Q From Chris in the UK: At work today the question was raised why cheap wine is referred to as plonk. Can you help?
A Plonk, as a disparaging term for cheap wine, especially cheap red wine, is now widely known in the UK and also to a lesser extent in the USA. It’s so fixed a part of British English that many people are surprised to hear that it’s originally Australian.
In that country you may at one time have encountered references to plonk bar and plonk shop for a wine bar or shop, especially a cheap and cheerful one, plonk-up for a party, and plonked-up for intoxicated, though I am told these are all rather dated. There’s also plink, which was once a joking variation, which has led some writers to guess that plonk is an imitative invention from the sound of a cork being pulled from a bottle.
However, the evidence indicates instead an origin in the fighting in Europe in the First World War, when troops from various British Empire countries who spoke only English came into contact with the French language. The result was weirdly transmogrified expressions, such as napoo from “il n’y en a plus”, or san fairy ann from “ça ne fait rien”.
Plonk is a tortured version of blanc, as in vin blanc, white wine. Several humorous or mangled versions of that phrase are recorded in Australia in the decades after the end of the War, such as vin blank, von blink, point blank, and plinketty plonk. By the 1930s the word had begun to settle down into our modern form, though to judge from a comment in The Bulletin in Sydney, dated 1933, it was then referring to some sort of rotgut or moonshine: “The man who drinks illicit brews or ‘plonk’ (otherwise known as ‘madman’s soup’) by the quart does it in quiet spots or at home.”
The Tommies in France certainly drank local wine; lexicographer Jonathon Green told me about the memoirs of Frank Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die, published in 1964, which says about that period: “Ving blong was very cheap ... a man could get a decent pint and a half bottle for a franc.” It’s easy to see why the term didn’t thrive in the UK after the War, since virtually no wine was then made in Britain and there was no tradition of wine drinking except among upper-class or cosmopolitan people. Australia produced some wine at this period, nearly all of it consumed in the country, and so I would guess there was more opportunity for the term to be taken up.
Plonk started to become known in the UK only in the 1950s, partly because ordinary Brits started to drink wine, and in part because of increased exposure to Australian English, of which one factor may have been Nevil Shute’s well-known novel about Australia, A Town Like Alice of 1950, in which it appears.