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The idiom, plonk (something/someone) down means

  • to slap something down; to plop something down
  • to sit or lie down on something in a careless or noisy way
  • to leave someone somewhere to do this; Dave plonked the kids in front of the TV and disappeared upstairs.
  • to put something down heavily and without taking care: Just plonk the shopping (down) on the table, and come and have a cup of tea. Come in and plonk yourselves (down) (= sit down) anywhere you like.

From these various definitions I can surmise why cheap wine is often called plonk, it's the sound of the bottle slapping down heavily on the table.

But how did we get from that to "a plonker" which basically means a silly or stupid person.

As in

"Why did you do that, you plonker?"

Rodney from Fools and Horses

Nicholas Lyndhurst; Only Fools and Horses

EDIT: References; FD & plonker "Sir David Jason says an American remake of Only Fools And Horses won't work as there's no word over there for plonker" CDO & plonk

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I can't answer definitively, but I'd guess it's because plonk could be described as a "dull sound," so someone thought it could also be applied to a dull person. From NOAD: dull (adj.) • (of sound) not clear; muffled • (of a person) slow to understand; stupid. –  J.R. Jul 26 '13 at 9:05
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I think that ODO might answer this. Specifically, sense 2. It's a playful insult. –  Andrew Leach Jul 26 '13 at 9:06
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@J.R. No, I'm not yet convinced Andrew et al have nailed it. There are now two or three separate theories. You don't have "plonker" in the US? Start a trend. –  Mari-Lou A Jul 26 '13 at 9:46
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Cheap wine is called plonk due to WWI French-to-English transformation of vin blanc to plonk. See eg 1, 2, 3 –  jwpat7 Jul 26 '13 at 14:13
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Could just be that the person is being described as careless or lazy, that they just "plonk" stuff down on the floor, or they just "plonk" down on the couch and watch TV. –  AJMansfield Jul 26 '13 at 15:32

7 Answers 7

up vote 12 down vote accepted

The Urban Dictionary suggests plonker is a person habitually drunk on cheap wine , (plonk) and hence someone who is foolish or useless.

I don't think that's right. I believe plonker in this context is a slang term for penis (chiefly used in the term pull someone's plonker, attempt a mild deception). Slang terms for penis are routinely used as terms of abuse, and that is why plonker is used for this purpose.

Edit I've just had a chance to look in Green's Dictionary of Slang. He has three entries for plonker:-

Anything large or substantial (figurative usage of standard English plonk, to hit or strike with a plonking noise). Earliest reference 1861.

Also plonk, the penis, earliest reference c1920 in the phrase pull one's plonker

Also plonk, a general term of abuse, widely popularized by the BBC TV Series Only Fools and Horses, earliest reference 1959.

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I had no idea! I've always said it innocently to my friends, almost as an endearment. Arghh! :) –  Mari-Lou A Jul 26 '13 at 9:16
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@Mari-LouA In my experience it always has been a very mild rebuke. –  Ben Millwood Jul 26 '13 at 11:56
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Yes the penis suggestion is correct. –  Alan B Jul 26 '13 at 13:42
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No doubt whatsoever. Here's Jasper Carrott (UK standup comic) in 1979... I put my hands up to protect myself, but all she does is pull down my zip and get my plonker out! It's that sort of very embarrassing situation. I mean, what do you do? I didn't want to appear a spoilsport and not be one of the lads or anything.... It was an "acceptable" euphemism back in the days when you couldn't use dick, prick, cock, chopper, etc. on British live TV. –  FumbleFingers Jul 26 '13 at 15:56
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@Mari-LouA, plonker in the sense of something large or substantial, in C.C.Robinson's Dialect of Leeds, 1861: "A plonker is an article having extraordinary substance. A piece of woven material unusually thick is 'a plonker'". I haven't been able to run down a date for the standard English meaning (plonk something down). –  Brian Hooper Jul 27 '13 at 15:09

The origin of plonker is from plonk + -er1, where plonk is a verb2 meaning

To hit or strike [something] with a heavy thud

Although this meaning is now rare.

Plonker itself has a few meanings, including "something large and substantial of its kind", "penis" and "a foolish, inept, or contemptible person"1.

The first use of plonker to mean "a foolish, inept, or contemptible person" is attested in the OED to be an episode of Only Fools and Horses (in 1981)1. I would imagine that this use is actually related to the use of plonk to mean "To set or drop (a thing) in position heavily or clumsily"2 as inept people are wont to.

However, as Brian Hooper points out, plonker can mean penis1. The OED gives this example usage:

to pull one's plonker : to masturbate

This seems just as likely the origin, for the reasons Brian mentions, although not before the BBC watershed.

  1. "plonker, n.". OED Online. June 2013. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/145905?redirectedFrom=plonker (accessed July 26, 2013).

  2. "plonk, v.". OED Online. June 2013. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/145903 (accessed July 26, 2013).

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I can't open the links (presumably I have to be a member) but your explanation is good. –  Mari-Lou A Jul 26 '13 at 9:28
    
Can you put some of the text of those links here? I have no idea what the OED entry is saying. –  Mitch Jul 26 '13 at 11:44
    
@Mitch They're just references. What do you need clearing up? –  Matt Эллен Jul 26 '13 at 11:58
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I can't visit those sites. I don't know what they say. –  Mitch Jul 26 '13 at 12:43
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The PL- assonance in English has the sense of 'Two Dimensional Thick/Contact' which is exactly right for the plopdown meaning of plonk. I've also heard it used as a verb for someone who fools someone else in jest; Aw, he's just plonking you. And also for locally-made alcohols of various low grades. As for the penis affiliation, some people believe you can't have too many words for drunk, vomit, stupid behavior, and anything associated with penises. So practically anything even mildly disreputable gets tagged sooner or later. –  John Lawler Jul 26 '13 at 13:58

My understanding of the definition of 'plonker' is quite different! It stems from the very popular UK television series of the 1980s called Only Fools And Horses, set in London's Peckham.

