Two things struck me about an article in yesterday’s New York Times about a speech by new British PM Liz Truss. The first was a paraphrase of what she said after some protestors interrupted her, that they had “jumped their cue to enter the hall.” My first thought was that one of the co-writers of the article, Stephen Castle, who’s English, had written “jumped the queue” and a Times editor had mistakenly changed it. I posted the speculation on Twitter, where I got a couple of demurrals.

First person: Nah, that’s old fashioned theatre lingo isn’t it? Entered the stage ahead of their cue line?

Second person: Indeed, otherwise it would say “jumped the cue”, not “jumped their cue”.

I take their point but am not entirely percent convinced. For one thing, in the entire vast corpus of Google Books, there is not a single instance of “jumped his cue,” “jumped her cue,” or “jumped their cue.”

The second thing I noticed was a quote from Nadine Dorries, who had been a minister in Boris Johnson’s government. She’d tweeted that Conservative lawmakers had “removed the PM people wanted and voted for with a stonking big majority less than three years ago.”

She may have been referencing Johnson himself. In 2019, he described a Tory election victory as “a huge great stonking mandate” to take Britain out of the European Union.

“Stonking” sounded vaguely familiar — maybe a derivative of “stinking”? (“We don’t need no stinking badges.”) The OED says no, that it’s either an adjective meaning “tremendous” or “great” or an intensifying adverb (as Dorries used it), and that it derives from the British WW II military slang “stonk,” meaning a concentrated artillery bombardment. The first citation for “stonking” is a line of dialogue from a 1980 novel, Red Kill, by Guy Richards: “‘Here you are, sir,’ said the Australian girl… ‘Looks pretty stonking to me,’ she added and Fenner did not know whether this was praise or condemnation.”

The Australian connection is intriguing but all the subsequent citations in the OED and in Green’s Dictionary of Slang are British.

This is a blog about Americans using British terms, and “stonking” has definitely not made it over here, hence its “Outlier” status. In fact, the only American use I’ve been able to find came from our old friend Dwight Garner of the Times, who in 2019 referred to a “stonking sentence” in Robert Macfarlane’s Underland: A Deep Time Journey, contained this stonking sentence: “This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends — not with a bang but a visitors’ center.”

Macfarlane is English, and thus Garner’s use of “stonking” to describe his writing qualifies as a nice bit of ventriloquism.

13 thoughts on ““Stonking”

  1. Stonking? Stonker?

    In its normal British street habitat – before it was gentrified by the likes of the Conservatives or NOOBs – a ‘stonker’ is what mystified a gentleman when he woke (from sleep, that is) in the morning.

    Blue-chip smut.

    1. Here in South Wales in the 80s, “stonker” was used (in a perfectly innocent manner) by girls to describe a good-looking man. But it could also be used by boys to mean “erection”, which caused great amusement when a big charity event in 1991 was billed as “Comic Relief – The Stonker” (just meaning something big).

      “Stonking” is a little old-fashioned, but still an entirely acceptable way of describing something massive, with undertones of being ugly or unwieldy. From Wandsworth Town Library last year: “Just in time for #WorldBookDay we have a stonking great pile of brand new books…”

  2. I think the PM simply mixed up her words in an unscripted response to the unexpected interuption.
    Stonking was used in seventies in the UK as an intensifier and seems rather old-fashioned to me .

  3. Here in the US, videos of talking animals (dogs, in particular) use “stonking” (or “stonkin”) all the time instead of “stinking”.

    Like “gib” instead of “give” and many others that escape me right now.

  4. Whatever its meaning or derivation, it’s not a word I would use unless it were an alternative to “stomping.” Otherwise, it just doesn’t sound right to my ear. Perhaps if it ever does become common here in the USA, my ear may change.

  5. I’ve run across “stonking” a lot in my life, but I can’t place it on a timeline or in a specific example. I think of it as one of those modifiers meaning “great” that, like “terrific” or “awesome,” has an etymological undercurrent that is not entirely positive. Like something big that could also be seen as threatening in some way.

  6. As David Griggs suggests above, I’ve always associated “stonk” or “stonking” with mortar-fire, not artillery-fire generally. Not sure why, but maybe it has something to do with the mortar’s relatively short range and the fact that its intended targets can sometimes hear both its firing and impact.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s