Last week’s big financial story sounded like April Fool’s in January: Some mischievous day traders on the WallStreetBets subreddit noticed that GameStop, a struggling chain of brick-and-mortar video-game stores, was heavily shorted by Wall Street hedge funds—in other words, the hedgies were betting that GameStop would soon go belly-up. To stick it to the big-money investors, and maybe to make some money themselves, the Redditors began buying up undervalued GameStop stock, which drove up its price: from $4 a share a year ago to about $150 at market close on Friday, January 29. (They also bought up low-priced stock in other struggling companies: AMC movie theaters, Macys department stores, Blackberry. Yes, Blackberry is still around.)
There’s a lot more to the story than my synopsis; CNN Business reporter Allison Morrow broke it down concisely and clearly, and Bloomberg’s Matt Levine did his best to find The Meaning of It All.
Me, I’m going to stick to my own stock in trade: words.
Gamestonk!! https://t.co/RZtkDzAewJ— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 26, 2021
Who knows what Elon Musk was signaling when he tweeted “Gamestonk!!” on January 26, but everyone who followed him, or the story, knew what the stonk part of the tweet meant. It’s a word that’s been around for a while, usually in plural form, for several years. On July 8, 2019, it was added to Urban Dictionary with a fuzzy definition: “A term to express a financial decision that resulted in financial gain. Mostly used ironically.” Dictionary.com includes it with a clearer definition: “a deliberate misspelling of stocks, as traded on the stock market. It is often used to refer to such stocks—and to finance generally—in a humorous or ironic way, especially to comment on financial losses.” (Note the contrast with the “financial gain” definition in Urban Dictionary.)
This June 21, 2019, tweet antedates the Urban Dictionary entry by a couple of weeks.
by Retardy McMemester June 21, 2019
The character in the image is known as Meme Man
According to Know Your Meme, the Meme Man stonks image made its debut in a June 5, 2017, Facebook post; it then spread to other sites over the following months. In the meme, stonks is used as a sort of interjection or comment on a financial transaction (usually a losing one).
As Matt Levine put it in a footnote to his Bloomberg opinion piece: “A ‘stonk’ is like a stock, only, you know …this.”
How and why stocks become stonks isn’t immediately clear, but I can suggest a couple of ways to look at it:
- Some other words with the CB-V-CB pattern (consonant blend-vowel-consonant blend) have been slang-ified into words ending in -onk. “Chunky,” for example, becomes chonky in the playful vocabulary of DoggoLingo. Chonky was originally used to describe overweight cats but is now used for other animals. Similarly, funky can become fonky. Something about the elongated o vowel and the always-humorous k consonant is just fun.
- There may be some influence of an older stonk: World War II–era slang of possible “echoic” origin (according to the OED) that meant “to bombard with concentrated artillery fire.” (This, by the way, is the only definition of stonk in Merriam-Webster online.) By the 1980s stonking was being used in Australia as a positive modifier to signify “powerful” or “excellent.” (Compare the migration of “bomb” from “failure” to “something really good” and “bombshell” from “destructive weapon” to “alluring young woman.”) Stonking was one of my words of the week back in 2008, when I began noticing it in American fashion copy.
For further reading:
“How a Group of Redditors Is Creating a Fake Stock Market to Figure Out the Value of Memes,” Lizzie Plaugic’s January 2017 piece for The Verge that anticipates the GameStop business by four years. The Reddit team, Plaugic wrote, is “calling the[ir] trading tool NASDANQ, a cheeky financial system for an alternate universe adjacent to our own where meme is king.”
“Chicken Tendies and Options Trading: How Coronavirus Turned Memelords into Stock Magnates,” by Kyle Farrell (undated, appears to have been published in 2020)
“The GameStop Fiasco Proves We’re in a ‘Meme Stock’ Bubble,” by James Surowiecki (January 26, 2021)