Writer John Sullivan used a number of sound-alike words to substitute for non-permissible rude ones and 'plonker' was one of these. Use your imagination for what he meant when lead character, Del-Boy said to his brother 'don't be a plonker, Rodney!'

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another who upholds the genitalia theory. –  Mari-Lou A Jul 26 '13 at 9:32
    
Hate to be obtuse, but no I don't have the imagination, especially not in BrE. Can you give the explicit terms? Put them in aurora that way you're only referring to rude things instead of being rude. –  Mitch Jul 26 '13 at 11:46
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Well, obtuse or not, the word that I think all of us Brits would take it to mean would be 'wanker' or 'tosser.' There, I've said it. –  Tony Balmforth Jul 26 '13 at 12:32
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"Plonker" wasn't made up by John Sullivan. It predates Only Fools and Horses. –  DJClayworth Jul 26 '13 at 12:49
    
@Mitch, don’t mean to derail, but is “put them in aurora” a way of saying “put them in quotes”? I’ve never seen this expression before (and can’t find it in any dictionaries), so I’m curious. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 27 '13 at 15:41

Plonker used to be slang for condoms, and sometimes for penises.

There are several other possibilities, but the context makes this one seem more than plausible because it was heavily used in BBC sit-coms and they were fond of using substitute swearwords that were obscure, which those senses of plonker had become. Other examples would include naff (probably, but not certainly from Polari slang meaning "heterosexual") and smeg (probably, but not certainly, from smegma).

The deliberate obtuseness as to where the word came from allows the writers to get away with it. (In the case of naff the meaning wouldn't be much of a problem, but the source would itself have been a bit scandalous in those days).

More modern examples would be the heavy use of feck on "Father Ted"; which makes perfect sense in the context as it's a milder form of fuck in Ireland, but largely unknown in the UK, and the fondness of American writers for having British characters say bollocks and wanker, allowing them to use words of a level of offensive force above what American prime-time allows because the words aren't much used there, but acceptable for broadcast in the UK because of more lenient rules.

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Could you provide the time setting when it used to mean condoms –  Mari-Lou A Jul 26 '13 at 11:58
    
Around the middle 20th C. WWII and there-abouts. –  Jon Hanna Jul 26 '13 at 11:59
    
Can you provide any links or references to say that plonker was around in the 1940s/50s? (I don't think I'll ever say that word again without blushing.) –  Mari-Lou A Jul 26 '13 at 13:45
    
I can't think of any of the top of my head other than the movie "Wish You Were Here" (the 1987 one with Emily Lloyd, not the more recent one) using it as such. –  Jon Hanna Jul 26 '13 at 15:26

There are some references on the web to plonk as the lowest ranking person in the Royal Air Force (RAF), which apparently is an Aircraftman 2nd class, sometimes referred to as an AC plonk, and another for plonk as a slang term for mud, coined in the trenches during the Great War, so its origins could lie in the notion of a person of lowest rank or status, or someone down in the mud.

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That's very interesting but could you provide a link from somewhere, please? –  Mari-Lou A Jul 26 '13 at 9:21
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Links added. The reference to mud, was given in an answer by John Dean on page 2, who was quoting the New Statesman. –  user48193 Jul 26 '13 at 9:33

I have heard plonk used by speakers in the United States to refer to cheap wine (the definition that Merriam-Webster's gives), but not in any other way. Chapman & Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, Third Edition (1995), however, gives two definitions:

plonk *1 n* British fr Australian by 1930 Inferior wine; cheap wine 2 n by 1960s A boring or obnoxious person =PILL.

The second definition would seem to be a candidate for the meaning of plonker, except that (1) the usage is not widespread in the United States, to my knowledge, and (2) the example in the original posting appears to be British, anyway.

Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, Fifth Edition (1961) gives two early meanings of plonk as a noun:

plonk. Mud, esp. that of no-man's land: military 1916–18. (Hence, over the plonk, 'over the top'.) ... 2. Pinky, cheap port, sold by the quart: Australian: from ca. 1926.

and two of plonker:

plonker. A (cannon) shell: Australian soldiers': 1939+ ... 2. Penis: low: since ca. 1917.

Partridge also notes that plonk was used as a verb in World War I with the meaning "to shell." By his reckoning, the chronological order of occurrence of the different meanings of plonk and plonker is "to shell" (1915), "mud" (1916); "penis" (ca. 1917), "cheap wine" (ca. 1926)," "cannon shell" (1939).

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So practically, plonk, did not start off as a light-hearted rebuke but first appeared with the technological advancements in WWI military warfare. I found this in wikipedia which fuses the planting or explosions of bombs in mud: "the wire-cutting No. 106 fuze was developed, specifically designed to explode on contact with barbed wire, or the ground before the shell buried itself in mud, and equally effective as an anti-personnel weapon " –  Mari-Lou A Jul 27 '13 at 4:46
    
And this image of a WWI bomb shell explains why plonk and plonker came to mean "something large and substantial of its kind" and "penis". –  Mari-Lou A Jul 27 '13 at 4:57

Regarding the meaning of plonk as to plop something down: in American usage the word here is plunk, not plonk ("He plunked the groceries down on the counter.") Plonk refers to cheap wine. (Random House Dictionary, 2013).

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