only to witness the murder of a high honcha in the mammoth San Francisco gay and lesbian community.