I had barely started Andrew O’Hagan’s LRB review (archived) of Extinct: A Compendium of Obsolete Objects (ed. Barbara Penner, Adrian Forty, Olivia Horsfall Turner and Miranda Critchley) when I was pulled up short by a word in the second paragraph (my bolding):

Growing up, I worried I didn’t have the requisite gear with which to launch myself as a leader of tomorrow’s people. I set great store by the small things I did have – a tape recorder, a digital watch – though I worried that Kafka probably didn’t have a gonk pencil-topper with crazy hands jiggling under his chin when he was writing The Castle.

What was “gonk”? A quick googling produced the Wikipedia article, which described them as “novelty toys and collectibles originating from the United Kingdom in the 1960s” and said their “signature features include a small, spherical body, a furry texture and two googly eyes.” Then I tried the OED, and their entry (from 1972) had such splendid citations I had to post them:

Etymology: Arbitrary formation.

The proprietary name of an egg-shaped doll. Also attributive.

1964 Spectator 29 May 726/1 Those neckless dolls called—I think—gonks, which witless adults are said to give to other adults.
1964 Daily Mail 2 Sept. 4/3 Gonks..are those nasty, expensive, fat balls of felt and rag that are squatting all over our houses and toy shops.
1964 Daily Tel. 11 Sept. 17/3 The principal of a technical college said.. ‘..We had one with what I believe is a “gonk” cut. His ears were invisible and you could just see his eyes and nose peeping out from under shoulder~length hair.’
1969 A. E. Lindop Sight Unseen xiv. 120 Her hair had degenerated into a gonk style.

I’m pretty sure I’d never seen or heard the term; apparently it’s one of those UK things that didn’t cross the pond. (Are gonks still a thing?)


  1. PlasticPaddy says

    You can find gonks for sale online on ebay, amazon and Tesco (where it seems they are out of stock). Inspection of the pictures appears to suggest the design has evolved to exclude the googly eyes (If this is true, I suspect it is because small children might try to detach and place them in their mouths, leading to untimely deaths and expensive lawsuits).

  2. Keith Ivey says

    The Wikipedia article has a cross-reference to “troll doll”, which is something Americans who lived through the right periods would be familiar with. That article says they’re known as “gonk trolls” in the UK.

  3. I am more familiar with the term gonk in the context of manga and anime, where it refers to an unrealistically ugly (often to the point of looking impossible or inhuman) character design. TV Tropes” concludes what I had also figured, that the term was probably derived fom the “gonk” toy name. However, the page is inconsistent about whether they toys are actually the right kind of ugly for the term to apply to them.

  4. Bathrobe says

    I have never heard the term gonk. You can apparently buy them online from Etsy Australia, so as an Australian I guess I am the odd one out.

    Wiktionary has the following:

    1. A small furry toy like an ersatz teddy bear, popularized in wartime when production of real teddies stops.
    2. A stupid, ignorant, and/or boorish person.
    3. (New Zealand, military, slang) A sleep; a nap.
    I’m going off to have a gonk.
    4. (UK, crime, slang) A prostitute’s client.

    As always, you have to be cautious about accepting what’s written at Wiktionary. The page actually has a picture of gonks from Australia in the 1970s.

  5. Kristian says

    I have never heard the word gonk before. But the little fuzzy balls with googly eyes are familiar to me. They are sometimes given as promotional merchandise. According to Wikipedia they are also called weepuls (another term I haven’t ever heard). But apparently “gonk” is a broader category.

  6. Green’s has, from 1973 Glasgow, “‘Big Gonk’ (a word normally reserved for the inmates of the Lennox Castle Institution for the mentally handicapped),” and from 1977 London, “Gonk, a prostitute’s term for a client. Used contemptuously.” And, to make me happy, gonkulator (1977), “[common; from the 1960s ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ TV series] A pretentious piece of equipment that actually serves no useful purpose. Usually used to describe one’s least favorite piece of computer hardware.”

  7. Bathrobe says

    popularized in wartime when production of real teddies stops and novelty toys and collectibles originating from the United Kingdom in the 1960s is what caught my eye. Which is correct?

  8. It’s always wartime in the UK.

  9. Haha. Yes I remember gonks in the UK: my younger sister had a collection. I think they’re no longer a thing, but I’m no longer in contact with any kids of eligible age.

    Gonk trolls with the goggly eyes and creepy plastic skin did continue longer.

  10. Thank you for recalling this word to my mind… a bit after the 21:35 mark here.

  11. @Kristian: When we had one of those horrible magazine-selling fundraisers in middle school (thankfully, our high school didn’t do that; we always sold candy bars, which I felt was much more respectable), one of the types of prizes we could earn was “safari weepuls.” I’m not sure what was “safari” about them, but each one had gear glued to its furry surface indicating some obvious profession (teacher, police officer, or whatever). It was apparently a different job each year, so maybe the original one had been a Great White Explorer.

  12. Checked with primary school aged children here in Australia – they never heard the word.

  13. Gavin Wraith says

    In the 1970s I used to have a gonk dangling on a string from the ceiling of my garage, placed so that when it was peering into my windscreen I would know that I had reached just the right position to park the car, without hitting the impedimenta invisible from the driver’s seat. It was called ‘Frungeworthy’.

  14. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Despite growing up in England in the relevant period I have a vague memory of the thing, but no memory at all of the word.

  15. A Google image search reveals a bewildering array of toy beings of varying size, material, and phylum. Some of them look familiar to me under other names or no name, but not as “gonk”. It seems the early 1960s ones have a humpty-dumpy vibe incompatible with Andrew O’Hagan’s description, but then he was born in 1968. Let a thousand gonks bloom.

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