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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book; and teach the history of printing at other institutions. I research language usage during the First World War, and lead the Languages and the First World War project. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch; and Words and the First World War. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.


Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Plonk, the one that got away


This is a reorganising and reposting of the blogs on 'plonk' that I first posted on the Languages and the First World War blog.

In all the excitement about words which became widespread in English during the First World War it is worth sparing a few moments for the words which infuriatingly did not get used. Given all the time that English-speaking soldiers spent in French estaminets drinking ‘vin blanc’ how on earth did they not get round to calling it ‘plonk’?

There is a wide range of military usages for ‘plonk’ during the war:

The noise of a bullet - ‘the plink-plonk of a bullet’, Nottingham Evening Post, 19 May 1915.

The arrival of a shell - ‘a shell plonks on top of the [dugout]’; and the noise of a shell - ‘whirra whirra came the travel of of the shell, then came the final plonk as it burst’, Liverpool Echo, 3 August 1915.

Grenades - ‘… by this time the German flares are falling all around, and along the trenches the ‘bang-bang,’ ‘zip-zip,’ ‘plonk-plonk’ and the more familiar sounds of rifle fire and grenade begin to tickle our ears’, Evening Despatch, 4 September 1915.

The impact of a bullet - ‘Just as I got to the second trench I felt a “plonk” in my leg. “Oh!” I said, “I’ve got it.” I looked down and saw a hole in my leg.’ West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser, 17 April 1917.

Jonathon Green points out that there are similar words for being drunk and being wounded, but that there’s no evidence to suggest that these were connected via the word ‘plonk’.

Unfortunately while the word ‘plonk’ was used variously to describe the sound or effects of different kinds of projectile, there has been found, so far, no published documentation of any English-speaking soldier, or civilian, using ‘plonk’ to mean wine, blanc or otherwise, until 1929. Jonathon Green cites the following:

1929 Register News-Pictorial (Adelaide) 31 Oct. 26/2: Coffin varnish and plonk were two of the names which Mr Collins […] referred to some of the cheaper wines.

There is the tantalisingly close 1919 citation in W.H. Downing’s Digger Dialects: ‘Vin blank, white wine.’ And ‘Von blink, a humorous corruption of vin blanc.’

Green’s 1919-33 citations are Australian, but we should bear in mind the history of wine-making in Australia: over 30 years before the First World War Australian wines had been competing successfully in international exhibitions in France. And according to http://www.rareaustralianwine.com/wineRegions/wineHistory.asp ‘After the First World War, vines were planted in various soldier settlements which temporarily increased production. Overproduction though, and consequently lower prices for some grape varieties, meant that some vineyards couldn’t compete economically and many vineyards collapsed.’ This wine, as it collapsed economically, might have called forth some wartime descriptions – see below for the documented wartime usage of ‘plonk’. Now begins the search for pre-war citations of ‘vin blanc’ in an Australian wine-making context.

So while we could say it ‘probably’ came from WW1 France, we cannot be certain.

The paper given at the LFWW conference (British Library, June 2014) by Véronique Duché and Diane de St Léger from the University of Melbourne described the progression of ‘bad French’ in Australian linguistic culture, from the evidence of trench journals. The Aussie in particular (which carried articles showing an interest in language) moved at the end of the war to being a veterans’ publication and then a national magazine, still retaining ‘bad French’ as an anti-authoritarian gesture.

By 1943 ‘plonk’ meant Australian wine: S J Baker’s A Popular Dictionary of Australian Slang, 1943 (3rd edn.) gives ‘plonk’ as ‘Cheap Australian wine, often laced with methylated spirits’; and ‘plink’ is ‘described as “a cheap form of plonk” ’ [which must have been pretty lethal]. Downing’s Digger Dialects, 1919 nearly gets there, but not quite. We may suggest, but no more, that it comes from ‘vin blanc’ as the most likely source, but not necessarily as a result of war-zone linguistic contact.

Are there any words which were used for both alcohol and projectiles and/or their effects? Green cites:

 ‘We’ll ’ave a drink to ’elp us,’ said Bill, and a cork went plonk!   1916 P. MacGill The Great Push 57:

Maybe there was an avoidance of linking something you liked, or at least could pretend to like, with something you wanted to avoid; perhaps wine ‘plonk’ did not come into ‘reality’ as spoken out loud until after the metal ‘plonk’ stopped killing.

