Gonk is a term that has had varied meanings depending on the time period and cultural context. Most famously, a "gonk" was a somewhat egg-shaped or spherical novelty toy with furry appearances, sometimes having small arms and legs as well as goofy eyes, which achieved great popularity in the United Kingdom for a time in the 1960s. Celebrities such as Beatles musician Ringo Starr publicly showed theirs off at the time. Initially started as a joke-based personal project, the toys became well known for having a deliberately kitsch appearance due to their strident outfits, some of them dressed as Merseybeat performers with moptop haircuts, and for also being marketed as collectibles. Several of them ended up shipped as far away as nations such as Canada and the United States.
Londoner Robert Benson invented the original toys, the whole project originally being something of a joke. The vaguely egg-shaped novelty items, often with comical eyes, arms, and legs that went with outlandish outfits, achieved much popularity in the United Kingdom in the 1960s. Several celebrities such as film star Peter Sellers and musician Ringo Starr of The Beatles were publicly supportive. The toy's deliberately kitsch appearance attracted attention, with some having strident outfits such as Merseybeat rockers, and the gonks were marketed as collectibles. Soon, the toys got shipped as far away as nations such as Canada and the United States. Receiving praise from contemporary articles in publications such as the Evening Times and Newsweek, some of the more whimsical looking dolls attracted comparisons in the U.S. to the op art movement.
The company GUND began to sell gonks at a large scale in the U.S. before long, including inflatable vinyl versions. The toys had a reputation for being quirky looking, and homemade toy gonks were made in the same vein by groups such as U.S. Girl Scout troops. They were featured in the film title design of the 1965 science fiction film Gonks Go Beat, a movie created by the exploitation film impresario Robert Hartford-Davis that featured a Romeo and Juilet-like love story mixed in with many celebrity appearances by music figures such as Ginger Baker and Lulu. The movie has gained infamy over the years as one of the worst British films of all time.
In historical terms, gonks were one of the earliest toy crazes in post-war history, though losing the Toy Retailers Association's 'Toy of the Year' title to the 'Action Man' dolls. Later crazes include the late-1990s Furby wave and the mid-2000s RoboSapien. In retrospect, years and years later after the peak in their popularity, some commentators such as film critic Graeme Clark have labeled gonks as "dated and goofy". Those writing in contrast, such as authors Gladys Greenaway and Kathryn Greenaway, have remarked, "Little children love them". The two wrote in the 1970s in praise of how gonks "can be made from almost any material and of any size."
Within some English language countries, the term "gonk" has often been generalized as a kind of all-purpose insult to refer to someone perceived as boorishly silly and unintelligent. Author Martin H. Manser lists "gonk" alongside other pejorative terms for people that came to prominence in the 1960s such as "dork", "dweeb", and "prat". He also writes that later terms somewhat eclipsed the popular use of past common insults, such as the 1970s rise of the profane slur "tosser".
The term Gonk was also used as a contraction for Gonk Troll in the UK in the 1970s.
Outside of the Anglosphere
In some media publications such as anime programs, the term "gonk" will refer to creatures that have grotesque and unattractive appearances, ranging from villainous human and non-human characters to barely described background characters. Gonk beings are often contrasted with heroic protagonists that are young and attractive.
In the fictional universe described in the famous Star Wars trilogy and related stories, mechanical beings known as GNK Power Droids' are often nicknamed 'gonk droids' or simply 'gonks', potentially from the "gonk"-like vocalizations some of them make. They function primarily as portable generators while having a rudimentary kind of artificial intelligence. Author Daniel Wallace has referred to them as "a box with legs". Appearances by the character include in the video game Star Wars: Bounty Hunter among other media.
- "Cheaper toys 'are Christmas hits'". BBC News. 28 October 2009. Retrieved 5 September 2015.
- Macdonald, Iain (May 12, 1964). "Just a Crazy Mixed up Gonk". Evening Times. Glasgow. p. 12. Retrieved September 5, 2015.
- Manser, Martin H. (September 2008). Buttering Parsnips, Twocking Chavs: The Secret Life Of The English Language. Orion Publishing Group. ISBN 9780297856863.
- "Going, Going, Gonk". Newsweek. pp. 106, 109. Retrieved March 31, 2013.
- "'Living Dolls for Christmas". The Beaver County Times. Penn. November 25, 1965. p. B-9. Retrieved September 5, 2015.
- Raiffe, Bruce S.; Alex Baron Raiffe (2005). Gund. Images of America. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing. p. 103. ISBN 9780738537108. OCLC 62380934. Retrieved March 31, 2013.
- "Girl Scouts Work on Decorations for University Women's Christmas Party". Lawrence Journal-World. Kansas. December 6, 1966. p. 7. Retrieved March 31, 2013.
- Clark, Graeme. "Gonks Go Beat". thespinningimage.co.uk. Retrieved 5 September 2015. External link in
- Gladys Greenaway; Kathryn Greenaway (1973). Toy Making. Drake Publishers. p. 30.
- GNK Power Droid - StarWars.com
- Daniel Wallace (July 2013). Star Wars: The New Essential Guide to Droids. Random House. p. 179. ISBN 9780345542816.
- David Hodgson (November 2002). Star Wars Bounty Hunter: Prima's Official Strategy Guide. Prima Games. ISBN 9780761541646.