Minging and Onkus.

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?


  1. I hadn’t heard “onkus”, but here’s the oldest citation I could find: My “Onkus Educator”.

    This article from 1920 defines it as “a somewhat derogatory name, which might be applied to anybody.” In the 1920s there was a comedy act called “Dinks and Oncus“, too.

  2. Wilkes’ Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms says “disordered, out of action, gone wrong” and gives the first reference in 1924.

  3. Matt’s citation is from 1904, which antedates both the N.Z. (1910) and Australian (1918) branches of the OED entry.

  4. In fact, you should alert the OED to it, Matt.

  5. ‘Onk’ seems to be found mostly in onomatopoetic words (bonk, clonk, conk, honk, plonk, stonk) and descriptions of disorder (cattywonkus, onkus, stonker, wonky), rather like the even more restricted ‘oink’ (oink, boink). This is not to deny the existence of ‘donkey’ and the imported ‘conquer’. I wonder if there’s any relationship between the synonymous ‘wonky’ (in British usage since 1918) and ‘onkus’?

  6. John Emerson says

    Awhile back I came across the word “rasty”. The woman I heard it from was Western and country-ish, but I later found out that she had learned it from her daughter and that it’s contemporary urban. It’s worse than nasty.

  7. J. W. Brewer says

    I don’t think I know (might have seen it in writing and not had it register) the BrEng “minging” referenced here. I wondered if there was a connection to the BrEng sexual slang “minge” (which I pretty much know only from books etc.) although fwiw wiktionary has a Romani etymology for the latter (although I don’t know how bulletproof it is) which seems likely incompatible with the Scots etymology for “minging” offered via the link. But the noun is apparently vulgar enough that the late comedian Kenny Everett was not allowed to have a (female) character on the air with the joke-spoonerism name “Mary Hinge” although he had previously gotten away with “Cupid Stunt.”

  8. I may be off on this, but at least in East Europe a lot of the more gritty slang often derives from Romani. The term minge may simply be derived from the Romani word for vagina, but used in a vulgar manner. It is a very common epithet in Romani (at least in Hungary and Romania) One can hear “Xan mo minj” (Eat my cunt”) tossed about alongside the very common formula of “Eat my *various other parts* ”

    Romlex (the U. of Graz Romani project online dictionary: http://romani.uni-graz.at/romlex/) has Lovara “minž – vagina” Welsh Romani: “mindž – vulva” Sinti “minč – vulva” and Macedonian Džambazi “mindž – vagina, female sexual organ 2. womb 3. girl(-friend) (vulg.)”

    Given the large numbers of British Romani who were transported to Australia at a time when Angloromani was still widely spoken, there may be hidden Romani roots behind a lot of Australian slang. (such as “chay / shaj” – ‘girl’ morphing into “sheila”)

  9. Coming back to minging and minge, as far as I know, there is little connection as minging rhymes with singing and minge with fringe. Happy to be corrected of course.

  10. The term minge may simply be derived from the Romani word for vagina

    That’s what the OED (entry updated March 2002) says:

    < Angloromani minge (also in form mintch) the female genitals (1874 in G. Borrow Romano Lavo-Lil) < Romani mintš (also in forms mizh, minzh) the female genitals; further etymology uncertain.

  11. J. W. Brewer says

    I was so unfamiliar with “minging” that I seem to have guessed wrong as to its likely pronunciation, and am happy to have been enlightened on that score by Rory.

  12. Trond Engen says

    there may be hidden Romani roots behind a lot of Australian slang. (such as “chay / shaj” – ‘girl’ morphing into “sheila”)

    Sw. tjej, omnipresent, almost deslangified word for “girl, young woman”.

  13. Stefan Holm says

    A metamorphosis indeed, Trond. Back in the ’60s it was an insult to speak of a girl as a ‘tjej’ and you would be corrected. Today it is the word Sw. females use about themselves – be they 5 or 75 years of age. The word’s Romani origin is out of question.

Speak Your Mind