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.