Mind your language

Let’s talk about sex: the brilliance of ‘bonk’

10 October 2020

9:00 AM

10 October 2020

9:00 AM

I take it personally that a word I practically saw being born is now unrecognised by people almost old enough to be the Chancellor. I am in any case suspicious of the recent survey that found a good proportion of people aged 18 to 30 do not know the meaning of sozzled, cad, henceforth, swot or disco. Do these people live in silos?

Some research company surveyed 2,000 young adults and fed the results to newspapers, which reported them last week, giving it publicity. Sozzled was unknown to 40 per cent of respondents and even disco to 17 per cent. But the one that shocked me was bonk.

As I mentioned here a couple of years ago, the minting of the word in the late 1980s delighted Peregrine Worsthorne, once editor of the Sunday Telegraph, who died this week. He found its non-taboo status allowed wider discussion of sexual intercourse. In 1973, his use on television of the taboo word fuck had, he concluded, cost him the editorship of the Daily Telegraph, since it had annoyed the proprietor, Lord Hartwell. Bonking, as non-taboo and morally neutral, allowed the act to be freely mentioned in a family paper. ‘She has been bonking the chairman of the neighbouring constituency’s Conservative association,’ said the Daily Telegraphin 1986, as quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Perhaps bonk was just a vogue word, evanescent as a mayfly. Even so, we are often familiar with words we never use for fear of sounding like outmoded trendies. I’d never say groovy, but I know what it means.

A synonym of bonk with which I was formerly unfamiliar is sard. It can rarely have been used since the lexicographer James Howell noted in 1658 a proverb from Nottingham: ‘Go teach your Grandam to sard.’ In the form serth it figured 700 years earlier in the Lindisfarne Gospel of all places: ‘Ne serth thu other mones wif’, a paraphrase of ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’. The OED included sard from 1909 but coyly defined it as ‘jape’ in sense no. 2.

Jape in sense no. 2 meant ‘to have carnal intercourse’, until the late 16th century. Jape had the alternative meaning of ‘to jest’, which survived; sard died out. Could it be revived?

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