spunky

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spunky

Post by glowberrybanana » Mon Mar 07, 2005 8:49 pm

what is the orgin of spunky? where did it come from i would like to know more about the word spunky.
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spunky

Post by haro » Tue Mar 08, 2005 1:54 am

Sarahann, normally I'd tell you to first use the on-line dictionaries mentioned on our home page. However, that may be confusing for once. Pretty obviously, 'spunky' comes from 'spunk,' but the Compact Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary (as well as the American Heritage Dictionary) give us two totally different explanations of the etymology of the word 'spunk.'

Maybe Ken's library can tell us more about this discrepancy. I'd also like to learn a bit about the interesting detail that Merriam Webster says 'spunk' comes from Latin 'spongia' but found its way into English through Scottish Gaelic. It doesn't say the same for 'sponge,' so, if Merriam-Webster is right, it seems that 'sponge' and 'spunk' came into the English language on different paths.

By the way, I also noted that Merriam-Webster mentions the Greek background of the Latin 'spongia' in its 'sponge' entry but not in the 'spunk' section. How come? Or am I too inquisitive?
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Post by Ken Greenwald » Tue Mar 08, 2005 7:19 pm

Sarahann and Hans Joerg, This one was somewhat confusing. But, after a bit of snooping around, I'm fairly sure that I've got it right.

SPUNKY is the adjective which derives from the noun SPUNK. But ‘spunk’ has several meanings.

SPUNK: 1) courage, mettle, pluck. “The soldiers were spunky and determined as they went into battle.” 2) spark, spirit, liveliness, animation, full of life, animated. “He attacked all projects assigned to him with the same tremendous spunk.” 3) wood converted into an easily ignitable mulch-like substance by the action of certain fungi, and used as tinder ( touchwood, punk, amadou, pith) 4) any of the various fungi (usually grew on trees) used to make the tinder. 5) British dialect – small portion or bit, spark, gleam, a small fire, a match

We normally associate ‘spunky’ with the first and second definitions, but all five definitions are interrelated and are all part of the ‘spunky’ story.

The earliest appearance of SPUNK (1536) was in the form ‘sponk’, which was Scottish Gaelic meaning tinder, sponge. SPONK is defined in Samuel Johnson’s 1775 Dictionary as follows:
<“SPONK noun substantive: A word in Edinburgh which denotes a match, or any thing dipt in sulphur that takes fire; as, any sponks will ye buy? Touchwood.”>
SPONGE, which originally referred only to a sea sponge (circa 1000), came also to refer to a ‘sponge’ (15th - 18th century) of various organic matter including fibrous matted roots / fungi /excrescences growing on various plants and trees (oaks, ashes, firs, etc.) some of which were used as spunk/tinder for starting fires – and thus the direct link between ‘sponge’ and ‘spunk.’ The word ‘sponge,’ however, does derive from the Latin ‘spongia’ and interestingly enough, and reinforcing this connected web of words, the word ‘fungus’ is believed to be a modification of Greek ‘spongos,’ sponge. Also, in the Middle Irish of the 11th –13th centuries ‘spongc’ meant, tinder, and, in fact in modern Irish ‘sponnc,’ still means ‘sponge, tinder, spark, courage, spunk.

The first modern figurative use of the word SPUNK to mean spirit, courage, pluck, spark appeared in the work of Oliver Goldsmith, Irish poet, playwright, essayist, and novelist, in his play She Stoops to Conquer (1773). The adjective SPUNKY was soon after introduced by Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1786. (see quotes below.) And both the literal (tinder) and the figurative (spirit, courage) senses of ‘spunk’ appear in Grose’s 1796 A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.’

