Thursday, August 18, 2011

spunk and spunky

It's our last full day in the US after a (BrE) holiday/(AmE) vacation of nearly a month.  I'd thought I'd catch up on blogging during this downtime, but I started to enjoy actually being on holiday/vacation. Imagine that!

As we rushed to get everything done before leaving my parents' house and my hometown, I asked Better Half to run across the street/road to the (AmE) drug store/(BrE) chemist's to buy a (AmE & BrE) greeting/(BrE) greetings card for my soon-to-be nine-year-old niece. He came back with a very (orig. AmE in this sense*) cute card that was arguably marketed at a younger age group, explaining (with alarm in his voice) that he couldn't bear to buy a (orig. AmE) tweenie-appropriate (not his words) card addressed to 'a spunky girl'.

An hour or so later, we searched with desperation for a place to have lunch with my parents. We'd checked in at the airport, but there is now nowhere in ROC to have anything but a cookie or a pretzel outside (of) the security zone, and our usual diner across the road had closed down. (We found later that JFK is no better--couldn't find a 'proper' restaurant in which to eat after collecting our luggage/before going to our foodless hotel. I blame Homeland Security. And, America, why don't you put sensible things in your airports after security? Like a drug store/chemist's where one could buy baby food and sunscreen in order to get around the 3-oz./100 ml rule? UK airports [orig. AmE i.t.s] rule, oh yeah!)  We ended up at a local (orig. AmE i.t.s) chain restaurant about which the less said, the better. But it thrilled by being in the same (orig./chiefly AmE i.t.s) plaza (i.e. set of retail businesses sharing a [AmE] parking lot/[BrE] car park) as this gym:





And this had BH clamo(u)ring** for a blog post on spunk

Spunk came up, so to speak, in my last post, because the American Heritage Dictionary gave it as a synonym for gumption. And there I had the footnote:
* I've no doubt that some readers will find this definition humorous, as spunk is BrE slang for 'semen'. But the primary meaning in AmE (also found in BrE, and originating from a Scots/northern England dialect for 'spark') is 'Spirit, mettle; courage, pluck' (OED).
In the comments, a couple of US readers claimed familiarity with the 'semen' sense of spunk, but its use in US business names indicates that it is the 'spirit, mettle; courage, pluck' sense that is called to mind first in AmE. (My research has, however, led me to an adult entertainment business in Australia called "Spice and Spunk Strippers". You're welcome.) In BrE, the 'seminal fluid' meaning has been around since at least 1890, and the other meanings (of which there are many) have been around longer, but many of the other meanings (e.g. 'a spark', 'a match', 'a lively person') seem to be more rooted in northern dialects and may not have had much currency down south when the 'semen' meaning took off. Two meanings that aren't marked as dialectal in the OED are 'tinder' and 'One or other of various fungi or fungoid growths on trees, esp. those of the species Polyporus, freq. used in the preparation of tinder'--and perhaps it is that sense from which the 'semen' sense comes (here's a photo of the fungus, you can judge).

Spunky meaning 'Full of spunk or spirit; courageous, mettlesome, spirited' is not marked as dialectal in the OED, but some of the earliest citations seem to be Scottish. (Well the first one, Burns, definitely is, and the second one has the word lassie in it. For some reason the links to the OED sources aren't working for me.) There is no 'semen-y' meaning in the OED, but it certainly exists. The OED does include a 'US & dial' meaning 'Angry, irritable, irascible', but that's not a sense that I hear used, and the citations are all from the 19th century.

At any rate, the semen sense seems to have taken over British minds--or at least the minds of the under-50s, as far as I can tell. I'd be interested to hear whether people in other parts of the UK have the same impression of the spunk(y) situation. Americans, meanwhile, mostly use the word in with positive connotations--and with a definite feminine bias. Here are the top nouns that follow spunky in the Corpus of Contemporary American English:




So, this is yet another example of Americans innocently using words that sound "dirty" in BrE. And before you comment, please note that there is a £5 tax on this blog for typing fanny pack.***



Oh--and before I go:
If you've ever wondered what a Lynneguist sounds like (after 12 years of anglification), wonder no more! Patrick Cox's latest World in Words podcast is an interview with me about all sorts of things, like how my immigrant vowels have shifted, criticism-softening devices in BrE, and language and social class. He promises a part 2 after his holiday. I had a lovely time (that's me all Britified) speaking with him, as we have converse experiences--he's an Englishman living in the US. I hope it might be of interest to some of you too...




*There are several 'in this sense' originally-AmE items here, so henceforth I abbreviate 'in this sense' as 'i.t.s'.
** Quote: "You could blog about that."
*** Payable to: http://www.msf.org/


45 comments:

mollymooly said...

"Blackadder" fans will remember Hugh Laurie as the upperclasstwit junior officer ejaculating, "let's give Gerry a taste of our British spunk!" (Cue canned laughter.)

alai said...

Today I learnt:
"Spunk" meaning "semen" is originally a BrE term.

huh. :)

NFAH said...