One possibility (no more than that) is that the long history of wine-making in Australia would have made Australians so familiar with the term ‘vin blanc’ that it was unnecessary to create a slang version; as an already common term, pronounced phonetically for English-speakers, it would not have come within the remit of the need to create the deliberately ‘bad French’ that was a mark of Aussie ‘bloke’ attitudes (and which created so much wonderfully cynical slang during the period).

A search through Australian postwar newspapers reveals the term ‘vin blanc’ in use certainly up until 1939, in linguistic environments where slang terms were being used, and where ‘plonk’ might be expected.

For example:

(In a veteran’s narrative)

“Just one , Madame, only one vin blank!”
“Non, non, Monsieur, finish vin blanc, finish! Gendarme come tout de suite: finish!”
“Orright, then Madame, I can be a nurk too! I know where there’s a nice, clean waterhole full up to its grassy edge with fat, juicy frogs, and you won’t get one off ‘em!”

Sunday Times (Perth) 5 January 1919

Returned Soldiers’ League
Smoke Social
Diggers should join up and help their comrades

… Where two or three diggers are gathered together there is sure to be some fun and many reminiscences, and withal an atmosphere of camaraderie which impregnates the gathering with such a spirit of goodwill that the mere fact of being present is a privilege. … The President (Dr Steele) was in the chair, and there was a glint in that gentleman’s eye from the jump that prophesied that so far as he was concerned proceedings were not going to lag. However, not much urging was required, for, in the words of the invitation cards, the comrades rallied to their “Beera Quicekateer, boo-koo, vin blanc and mungey” and made the night the event of the year, and so as to avoid misunderstanding it might be said that when the fun was over they were each and every one as clearheaded as when the evening started.

Burra Record 22 Sept 1922

What did Omar Mean – Wine?
Corp William F Sherman
[this includes the term ‘parleying’]

A lot of licker is hard to take, but has a rebound like a French 75. But Vin Ordinaire, as they call it for short, is an insult to the taste without being a spur to the ambition. Vin Blanc, the pale variety, isn’t even good to look at, and it resembles vinegar in taste, appearance and smell. Vin Rouge has a beautiful vin rouge colour that is very deceptive. It tastes, however, even worse than its sister Blanche.

The Gungadai Times and Tumut, Adelong and Murrumbidgee District Advertiser 22 Aug 1922

Christmas at the War
“A Nineteen-Fourteener” has a few recollections of Christmas while abroad with the A.I.F.

In those days we were never short of “felloose” – the Gyppo term for cash. …
Vin blanc and French Biere spun out about 9 pm with the majority still sitting up on their blankets.

Sunday Times (Perth) 20 Dec 1925

The Great War – according to Hoyle

Do that puttee up.
Yes, sergeant.
Don’t answer me back.
No, Sergeant.
P-a-r-r-ade, S’hun!
Stand-at –Eas-s-se.
P-a-r-r-ade, S’hun!
Fall in.
Your leave is cancelled.
 ? ? ? ! ! ! x x x ! ! ! Sergeant.
What did you say?
Nothing, Sergeant.
Well, don’t say it again.
Fall in.
Your rifle is dirty.
D’you call these socks.
You’ve got blanco on your face.
Don’t answer me back.
So this is France.
Vin blanc.
Vin blanc.
Vin blanc.
It’s a long way to Tipperary.
Stop singing.
Put that _ light out.
Put that LIGHT OUT.
So this is the front line.
Look at that pretty cornflower.
Things seem pretty quiet here.
Things seem —-
Wallop. Whe-e-e-e-e!
Yes, nurse.
Is this Blighty?
Yes, doctor, I fell worse than ever.
When this ta-ra-ra war is over.
Good-night, sister.
Oh, yes, I saw a bit of fighting.

Western Mail (Perth) 1 May 1930

Report of The Diggers’ Ball
One of Narromine’s Biggest Social Functions

List of dances includes No 4 fox trot the Chat’s Parade (by De Louzer); No 5 waltz Tosti’s San Fairy Ann; No 6 one step, In a Vin Blanc Boozer.