Early American colonists also used the Gaelic expression ‘spunk’ for ‘tinder.’ And the verb usage ‘spunk up a fire’ came to mean to ‘kindle it up, throw more wood on it.’ And GETTING ONE’S SPUNK UP (1834) became a popular American expression meaning ‘to become fired with courage.’ Incidentally, Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins got this one wrong when it said ‘spunky’ followed along a few years later, presumably implying that this all happened in the U.S. Well (Wiz), they got the timing and the country wrong (it was Burns in Ireland 50 years earlier), but I would attribute this more to plain-vanilla carelessness rather than any deliberate chauvinistic conspiracy. However, the verbal expression SPUNK UP, meaning to show spunk or spirit, to stand up, assert oneself spiritedly or courageously, was a U.S. invention that first appeared circa 1850 (see quote below).
<c1536 “For ane SPONK of small occasioun of unkindness.”— “Boece's (Hector) History and chronicles of Scotland” (1821) by Bellenden, I. page211> [[figurative: spark, fire, light, etc.]]

<1582 “In SPUNCK or tinder thee quick fyre he kindly receaued.”—‘Aeneis’ by Stanyhyrst, I. page 23>

<1646 “To make white powder . . . .The best I know is by the powder of rotten willowes; SPUNCK, or touchwood prepared, might perhaps make it russet.”— ‘Pseudodoxia Epidemica’ by sir T. Browne, II. v. page 89>

<1599 “I feel no SPUNK of faith in me.”—‘His Recantation,’ page 10>

<1669 “That little SPUNK now under ashes must assuredly revive and blow up to a flame.”—‘The Fulfilling of the Scripture’ by R. Fleming” (1801), I. page 172>

<1728 “s.v., Pyrotechnical SPUNGES are made of the large Mushrooms or fungous Excrescences growing on old Oaks, Ashes, Firs, &c.”— ‘Cyclopædia’ by Chambers>

<1773 “The squire has got spunk in him.”—‘She Stoops to Conquer’ by Oliver Goldsmith, I>

<1786 “Erskine, a SPUNKIE norland billie.”—‘Earnest Cry & Prayer’ by Robert Burns, xiv>

<1815 “Ye may light a SPUNK o' fire in the red room.”—‘Guy Mannering’ by Sir Walter Scott, xi.>

<1822-7 “The best ordinary styptic is pressure with an elastic substance, as . . . touchwood, SPUNK, or some other SPONGY boletus [[mushroomlike fungus]].”—‘The Study of Medicine’ (1829), I. page 63>

<c1850 “Just SPUNK UP to the old codger—let him know you are not afraid of him.”—‘Dow, Jr’ in ‘Yankee Humor’ (1853), page 109>

<1856 “Why! that Miss ‘Lizabeth couldn’t keep quiet more’n long enough to get her SPUNK UP.”—‘The Hills of the Shatemuc’ by Susan Warner, page 458>

<1866 “ . . . and sometimes I feel as if I must lie down, and give up trying to do anything ‘but be sick’ for a short time; but I ‘SPUNK UP,’ and have thus far held out, . . .” ‘George Wellington Batchelder’ by Higginson, page 7>
(Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s and Random House Unabridged Dictionaries, Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Samuel Johnson’s 1775 Dictionary, Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue)
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Ken G – March 8, 2005
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Post by Erik_Kowal » Tue Mar 08, 2005 8:23 pm

There is one associated sense of the word 'spunk' that is missing here; in addition to all those listed above, it also carries the meaning 'semen', which Cassell's Dictionary of Slang tells me dates from the late 19 C and has given rise to a number of other terms such as 'to spunk/spunk off' (ejaculate); 'spunk-gullet' (a term of abuse, literally 'fellator'); 'spunk-bound' (of a man, lethargic or lacking in energy); 'spunk-pot' (vagina); 'spunk-bucket' (promiscuous woman); and 'spunk rat' (a rather ambivalent-sounding Australian term for a sexually attractive person).
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Post by haro » Tue Mar 08, 2005 11:05 pm

Erik, I left that sense out because I saw no direct connection to the adjective 'spunky,' although I may be wrong. By the way, I once heard the term 'spunk-bucket' jestingly used for a submarine. Yup. After all, a sub is a metal container full of seamen.
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Post by Erik_Kowal » Tue Mar 08, 2005 11:34 pm

Hans Joerg, in my view there is a pretty good case to be made that "spunk = semen" directly reflects the second of Ken's senses of the word, namely "spark, spirit, liveliness, animation, full of life, animated". After all, semen is not only literally the carrier of new life, many, especially eastern, religions associate both it and the genitals which produce it with the notion of an abstract life force.