Did no one in the previous thread mention the "funky spunk" episode of Sex and the City?

vp said...

You have an intriguing mixture of US, South African and Brit :) (also a bit of Canadian raising, but that's common in the North East US as well).

"Water" was my first Americanized word too!

sKim said...

First episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970) has Mary standing up to crusty Lou Grant in her job interview. He tells her "You've got spunk." She is pleased, until he says "I hate spunk."

Anonymous said...

This AmE speaker has different connotations for "spunk" and "spunky". Spunky is entirely innocent, but spunk can elicit a juvenile giggle. It is a pretty widespread slang term for semen, even if it's less common than a couple others.

Lindsay said...

Re: the fungus being a possible origin of the dirty sense of the word.

Isn't the origin simply the idea that a man's energy and spirit comes from his... testosterone? Much like "having the balls" to do something.

Narmitaj said...

@ mollymooly - Blackadder Goes Forth was filmed in front of a studio audience, so it wasn't canned laughter. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackadder_Goes_Forth#Taping

Martin J Ball said...

OMG - 'water' (and 'garage') was among my first Americanized words!

CaitieCat said...

Funny, we'd have said "over the road" in our house - before we moved to Canada - rather than "across the road". This'd be Watford and area, working-class.

Anonymous said...

At an early age I ran into the difference between two AmE versions of "water": Rochester vs New Jersey. My sisters and I had picked up an extreme vowel in Rochester that was laughed at in NJ.

(By the way, I am commenting anonymously because the blog is not accepting a url for me that it always accepted before. Anybody else having this problem?)

sparklenight said...

My then-teenage brother's friend brought these delicious mints back to the UK as a hilarious souvenir of Disneyworld in Florida.

Roger Owen Green said...

So if Lou Grant had meant 'spunk' in the BrE sense, would this have meant that he weas sexually harassing Mary Richards?

Anonymous said...

It's not a word I ever use, but I think of it as meaning "energy, initiative", perhaps because my mother came from the North of England.

Kate (Derby, UK)

Anonymous said...

After listening to this podcast, I finally got your alter ego. Reading it, I had never quite understood it...

Robin said...

AmE, Midwest. I use "spunky" exclusively for "gumption," but "spunk" usually means "semen" (though I recognize and understand the other meaning.)

Marc Leavitt said...

I always think of spunky as an "Our Gang" sort of word or as a synonym for plucky. Under the Learning Never Stops category, it was interesting to learn the BrE slang sense.By the way, your idiolect has overlays of southeastern British, but I would still never place it as anything other than AmE.

ros said...

I am almost tempted to use the forbidden phrase, just because MSF is such a great organisation!

Sally Kennett said...

I don't know whether it's the result of reading too many Nancy Drew books in childhood, but my first understanding of spunk or spunky is the sense of pluck or gumption as well, though I am aware of the slang meaning.

(Late 30s, south-west England native BrE speaker.)

pussreboots said...

As the anonymous poster pointed out, The Mary Tyler Moore Show made spunk a household word for a woman with an excess of gumption. I think it's a generational thing, though. I haven't heard any teens or younger use spunk or spunky.

Solo said...

In the film Down In The Valley a character describes a teenage girl as having spunk and her younver brother hopefully asks whether he has spunk too. Reading a British review/analysis, the writer substituted the word 'gumption' in his quote. Presumably to avoid any awkward connotations.
As noted in the previous thread, I often hear spunk as a verb, as in 'to ejaculate'. Or more commonly 'spunked'.

Doug Chaplin said...

I have memories from school some 35 years ago of a whole class of us pubescent English boys collapsing in giggles (much to the disgust of our teacher) at the references in Tom Sawyer to "spunk water". The meaning of (if I have it right) water in tree stumps is one you don't observe here.

Zhoen said...

So, this USA Today headline probably wouldn't please the royal in-laws?

"Pippa Middleton, Sophisticated, spunky, sporty"


http://travel.usatoday.com/gallery/Pippa+Middleton,+Sophisticated,+spunky,+sporty/G2588

Solo said...

It's probably true. these private school girls you know.

Gary Lefman said...

England hosted two extremely popular Australian soap operas a day during the 1980s. There was so much prime time spunk being exchanged on the television that it wouldn't surprise me to learn that the preconceived notions of the term, by the youth of that decade, had been replaced by a completely different definition.

Of course, I carefully chose "preconceived notion" because in the 1970s a friend of mine spat on the floor and declared "That's spunk!". As an independent and self-opinionated six year old I decided to ignore her.

Alan Walker said...

In Australian English, the semen usage has spawned (so to speak) spunky, meaning sexy, and spunk, meaning a sexually attractive person. These terms have a slightly raunchy flavour to them, but are freely used in the mass media.

A spunk could be someone of either sex, and so could a 'spunk rat' I think. But a 'hunk of spunk' is most likely male. This latter expression was popularised by the TV comedy series 'Kath and Kim', but Google Books reveals it was in use in the 1980s.

Richard Howland-Bolton said...

