Why So Much Is ‘Bonkers’ Right Now

Is something in the news abnormal? Unprecedented? Totally wacky? Thanks to British English, there’s a perfect word for that.

Mike Blake / Reuters

On Friday, as a capper to a week that included a steady stream of breaking news about the doings of the Trump administration, Mother Jones sent a note of reassurance to its readers: “It’s Not Just You,” the magazine declared: “This Week Was Bonkers.” Vox, the same day, reporting on the movies of the Cannes Film Festival, announced that “Netflix’s Okja is a bonkers corporate satire starring Tilda Swinton and a superpig.” The Daily Beast, on Monday morning, wrote about David Lynch’s newly returned show, reporting that “Twin Peaks Is Back and More Delightfully Bonkers Than Ever.” The conservative political strategist Rick Wilson recently described the current situation of many of the president’s supporters in the government: “They’re afraid of Donald Trump going crazy,” he said—“you know, ripshit bonkers on them.”

“Ripshit bonkers” is an especially felicitous turn of phrase—Wilson later told the linguist Ben Zimmer that, as far as “ripshit” went, “my first memory of that word was from my (very) German great-grandfather when I was a child”—but “bonkers” requires no extra decoration. It describes things that are amusingly wacky, and, in the least literal of ways, insane: In some small sense, the past week was crazy. The movie was crazy. The new Twin Peaks is crazy.

But “crazy” is a fraught word, these days—and only partially because of its long history of undermining women, as a group. To call a movie or a TV show or a news event “crazy” is also to make light, or at least to run the risk of being seen as making light, of mental illness. Same with “insane.” Same with “wacko.” While “bonkers,” too, has a whiff of that connotation—“crazy, mad” is the brief definition Merriam Webster offers of “\ˈbäŋ-kərz,” and Urban Dictionary helpfully connects the adjective to, among others, “batty,” “bananas,” “cracked,” “crazed,” “demented,” “flipped,” “insane,” “maniacal,” “screwball,” and “unhinged”—it is farther removed from mental illness than its many semi-synonyms. “Bonkers,” coming as it does from the verb “bonk,” has a certain zaniness written into it, suggesting craziness of a decidedly whimsical strain. “Fans went bonkers when their team won” is how Merriam-Webster uses the word in a sentence.

So “bonkers” has risen steadily in English usage in recent decades, in some part because, as Bob Dylan might have put it in an early draft of the song, the times, they are a-bonkers. The Huffington Post, in March, offered “4 Reasons Why Trump’s Budget Is Bonkers.” The comedian Jennifer Saunders titled her recent memoir Bonkers: My Life in Laughs. The New York Times columnist Charles Blow, last year, argued that “‘Bernie or Bust’ Is Bonkers.” Cracked lists “4 Ways A Normal American Day Is Absolutely Bonkers to Others.” Jezebel features a “Bonkers” tag. And people on social media regularly assess the news in terms of its relative bonkers-ness—using the colorful adjective at once to undermine events as happenings and to elevate them as entertainments.

Another thing that gives “bonkers” its appeal in American English: The word is imported from the British version of the language, in the rough manner of “cheeky,” and “fancy,” and “twit,” giving it the soft sheen of the foreign. “Bonkers” seems to have appeared in the U.K., for the first time, around 1945: That year, a Daily Mirror article noted, “If we do that often enough, we won’t lose contact with things and we won’t go ‘bonkers.’” (What activity “that” was referring to has, sadly, been lost to time). John Osborne’s 1957 play The Entertainer used it (“We’re drunks, maniacs, we’re crazy, we’re bonkers, the whole flaming bunch of us”), as did Kingsley Amis’s Take  Girl Like You, in 1960: “Julian’s absolutely bonkers, too, you know.”

The precise etymology of “bonkers” is unknown, but it likely came about the way Eric Partridge, in A Dictionary of Forces’ Slang, hinted at in his 1948 definition of the term: “Bonkers, light in the head; slightly drunk. (Navy.) Perhaps from bonk, a blow or punch on the bonce or head.” (“Bonkers” might also be connected to the other verbal senses of “bonk”—to have sex with, as in Mary Roach’s delightfully titled book, or more recently, in endurance sports, to hit a wall.) The word, with its multi-dimensional utility, quickly crossed over to the U.S.; its first known citation in America came in 1965, from the New York Times reporter Israel Shenker, who availed himself of the word’s alliteratively poetic possibilities: “In Paranoia, his newest picture,” Shenker wrote, “Italy’s Marcello Mastroianni goes slowly bonkers sharing bath, bed, and Bedouin with three co-stars.”

Since then, “bonkers” has enjoyed life on both sides of the Atlantic, as an adjective and a proper noun: It has given its name to a board game, and an animated TV show, and a children’s party venue in Columbia, Missouri, and a late, lamented brand of chewy candy:

In the TV commercials for the Starburst-esque treats, Bonkers’ tagline was “Bonkers! Bonks you out!” And that is the sense that is often employed today, as American citizens—members of the media both professional and not—take a look at the world swirling around them and decide that things are, indeed ... yeah. The media? Apple’s new campus in Cupertino? A conspiracy theory about Avril Lavigne? The president? Bonkers all, the people decide. And yet—here is one more benefit of the bonk—the people haven’t, in the end, decided much at all.

“Bonkers” is, despite its zeal for the zany, notably hesitant. It resists making a value judgment. It throws up its hands. “Crazy,” even disentangled from its psychological sense, has a moral valence. So does “insane.” “Bonkers,” though, marvels at the thing while doing very little to judge the thing. It suggests a kind of assessment fatigue on the part of its user, a tendency to find current events not straightforwardly good or bad, but simply abnormal. So the Brits, nearly a century ago, created a word would become uniquely suited to this American moment: a time when news can be so often confusing, and overwhelming, and, all in all, a little bit bonkers.