Q From Peter Weinrich: From time to time The Economist likes to indulge in a little verbal slumming, and does so this week (May 12–18 2001). On p59 it refers to the prime minister who ‘may have a stonking lead in the polls’. The only meaning I ever knew for being stonked was being stoned, sloshed or otherwise drunk — does The Economist mean his lead is enough to get drunk on, or make him drunk with success? Either way it seems a new twist to an older word.
A The Economist isn’t actually slumming, but using an informal word in moderately common use in Britain. Stonk and its relatives are an interesting bunch: with all those strong consonants they’re thudding, active, strongly masculine words. And there may be two separate origins involved.
According to the Macquarie Dictionary, stonkered in Australia can mean drunk, which is presumably the sense you know, though it also has associated ideas of being defeated, exhausted, done in, or lethargic, as after a large meal. This comes from the verb stonker, which at one time could mean to kill, but is now the action of outwitting or defeating somebody. It is generally said that this in turn comes from an old Scots term stonk, originally and oddly the stake in a game of marbles. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of it was in John Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language in 1841, in which he said that stunk was “the stake put in by boys in a game, especially in that of marbles”. According to the Concise Scots Dictionary, this is now only local Scots dialect, and it suggests the Scots got it from local English dialect (do try to keep up), which might have originated in stock, a store, presumably the bag or other container the marbles or money were kept in. The Australian use seems to have come out of soldiering — at least, the first examples in the Australian National Dictionary (hang on a minute while I move some of these books out of the way) are from military publications at the end of the First World War, in 1918.
That, you will probably feel, comprehensively deals with one sense of the word, but as yet it doesn’t help with the way that it turns up in The Economist piece. That meaning is well known in Britain, as I said earlier, where a stonker is something which is large or impressive of its kind. Hence stonking, a word of vague positive emphasis: “That’s a stonking good idea”, what Tony Thorne called in his Dictionary of Contemporary Slang as “an all-purpose intensifying adjective”. It seems to have been especially in vogue in the late 1980s.
The word was popularised more widely in 1991 when the annual BBC charity telethon, Comic Relief, used the word in its catch phrase; there was even a song, The Stonk, by Hale and Pace and the Stonkers, which briefly reached the top of the UK charts (“Good evening, here is the six o’clock stonk, over the nation there’s a brand new craze, You see it going on wherever music plays, It’s funky and it’s punky and it’s impolite, You can do it by day but it’s better at night.”) Stonker is also now a slang term for an erection; to what extent the lyric of this song had anything to do with it is uncertain — I’ve been told that in that sense it was circulating before Hale and Pace used it.
Now it could well be that this sense of stonking came from the other — after all, there was plenty of opportunity for British and Australian soldiers to exchange slang during two world wars. But it seems more probable that the British sense is from military jargon, in which a stonk is an intensive artillery bombardment. The OED has examples dating from 1944. It is sometimes said that the word in this sense is a mangled version of the formal description, Standard Regimental Concentration, which seems a terrible stretch. But the word was certainly in wide use among soldiers post-war and seems to have spread out from there.
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