Narromine News and Trangie Advocate 16 June 1933

From The Last Word’(short story)

Over the usual round of drinks Boon volunteered that he had been in France during the war, and had run across Smith in one of the English foot regiments.
“We had a binge together,” he said. “You know that vin blanc stuff. We swapped stories and hats; he took my slouch hat and I had his cap. Got Hell roared out of me next morning on parade. Never saw him again …”

The World’s News (Sydney) 29 April 1936

An article in The World’s News (Sydney) 4 November 1936 is fairly regular in its lexis but contains a few slang phrases such as ‘well bushed’ (tired) and ‘stiff luck’. In a story about a dog being used for smuggling there is the sentence ‘How many bottles of vin blanc (Australianised into “plonk”) he carried into the lines would be impossible to calculate, but they were many.’ But this is long after the first documented usage of 'plonk' as wine.

To sum up, at this stage:

  • In Australian and New Zealand war reportage during and after the First World War the word ‘plonk’ was used to describe a variety of projectiles, their sounds or their effects.
  • ‘Vin blanc’ and a number of variations including ‘Von Blink’, ‘vin blank’, ‘vim blong’, ‘plinketty-ponk’, ‘point blank’ and ‘Jim Blonk’, were used, but apparently not ‘plonk’, to describe white wine, during the war and in reminiscences afterwards.
  • Australians were familiar with the term ‘vin blanc’ and it was used widely. Not so much in New Zealand newspapers: from currently available OCR (high quality) in the NZ newspapers archive I can find only 3 citations of ‘vin blanc’ 1914-18.
  • In several situations in postwar Australian newspapers, where one might expect to see a slang term, the straightforward ‘vin blanc’ is used. Some of these appear after the documentation of ‘plonk’ for cheap wine (1927).

Anglophone soldiers appeared to not enjoy French white wine, at least in their memory:

    “Sauntering over to a French canteen, we were initiated into the mysteries of “Jim Blonk” [vin blanc], and “Vin Rouge”, neither of which appealed to our English palates.”     Strange, J D. The Price of Victory, 1930, quoted in Hiddemann, H. Untersuchungen zum Slang des Englischen Heeres im Weltkrieg, 1938

Does the term ‘Von Blink’ indicate any semantic link between vin blanc and the enemy? Probably not, given the existence of ‘Jim Blonk’ and others, which seem to indicate that this was more a case of playing around with the sounds,  either to make a nonsensical term (‘plinketty-plonk’), or to create something more recognisable (‘point blank’) – it could be compared to the way place-names were changed (‘Ypres’ being morphed into ‘Wipers’).

These then are examples of the use of ‘plonk’ and the non-use of 'plonk':

1. Firstly, the earliest example of ‘plonk’ meaning cheap wine I have been able to find in the Australian press:

    Welter of Taxation

    A characteristic contribution to the debate was made by Mr Collins. He objected to the Government “plonking on” the taxation.

    “Give us a definition of ‘plonk’?” asked Mr McMillan.

    “Yes, I can do that.” Replied the obliging Mr Collins.

    “It is a cheap wine produced in Mr Crosby’s district.” Loud laughter greeted the sally.

    News (Adelaide) 8 December 1927

2. Alternative forms for ‘vin blanc’, the first three spotted and supplied by @hugovk via twitter, and my thanks to him:


    Cable – “A wine ship with free samples will shortly leave France for America and Australia”.

    Sing hey for the good ship Claretcup,

    Sing ho for the cargo carried;

    Her anchor’s weighed and her peter’s up,

    Too long she’s tacked and tarried.

    Her bulkheads burst with bonza booze,

    Van blong, van rouge and sherry,…

    Sunday Times  (Perth) 26 March 1922


    Fish Oh!

    Van blong and van rouge at a French café came along as a top-off and two hours later Ted S- and his mate got aboard the rattler for Perth, Ted having a large parcel of fish under his arm.


    Sunday Times  (Perth) 20 July 1924


    Reminiscences of France

    The Australians, partly through irony and partly for practical reasons, deformed many French terms, and substituted either an English word or syllable at the end of a phrase. Thus instead of the French “Comment allez-vous!” (How are you?) the Australian said – “Comment allez plonk?”  The same thing was done by the French themselves, and the French word for German, “allemand”, was altered to “alleboche”, the final syllable of which became in time an independent and universally used word. Proper names were mutilated in the same fashion, and instead of “Marguerite” one heard “Margarine”, and “Simone” became “Cinnamon”. In Flanders people drank beer, and on the Somme white wine. This was first called “vim blong”, then “vim blank”, and afterwards “Point blank”. It would be interesting, the lecturer said, to revisit this district later and see how many of these words had remained in the dialect.

    Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton) 16 July 1923


But ‘vin blanc’ was also used without difficulty:

    Behind the Lines

    You can get French beer at 1d a glass – very second-rate stuff – while “special” at 2d a glass and “Boche” at 1 franc  per bottle are better, but are all very light. Spirits are, of course, practically “taboo”, but vin rouge and vin blanc (red and white wine respectively) are popular drinks, but the quality is doubtful. Champagne may be had everywhere, and at varying prices.

    Press 28 July 1917 (NZ)


3. Uses of the word ‘plonk’, to do with hitting/projectiles, from Australian and NZ newspapers. Clearly the sound is being imitated in many cases:

    Hill time after time thwarted Edward’s good intentions by plonking a left to the face.

    Truth (Melbourne) 25 Dec 1915


    [A woman gives her husband] a resounding smack in the face . Plonk!

    Pukekohe & Waiuku Times 24 December 1915


     “Whizzy Plonk” – Metal from the Skies

    All we have heard was “whizzy plonk”  [talking about falling anti-aircraft shells]

    Auckland Star 12 May 1917


    I was coming up the sap one day conveying mails, when a Taube aeroplane flew high, over our heads. Of course our guns must fire on her, so we, being directly underneath, got the full benefit of the stray bits. I was walking along with a chap and both of us were watching her as she passed when all of a sudden – bang! And almost immediately a faint pur-r-r of falling pieces. We landed together under the shelter of a bank, and ‘plonk’ came the pieces all around us.

    Poverty Bay Herald 28 March 1916


[The sounds of projectiles]

    Zip-zip, hissing and cracking of bullets. …. plonk – only a Hun bullet which has buried itself

    Marlborough Express 21 Oct 1916


    … the dull ‘plonk’ of a gun in the enemy’s lines …

    Poverty Bay Herald 19 Oct 1916


    [Naval guns] “plonk” two or three shells in a trench [and later] “plonk” some shrapnel above them

    Evening Post 8 July 1915


    At about 11 a.m. plonk came two or three shells bursting on top of me, and burying me four or five [feet] deep. …

    Did I see the tanks? Of course I saw them, and they are absolutely out on their own, and very strange to watch, crawling along at four miles an hour.

    Press 12 Jan 1917 (NZ)


    The regular “plonk, plonk”’ of the feet of a woman swimming …

    Auckland Star 15 April 1916


And the Taranaki Daily News  for 1 July 1915 reported on a concert with a rendering of the song ‘Plink, Plonk’ – this was written in 1911 by Murphy & Lipton for George Formby, its full listing being George Formby’s Famous Guitar Song ‘Plink-Plonk!’ (The Skin of a Spanish Onion).

Outside the usage of ‘vin blanc’, the word ‘blanc’ occasionally caused problems:

    It looks as if the restaurant-keeper’s education was sadly neglected or else that they entertain a profound contempt for French. One well-known Bourke-Street restaurateur writes it “Balmonge,” while another, not far away, puts it down as “Blank manjy.”

    Truth (Melbourne) 26 June 1915

Actually I reckon the etymology still holds good for the second case.

@Fieldmeasurer kindly contributes this excerpt from Agony’s Anguish self-published in 1931 by George Barker:

    An officer emerges from a pillbox, and with a whisper tells us to make for the distant ruins of a farm. Panting with nervous fear we each make for it, and our steps are shaky as we proceed. I try to run but my limbs are like lead. Plonk za! A near shave that time. Some of us manage it, others get hit and join their unfortunate companions in death.

‘Plonk za’ seems to belong in the linguistic experiments of Futurism. Noticeable also is the phrase ‘a near shave’, not the first time this has turned up in a First World War context.

Eric Partridge's take on 'plonk' is interesting (and he was there): 'Mud, esp. that of no-man's-land: military: 1916-18. (Hence, over the plonk, 'over the top'.) B. & P. [Brophy & Partridge] Ex the noise made when one draws one's feet from the clinging mire. ... 2. Pinky, cheap port, sold by the quart : Australian [Partridge was from New Zealand] : from ca. 1926. Prob. ex plink-plonk'.

In the 1930s the term spread - Partridge notes 'plonk' as cheap brandy sold in Italy (naval slang); and a 'plonk bar', an Australian wine bar, from circa 1935; a 'plonk-dot', 'A confirmed wine-bibber' from 1953; and 'plonko', a drunkard addicted to plonk, Australian since c. 1930.

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