“Bonkers”

Stop! Do not write that comment! Or at least hold off until you read the whole post.

I am well aware that bonkers is and has long been common in American English. This Google Ngram chart shows that in the ’90s, U.S. use of the word (in red) was more frequent than British use (blue):

Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 3.29.12 PM

And at this point, it’s hard to avoid on either side of the Atlantic. Here’s what a Google News search turns up:

Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 3.36.01 PM

But the word is most definitely of British origin. The first citation from the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1945 Daily Mirror article: “If we do that often enough, we won’t lose contact with things and we won’t go ‘bonkers’.”

Three years later, Eric Partridge included it in A Dictionary of Forces’ Slang: “Bonkers, light in the head; slightly drunk. (Navy.) Perhaps from bonk, a blow or punch on the bonce or head.”

Throughout the ’50s, the uses of the word I’ve turned up are all from  British writers:

 

  • From a 1951 novel by Philip Loraine, A Break in the Circle: “‘You bonkers?’ enquired Rocky. ‘Maybe.'”
  • From John Osborne’s play The Entertainer (1957): “We’re drunks, maniacs, we’re crazy, we’re bonkers, the whole flaming bunch of us.”
  • From Kingsley Amis, Take  Girl Like You, in 1960: “Julian’s absolutely bonkers too you know.”

The first use in the New York Times was a 1965 by the great Israel Shenker: “In ‘Paranoia,’ his newest picture, Italy’s Marcello Mastroianni goes slowly bonkers sharing bath, bed and Bedouin with three co-stars.”

That quote doesn’t even show up when you search for “bonkers” in the Times “Chronicle” app:

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Let’s take a look at the entire Ngram chart, from 1955 to 2008 (the last year for which there are good statistics):

Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 3.41.11 PM

It shows British prevalence through about 1976, then equivalence until 1987, American dominance for the next fifteen years, and then (surprisingly) a resurgence in Britain.

Now go ahead and comment.

 

11 responses to ““Bonkers”

  1. I miss ‘barmy’

  2. When I saw “bonkers” my first thought was “Bonkers Funhouse PIzza” in Peabody (Ma.) Spent many a day there with my kids!
    During the ’70s (also in MA) bonkers was used frequently on my college campus, especially when describing drunken escapades the day after the night before! 🙂

    • Slightly altered topic but this reminded me of a girl at university in Scotland 1977 who told me stop what I was doing and bonk her.

  3. Strange: I grew up with the word but now can’t remember the last time I heard it in any usage, other than ironic. To my generation (middle-boomer) bonkers had nothing to do with alcoholic ingestion. It just meant half-way between sane and crazy.

    Today it sounds slightly dated and … naff.

  4. The more recent resurgence of the word in Britain among the yoof (it’s still in quite common usage amongst us oldies) may be in part due to the Tinie Tempah song of the same name that was a big hit 4 or 5 years ago.

  5. “Bonk” as a synonym for “hit” (esp. on the head) seems uncommon but unsurprising in AmE for some time now.

  6. Reminds me of that Blackadder episode.

    Prince: You know the kind of girls I like, they’ve got to be lovers, laughers, dancers…

    Blackadder: And bonkers.

    Prince: That goes without saying!

  7. Pingback: “A Piece of Cake” | Not One-Off Britishisms

  8. Hi, I nominated you for a Liebster Award, check out my post https://carrotroom.wordpress.com/2016/03/24/liebster-awards/

  9. Pingback: “Trendy” | Not One-Off Britishisms

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