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shameless pleading

Corking good

Case closed.

Dear Word Detective:  My mother often referred to a newly read book as “a corking good read.” Any comments on the term and its origin? — R.J.

Well, it depends. It’s difficult to know, when folks send their questions in by email, where they’re writing from, and while geographic location may seem (and usually is) largely irrelevant, it does figure in this case. If your mother is an inhabitant of, or has some close family connection to, Great Britain, no problemo. I’d say she was simply employing a mainstream colloquialism of that fair land. If, however, your family hails from the US, I suggest that you hightail it over to your mother’s house and unplug her TV. She has clearly been watching too much PBS programming, probably the powerfully hallucinogenic Downton Abbey, and is on the verge of ordering Marmite by mail. She must be stopped for her own good.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the adjective “corking” as “unusually fine, large, or excellent; stunning.” The OED also notes that the term first appeared in print in 1895 and is “chiefly US” in usage, which strikes me as odd, since I’ve never heard anyone but a hopeless Anglophile here use the term in a non-ironic sense. They even cite a use by P.G. Wodehouse (“There’s nobody I think a more corking sportsman than Maud.” 1919) who was about as non-US as you can get. Incidentally, the citation preceding that one for “corking” in the OED does not actually contain the word “corking” (“Arthur’s approval was fortified and grew with contemplation.”1918), which is very strange. Perhaps there’s an anagram I’m missing there.

In any case, “corking” as an adjective is an outgrowth of the noun “corker,” a slang term from the early 19th century with two related, but distinct, senses. The original sense was “something that settles and puts a definite end to a discussion or argument; an irrefutable argument or fact,” much as a cork tightly seals a wine bottle (“It’s a corker. If it [a proposed law] passes we’ll have to quit.” 1889). From this usage came an extended sense of “something shocking or astonishing.” A “corker” in this sense can be either something good or something bad.

The second sense of “corker,” which arose in the late 19th century, is unambiguously positive. Meaning “a person or thing of surpassing size or excellence; a stunner” (OED), this “corker” led directly to the “corking” your mother uses to praise a book.

Incidentally, occasionally you’ll hear someone complaining about the use of “read” as a noun, usually coupled with a modifier such as “good,” “riveting,” etc., in the sense of “material to read” (“My Friend Sandy can be hugely recommended … as a pleasantly light, bright sophisticated read.” 1961). I’ve never understood exactly what the problem with this usage is supposed to be, but it  dates back to at least the mid-20th century and it has lasted because it’s useful, which is, after all, the whole point of language.

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