Moneybox

What We Talk About When We Talk About Stonks

Businessman with computer-generated head, arms crossed, wearing a suit, stands next to the word "stonks" and a spiking trendline. The background is a stock board.
A cry for our age. Special Meme Fresh

Americans don’t own stocks these days. They own stonks.

The purposeful misspelling, long a throwaway joke among market obsessives and memelords, has suddenly become ubiquitous as the entire worlds of media, finance, politics, and internet shitposters have intersected over the gyrations of GameStop, all thanks to a plucky, hilariously reckless band of Redditors who’ve pumped the stock’s price skyward to make bank while blowing up some hedge funds that had bet against the ailing retailer, and that are now crying betrayal at the day trading app Robinhood after it cut the action off. #Stonks are all anybody can talk about on Twitter, where it’s become the hashtag of choice for everyone following the escapades, a six-letter shorthand for the absurdity and excitement of the moment. Searches for the phrase have shot up. The original meme (see above!) is everywhere. The stonks man cometh.

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This is not the first time stonks, the word, has had a moment. According to the sleuths of Know Your Meme, it first emerged on Facebook in 2017. The image of a generic business dude with a 3D-rendered head standing in front of a ticker with a giant arrow pointing up, with its suggestion of empty-headed overconfidence, became a popular template for jokes about dumb life and money decisions. (Buy a $10 scratch card and win $5? Stonks! Lose your shirt on Bitcoin? Stonks! Some guy actually tried to trade a kidnapped baby for Big Macs? Stonks!). But mostly, it was just a funnier way to say the word stocks that caught on with people who spend too much of their time on the internet, like Redditors or Elon Musk, who gave the term a big boost with a tweet in 2019.

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Interest in stonks also surged in March of last year when the coronavirus was kicking into high gear and the market dropped like a rock. Speaking completely from personal observation, it’s been seeping further into common parlance ever since. I’m an economics writer, and sometimes colleagues or friends make the mistake of asking me for insights on investing. My usual response over the last few months has been to say, “I’m not much of a stonks guy.”

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The crucial thing about stonks is that it sounds goofy. The proper word stocks is polite and almost patrician with its wide-open “aw” syllable. You can practically yawn it. Stonks, in contrast, is an exclamation, a honk of joy or incomprehension that signals that you don’t take any of this finance stuff too seriously, that you are in it as much for the lulz as the opportunity to actually make a buck. It fits the mentality of day traders who see themselves as party crashers screwing with Wall Street, make memes comparing themselves to the Joker or the Avengers, and might brag about purposely buying shares in a company just as it’s about to crash, as if they were purposely getting kicked in the balls on an episode of Jackass.

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But the phrase has also caught on because it matches the sense of absurdity that actual professionals often feel about the world of investing. If you try hard enough, it’s possible to make sense of the stock market. Sometimes. There are moments where it’s obvious what’s happening: A company craps out on earnings, and its price falls. There’s a pandemic and so everyone buys shares of Peloton and Zoom.* The Federal Reserve signals interest rates will stay low, so stocks pop. The best reporters who cover equities also know how to trace the shrouded mechanisms that drive the action on some days, and the obscure, algorithm-driven hedge fund strategies that can snowball into a route or just quietly skim cash until someone or another is a billionaire.

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But on many days, maybe most days, stocks go up or stocks go down and people are left to make up a rationale for it all, to try and impose a narrative where not much of one may actually exist. On those afternoons, the most honest thing to do is just throw up your hands and post the stonks guy meme. And at a moment that the markets are being overrun, for better or worse, by posters who’ve basically dedicated themselves to shredding the idea that markets are efficient, rational mechanisms for allocating capital and discovering value, tweeting about stonks seems far more appropriate than discussing something as reasonable and comprehensible as stocks. It’s an emotional onomatopoeia for talking about people throwing their money at the market when, lol, nothing matters.

Correction, Jan. 29, 2021: This piece originally misspelled Peloton.

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