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Surprising word stories: Mr Punch, Dr Murray, and the first tonk

Surprising word stories: Mr Punch, Dr Murray, and the first tonk

Many sports fans will be familiar with the verb tonk, which is widely used to describe the action of giving a ball a good firm hit. Less familiar, but common enough, is the noun tonk describing the same action. Both are of course in the Oxford English Dictionary, with histories traced back to the early twentieth century. Both entries are currently awaiting revision; when they are revised, we will be able to extend the history of each word using the evidence in our files, which already contain earlier examples of both. Our current earliest example of tonk (noun) comes from a rather surprising source.

A catalogue of fiction

In June 1904, an article entitled ‘Mr. Punch’s Autograph Sale’ appeared in the humorous magazine Punch. The article appeared to consist of extracts from an auction catalogue, but like much else in Punch, it was a spoof. But among the items from the supposed catalogue of autograph letters—all of which were supposedly from well-known public figures of the time—was one whose author was given as ‘Murray (Dr.), Lexicographer’: in other words, our very own James Murray, first Editor of the OED. The letter was addressed to a famous Scottish golfer of the day, Robert Maxwell, and was, unsurprisingly, on the subject of golf. The excerpt of this letter (as given in Punch) is worth quoting in full:

Being anxious to render my Dictionary complete in the terminology of pastime, I have been recommended to apply to you for enlightenment in reference to certain words with which my unassisted intelligence is unable adequately to cope. (1) Tonk. I see it stated in the report of a recent match that Mr. Edward Blackwell “hit a tremendous tonk off the fifteenth tee.” My friend Professor W. W. Skeat is of opinion that the word is purely onomatopœic. For my own part I am inclined to connect the word by Grimm’s law with the mystic vocable κόγξ, unless indeed it may be derived from a surname. There is, I know, a well-known artist of the name of Tonks. Perhaps there may also be a golfer of the same name, distinguished for the vigour of his stroke. (2) Can you kindly supply me with definitions differentiating the exact meaning of foozle, fluff, and flub? (3) Is the phrase plusser, i.e. a plus man, generally accepted?

According to Punch, the successful bid (of thirty shillings) for this letter was said to have been made by the remarkable tennis player and all-round sportswoman Lottie Dod, who is still the youngest-ever winner of the ladies’ singles title at Wimbledon. There was of course no such auction, and no such letter; but it’s a good imitation of Murray’s epistolary style. And he was well known for writing letters to experts in various fields, asking for help with particular words. (Incidentally, the ‘mystic vocable’ κόγξ was part of a formula supposedly uttered during the Eleusinian Mysteries in ancient Greece—and hardly something that Murray would have considered likely to be connected, by Grimm’s Law or otherwise, with tonk.)

A stroke missed

Ironically, a few years later when work on the Dictionary finally reached the letter T, Murray didn’t include an entry for tonk, either as a verb or as a noun. It may well have been that he didn’t have enough evidence—and we don’t know whether the evidence in front of him included the excerpt from Punch. An entry for both words was added in the Supplement to the Dictionary that was published in 1933, eighteen years after Murray’s death. Would he have been amused at the idea of ‘his’ letter now being considered as a possible antedating? It’s hard to tell.

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