And not just people under 50 I was born in East Anglia 64 years ago and the 'sementic' connotations of spunk are primary for me.
There are quite a few terms where we are naughtier in the UK: a good example being "to knock [someone] up" (for wake, and I freely admit to an evil delight in telling my colleagues down here in TX about the noble profession of Knocker-Upper).
btw I too have experiences of ROC: I lived for many years in Swillburg. Ah! I miss winters!

Richard Howland-Bolton said...

PS
You may find this marginally amusing

mwncïod said...

I'm surprised the US brand name "Otis Spunkmeyer" hasn't changed it's name for its UK company branch based in Bristol?

Stan said...

I have used these words, particularly spunky, but not very often — partly because of the potential for lewd reinterpretation. You could say spunk is a bit skunked.

Recently I saw an ad looking for a "Thrusting, funky editor". Thrusting! Thrusting with spunk, or just funk?

P.S. I loved your interview with Patrick Cox, and included it in my latest round-up of language links.

HarlequiNQB said...

British Comedy's of the 80's and the forbidden phrase put me in mind of this scene from Filthy Rich and Catflap:

The boys are shown as orphan children in a Dickensian setting, above them is a portrait of a woman; it is implied they may be her children, and that she has died. Two men stand beside them in conversation, one indicates the portrait.

"But look doctor, surely you can see the resemblance? These young boys look just like my Fanny!"

Que guffaws of laughter from the studio audience.

In other news, I've discovered that my Americanised accent vanishes mere minutes after entering the UK (to be replaced by my native Welsh), as does my ability to put them on. It, returns in the airport Stateside. The reverse is not true, I can do a variety of British accents on either side of the pond. Very peculiar.

Alan (Fred) Pipes said...

As a BrE speaker I 'd say both meanings of spunk are now archaic. What makes me wince are the porn words for semen: come/ cum - I can't help thinking of gentile towns such as Chorlton - cum-Hardy...

John Burgess said...

As a 60+ AmE speaker, I was book-familiar with 'spunk' in the fungus and tinder senses (see also, 'punk') from a relatively young age. 'Spunky' was clear enough from context in books like Nancy Drew or The Hardy Boys. But 'spunk' as semen is solely from reading. I've never heard it used in that sense, in either the US or UK. Perhaps I'm living a sheltered life.

Max Wheeler said...

OED 3 (under revision) has attestations of = 'semen' from c. 1890 and 1896, and a lexicographic quote from 1923 J. Manchon Le Slang 289 Spunk,‥2° courage, vivacité, feu; on dit de préférence mettle, parce que 3° O[bscène] (= come, s.).

Ben said...

spunk on yer chebs. We brits do rule :-)

darrenp said...

Hi Lynn(e),

I'm curious... Somewhat satisfyingly, in your interview you said 'grain of salt' rather than 'pinch of salt'. According to http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/take-with-a-grain-of-salt.html, the latter is more common. Is there a BrE/AmE difference?

lynneguist said...

Yes, there is. It was a Twitter Difference of the Day in July.

darrenp said...

Excellent. :-)

Mike said...

Canadian English is like both AmE and BrE. I am familiar with most of the terms, but chemists's is new for me. Likely have heard it used and not made the connection. Interesting.

Mo said...

As a (Br) child I was puzzled for a while by the reference in Tom Sawyer to spunk-water, found in a spunk-water stump. I guess this must be about the fungus?

Eric said...

I was born in 1941. In the 1950s in the UK spunk was the usual slang term for sperm.

An early porn magazine - with loads of airbrushing - was called Spick and Span, seemingly with allusions to spunk.

Also jack was an erection.

Eric said...

I was born in 1941. In the 1950s in the UK spunk was the usual slang term for sperm.

An early porn magazine - with loads of airbrushing - was called Spick and Span, seemingly with allusions to spunk.

Also jack was an erection.

jemester100 said...

I don't know any young person in the UK that would think of anything but semen when they heard the word "spunk". There would be some pretty weird expressions if you had an american girl say "I'm full of spunk" to and English guy, I can tell you. lol

Steph Lewis said...

I'm 30 & BrE speaker. Although familiar with spunky as someone full of gumption I could not say they were full of spunk without laughing & we are so not going there with fanny as the AmE for bottom...

The British (i'm half Welsh (& half German ) but lived most of my life in the Westcountry) smuttiness must be a fairly recent thing as there used to be plenty of women called Fanny & men called Dick back in the day but I would have to snigger if I come across either name!!

However BrE always has been a lover (I'm thinking famously of certain Shakespeare plays) of wordplay particularly with double entendres (sp?) Although I always say: it's not that the mouth it comes out of but the mind it goes into [that's dirty minded]. Of course that in itself can be taken either way!

Kate Bunting said...

Certainly Fanny used to be the standard nickname for women christened Frances, and Dick for Richard. I suspect that Fanny went out of fashion, like other Victorian names, in the 20th century and the vulgar slang use has stopped it from coming back into favour like Daisy, Ruby etc. have. You do occasionally come across men called Dick (e.g. the TV presenter Dick Strawbridge).