I came across a sentence in Word by Word by Kory Stamper which was:

This complaint was an onion of suck, layer after layer of problems.

As the sentence is authored by a lexicographer, I hoped some dictionary would surely help me out. But most of the dictionaries seem to converge in this definition:

an act of sucking or drawing in

But I don't think I can figure out the word's meaning in that context using this definition. Help me out.

  • I am not sure I can find a self-citation to back it up, but IMO Kory Stamper liked to push the boundaries of English usage, or be creative if you like. Mar 28, 2020 at 12:40
  • The expression an onion of suck would probably be "comprehensible" to most native speakers given the relevant context (if Stamper didn't think that he presumjably wouldn't have written it in the first place). But I'd be quite prepared to believe the actual cited instance is a totally unique one-off usage that may never occur again. You'll find the occasional written instance of metaphoric an onion of oddity / discovery / secrets / ..., but suck here is a very unusual (and recent) "slang nounification". Mar 28, 2020 at 17:03

1 Answer 1


It's a deliberately mixed metaphor, but the sentence you quote even explains what it means.

Something that "sucks" is bad or unpleasant. It is North American slang.

An onion is often used as a metaphor to describe something that is multi-layered.

Your quote "an onion of suck" is explained within the same sentence when it says "layer after layer of problems". So it is something multi-layered, and every layer "sucks", or is bad.

  • I wanted to ask because dictionaries do not define 'suck' as a noun to mean something that sucks but instead an act of sucking, so just reading noun definitions of the word from dictionaries won't help to interpret the meaning from the sentence. In that sense that use of 'suck' to mean something that sucks is nonstandard because dictionaries don't give any such noun definition of the word. Correct me if I'm wrong.
    – kelvin
    Mar 28, 2020 at 13:08
  • 2
    The use of 'suck' in that way (non count noun, meaning 'badness') is so new, slangy, and confined to certain groups of people, that dictionaries have not yet incorporated it. Mar 28, 2020 at 13:26
  • @MichaelHarvey I had no trouble finding this slang definition in the dictionary. It's in Cambridge and Oxford, the third definition in both.
    – Astralbee
    Mar 28, 2020 at 19:54
  • @kelvin Take a look in Cambridge dicitionary or Oxford (Lexico) - these are the two most widely respected dictionaries and the slang definition is in both.
    – Astralbee
    Mar 28, 2020 at 19:56
  • @Astralbee those definitions are for the familiar verb, as far as I can see. Mar 28, 2020 at 19:59

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