An e-mail (thanks, Eric!) has informed me of the BBC series “Keep your English up to date,” pointing in particular to this post on the expressive word minging, originally ‘smelly, stinking’ and now more generally ‘disgusting; ugly, unattractive.’ I was familiar with the word, but pleased to hear it discussed by John Ayto (there’s an audio file accompanying the text), because I’ve got several of his books on words (Dictionary of Word Origins, A Diner’s Dictionary: Food and Drink From A to Z, and Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms) and it was fun to hear his voice.
But what led me to post was this sentence: “A select list of adjectives we’ve applied over the past hundred years to people or things we find disgusting would include ‘scroungy’, ‘skanky’, ‘manky’, ‘icky’, ‘grotty’, ‘grungy’, ‘poxy’, ‘scuzzy’, ‘onkus’ (that’s Australian), ‘yucky’, ‘snotty’, ‘septic’, ‘gross’… I could go on.” Onkus?? Sure enough, it’s in my Australian Oxford Paperback Dictionary (1 disagreeable, distasteful. 2 not functioning properly, out of order.), the Cassell Dictionary of Slang (s.v. oncus: it can apparently be spelled several ways), and the OED, which adds an interesting bifurcation:
1. N.Z. Good; pleasant.
Quot. 1944 [A. F. St. Bruno Desert Daze 55 Now Auld Jock and Bluey, having successfully partnered a crown-and-anchor board in their Naafi, and having ‘done up’ the feloose A.W.L. in Cairo Y.M.C.A.’s, had arrived back at Maadi decidedly ‘onkus’.] is ambiguous and may have either a good or a bad connotation (cf. sense 2).
2. Austral. Unpleasant or disagreeable. Of food or drink: inferior, of poor quality. Now rare.
The last two citations for the second sense are:
1962 D. McLean World Turned Upside Down 121 All this yabber about Danny is onkus.
1999 D. Seal Lingo 61 Onkus means disagreeable or unpleasant and was used in civilian life between the wars..only to stagger on well into the 1960s, though it is rarely heard today.
Anybody familiar with this pungent word?