Incidentally, your remark about why 'spunk-bucket' can be used to refer to a submarine reminds me of one of my favourite collective nouns, 'wunch' -- as in, 'a wunch of bankers'.
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spunky

Post by haro » Wed Mar 09, 2005 5:12 pm

Erik, I didn't mean to question a connection between spunk and semen. It is too prominent (!) in cultural history to be ignored. I've just never stumbled across the use of the adjective 'spunky' in that specific context. As I wrote, that doesn't mean much, though. English is not my native language.
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Post by Ken Greenwald » Wed Mar 09, 2005 7:04 pm

Erik, Like Hans Joerg, I didn’t include this definition because I didn’t think it had anything to do with the derivation, having appeared about a 100 years after ‘spunk’ and 200 years after ‘spunky.’ However, I do see the later connection you point out to the ‘semen’ and the ‘ejaculate.’

I did find an attempt at an explanation of the SEMEN/SPUNK connection in Barnhart’s Dictionary of American Slang, but it doesn’t really make all that much sense to me. Here’s what he had to say:

SPUNK: 1) by 1773: energetic courage; mettle; =balls, guts 2) noun by 1888 semen: “. . . rushing with their hot spunk in their hands to their microscope—John Irving 3) verb by 1970s [[Cassell’s says late 19th century – that’s a wee bit of a discrepancy!]]: to ejaculate semen; =come: “ . . . the filthy pigs spunking into women”—Herbert Kastele [Etymology: apparently from Celtic ‘spong,’ tinder, touchwood, punk, from Latin ‘spongia,’ sponge; apparently semantically from a resemblance between semen and a spongy excrescence ((I assume this is the fungus discussed in my above response)) found on trees, in which sense the word is found in British dialect]
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It ain’t that clear how semen resembles a spongy excrescence found on trees. 'Spongy' to me means resembling a sponge – things like sponge cake, a kitchen sponge, etc. The spongy stuff, like mulch or peat moss I mentioned in my above response was enough of a stretch, but a spongy excrescence from a tree resembling semen? 'Spongy' just ain’t an adjective I would use to describe semen. Sap-like, maybe. But perhaps the idea is that it forms dribbles down the sides of the tree, as sap and that other stuff would, and is maybe the right color, although not the right consistency – but who goes around feeling excrescences from trees – so maybe Chapman has something after all!

Your explanation, Erik, makes a lot of sense to me and it just seems that Chapman might have worked a bit too hard to somehow get a 'sponge' connection into his semem derivation.

The following from How Not to Say What You Mean – A Dictionary of Euphemisms by Holder is not only amusing but provides an explanation for an obsolete synonym of spunk/semen, SPIRITS, that closely parallels your reasoning for ‘spunk’ as semen.

SPUNK: A man’s semen. Originally courage, and still so used in some innocent and naive circles [[That’s me. (<:)! I’ve never heard spunk used in this way.]]:
<1974 “. . . a term Lady Maud found almost as offensive as Colonel Chapman’s comment that she was full of SPUNK.”—Sharpe>
But for the less innocent:
<1979 “. . . right off there, with my fresh SPUNK in her.”—Keneally>
Occasionally also of the vaginal sexual discharge.

As with the modern ‘spirits’ [[whiskey, etc.]] there is an obsolete use of whiskey [[as spunk]]:
<“SPUNKIE ance to make us mellow”– Burns[[I’m assuming Robert (1759-96)]]>
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SPIRITS: a man’s semen – in obsolete use, the essence of maleness, whence the symbol of courage:
<1627 “Much use of Venus doth dim the light . . . The cause of dimness is the expense of SPIRITS”—Bacon [[I’m assuming Francis (1561-1626), hmm, posthumous]]
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