The Grammarphobia Blog

The subject is noses

Q: I got a case of the giggles when the subject of ponging came up during Pat’s recent appearance on the Leonard Lopate Show. I couldn’t help thinking of an imaginary odor detector that pongs whenever a particularly pungent person enters a room. Ponging? Pungent? There must be a connection way back when!

A: Your suggestion about a possible link between “ponging” and “pungent” may be entirely off base. But then again, maybe not.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the use of the verb “pong” in the sense we’re speaking of (essentially, to stink) is of unknown origin.

To give the verb its full definition, the OED says it means “to smell strongly, esp. unpleasantly; to stink of something.” This usage has been part of British colloquial speech for more than a century.

The OED’s first citation comes from a British periodical, The Marvel (1906): “In its time many things had been tumbled into it, and each had left its flavour behind. ‘It pongs!’ said Mr. Histed.”

Here’s a more recent example, from Jonathan Gash’s mystery novel The Very Last Gambado (1991): “All barkers pong of armpit.”

The corresponding noun “pong”—defined by the OED as “a strong smell, usually unpleasant; a stink”—is a bit older than the verb.

The earliest OED citation is again from The Marvel (1900): “The pong of fride addocks.”

Here’s a mid-century example, from John Braine’s novel Room at the Top (1957): “ ‘What a pong,’ he said. ‘Don’t know how you stand it.’ ”

The word mentioned by a caller to the WNYC show—“ponging”—is a participial form of the verb “pong.”

The word came up, you may recall, in response to a discussion about literary neologisms.

Pat mentioned that Charles Dickens coined a word, “ponging,” to mean declaiming theatrically. That word, which the OED labels theatrical slang, is now rarely used.

Thanks to that caller, we now know that since Dickens’s time “ponging” has acquired a very different meaning.

Today if we described an actor “ponging on the stage,” we’d be talking about a pungent performance indeed!

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