I’ve noticed over the last few months the sudden explosion of a word that feels like it should have fallen out of use forty years ago.
The word itself was most likely first used in England and first seen there in print in 1945 in the Daily Mirror. It landed in the U.S. in 1965, in a review of the film Paranoia in the New York Times.
Along the way, it changed meaning. Originally, it referred to something very specific, but over time took on a more general meaning. It’s actually had two comebacks. The first was around 2009, most likely due to a song by that name put out by British Rapper Dizzee Rascal, but it quickly faded.
It current ubiquity seems to have gotten its start around 2017, and in the nearly four years since, it only seems to have grown in usage.
So what is this once rare B-word now appearing in headlines everywhere?
When it originated in England during or before WW II, it was most likely slang among the Navy and probably meant “drunk.” By the time it made it to the civilian press and then to the U.S., it came to be a polite euphemism for “crazy” — one that did not stigmatize mental illness because it had a safe distance to it — as well as meaning something that was utterly ridiculous or ludicrous.
It also just sounds like a kid’s word to begin with, something that would be completely inoffensive. Except, now, it’s becoming incredibly offensive via overuse.
If you go to your favorite newsfeed right now and search for “bonkers,” you’ll wind up with a mind-boggling bunch of current headlines. Here are just a few, all from the 24 hour period ending about 9 p.m. on Wednesday, May 19:
CultureMap (Dallas, U.S.): Getting onto the Tollway from downtown Dallas is about to be bonkers
That’s just a sample of five out of the more than a dozen stories in just the last 24 hours, and if you extend the search to a week or month, the number just keeps going up.
By the way, note the source for the last article listed, Second Nexus, because it’s one of the two big offenders in this regard that made me first take note of the phenomenon.
The place I first noticed it was at the website Cracked, which for a long time billed itself as “America’s Only Humor Site.” Unfortunately, it has suffered a sharp decline in quality over the last year or two — but that’s what happens when you fire all of your good, paid writers, and try to replace them with… not as good writers, and then apparently apply no editorial oversight.
Ironically, even as all of the good writers vanished en masse, the quantity of content posted daily went way up, so the quality fell way down, and it quickly became a game of “Let’s see if they actually posted one good article today.”
Oh… along the way, most of their content also became either listicles, listicles generated by reader questions to the Facebook page, or a couple of lazy writers basically stealing Twitter threads, throwing a few sentences between screengrabs here or there, and calling it a day.
But, in recent months, there has been a sudden and definite uptick in the use of the word “bonkers” in article headlines for no discernable reason, describing everything from Marvel movies to strange collections owned by famous people to Elon Musk tweets.
This brings me to Second Nexus, which is one of the myriad of websites run by everyone’s favorite gay grandpa, George Takei. The word “bonkers” has started to seep into the headlines of the articles he shares on Facebook, typically in the case of “Firefighters tell us the most bonkers rescue they’ve ever made,” or “People share their bonkers roommate stories.”
It seems like bonkers should always come in close company with “wacky” and “mad-cap,” but it never does.
And now the word has escaped a couple of online humor feeds and is leaking into the legitimate press with no sign of stopping.
Why? I have no idea, although you do have to admit that for about the last five or so years, the Earth has been a pretty bonkers place, with no signs of slowing down.
Images: The edible kind of Bonkers!