plonk = obnoxious person

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Fri Oct 14 02:05:09 UTC 2005

In 1950 the British humorist Stephen Potter published a book called
_Lifemanship_ (a follow-up to _Gamesmanship_ and predecessor to
_One-Upmanship_). The subtitle of the U.S. edition of _Lifemanship_ (1951)
was _The Art of Getting Away With It Without Being An Absolute Plonk_. In
Potter's usage "plonk" evidently meant 'an obnoxious person' (a New York
Times review calls it "an appellative of Mr. Potter's devising with
onomatopoetic undertones"). I don't think this sense of "plonk" caught on,
but here's an example from the Harvard Crimson which clearly plays on
Potter's subtitle:

Harvard Crimson, May 4, 1951
How to Freeload Without Being An Intolerable Plonk.

So is Potter's usage sui generis? It seems like it might be connected to
"plonker" meaning 'a foolish or inept person' (OED 1966), or even "plonk"
as R.A.F. slang for 'aircraftman second class' (OED 1941).

--Ben Zimmer

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