Dear Word Detective: Lately, I’ve come across the word “stonking” a lot, as in “That’s a big stonking slice of pie you’ve got there.” As a hint, I’ll tell you I read a lot of car review magazines, and I’ve noticed for many years that the guys who write for these publications crib off of each other quite a bit. This could explain why I’ve noticed the word so much, but it doesn’t do much to explain where it comes from. Any ideas? I assume it’s been influenced by “honking” or “stinking.” — Dalton.
Thanks for a good question. You don’t say where you’re located, but “stonking” in the sense you’ve encountered it has been popular slang in the UK for many years, and enjoyed a certain vogue there in the late 1980s and early 90s. So if you’re just now encountering it, my guess is that you’re in the US. The Brits, of course, are famous for their intriguing but opaque slang. No one, for example, has ever come up with a convincing explanation for either “boffin,” meaning “a technical researcher or expert,” or “bog standard,” the equivalent of our “standard issue.” Sometimes I suspect they’re doing it on purpose. Perfidious Albion, y’know.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “stonking” as an adjective meaning “Excellent, amazing; considerable, powerful” (“The Kenwood receiver is … stonking value for anyone wanting to take their first steps into home cinema,” 1993), and as an adverb (modifying an adjective) meaning “extremely, very” (“Snogging tackle for stonking wet smackers, warm and reassuring like a comfy settee,” 1993). (Please don’t ask me what that example means. As I said, they’re probably messing with our minds.) The noun “stonker,” which means something very large or impressive of its kind, first popped up in print in the late 1980s.
The main problem in attempting to trace and explain “stonking” is not a lack of information, but a surfeit of leads. The OED points us from “stonking” to “stonk,” a noun, and things get weird right off the bat. The first sense of “stonk,” dating to 1825, equates “stonk” with “stunk,” an English dialect word for the stake or “pot” children put into a game such as marbles, or the game itself, or a single marble. Okay so far. But the second sense of “stonk” the OED gives is “a concentrated artillery bombardment,” dating in print to 1944. I suppose it’s possible that the kids playing marbles grew up and joined the army, but I suspect that we’re dealing with two separate words here and we should regard the first “stonk” as a red herring for our purposes. Incidentally, a persistent story about that artillery “stonk” traces it to a supposed short form for a certain type of bombardment known as a “Standard Regimental Concentration,” which is very unlikely. The OED suggests that the word is “echoic,” mimicking the sound of a shell exploding, which is, to me, a far more believable explanation.
Compounding this muddle is the fact that “stonker” is also a verb in Australian slang meaning “to outwit, defeat, render helpless, defeat” or simply “to kill or destroy,” and “stonkered” is a popular slang synonym for “drunk” as well. These uses pretty clearly come from the “artillery bombardment” sense of “stonk,” and the fact that the Australian slang use is first attested in 1919, just after World War I, would tend to support that thesis.
So, having laid out all the bits and pieces of evidence, I suppose I’d better take a stab at fashioning a coherent explanation of “stonking.” I think it’s very likely that “stonking,” in its modern senses of “excellent, amazing” and “very, extremely,” comes ultimately from “stonk” meaning “concentrated artillery barrage,” dating back to around World War I and formed “echoically” from the sound of exploding shells. The sense of the overwhelming force of such a attack carried over as the term “stonking” was generalized and tempered over the years, much as “dynamite” and “explosive” have come to be applied to an exciting or disruptive development in celebrity gossip, for instance.