Real ‘spunk’

By Anatoly Liberman


There was no word spunk in Swedish until Pippi coined it (an event recently celebrated in this blog), but in English it has existed since at least the sixteenth century. It is surrounded by a host of equally obscure look-alikes (that is, obscure from the etymological perspective). To deal with them, I should remind our readers that English, like all the other Indo-European languages, is full of words in which initial s- looks like a gratuitous addition. It pretends to be a prefix but carries no meaning; it does not even make words more expressive. It appears and disappears at will, and no one knows its origin. Linguists call this enigmatic prop s mobile “movable s.” Therefore, when one deals with a suspicious item like spunk, the question arises: “Can it be related to punk?” And if punk has something to do with spunk, where do funk and fungus come in? Etymologists flounder in this net of homonyms and near synonyms, and, as we will see, did not succeed in extricating themselves.

First of all, let us examine all the senses of the words to be discussed below. Spunk means “spark” and “touchwood.” Touchwood is what becomes of wood when certain fungi convert it into a soft mass; once ignited, it can burn for hours like tinder. Touchwood is defined in dictionaries by means of its synonym tinder. “Spark” and “flammable substance” are compatible senses. Spunk “spirit, mettle” can be understood as a figurative extension of “tinder.” The slang sense “semen” (“not in delicate use,” as the OED said about such things in the past) is an obvious extension of “sprit, virility,” though one can say, “You are a spunk,” without overt sexual connotations (the verb to spunk is more explicit).

Since touchwood is not particularly picturesque and spunk is hard or embarrassing to portray, here is an image of Shakespeare's Touchstone, the wise fool in As You Like It. James Lewis as Touchstone in As You Like It, Rehan and Drew production. Source: NYPL.

Next comes punk, again “touchwood.” In Shakespeare’s days, punk meant “prostitute.” The word seems to have gone underground and resurfaced in the memory of the people still living. (No longer “prostitute” but still a derogatory term.) Despite the opinion that punk “strumpet; ruffian” is a coinage of unknown origin, in my opinion, it is not as opaque as most etymologists believe. Multiple words like Puck and buck go back to primitive formations denoting “something swollen.” They often have n in the middle. In Scandinavian languages and dialects, punk refers to all kinds of trash and occasionally stands for “thingy.” Its twin is bunk(e). Whether Engl. punk traces to Scandinavian is immaterial in the present context. Since touchwood is porous and looks swollen, perhaps all the senses of punk belong together (“something bloated, a big fat thing”).

It is harder to tell whether punk and spunk are related. Spunk may be punk with s mobile added. If so, the development was from “swollen thing” to “touchwood” and “spark; fiery temperament, mettle; virility.” The story might have had a happy end if alongside punk and spunk, funk did not exist. The noun funk has been recorded with the following senses: “spark; touchwood (the same as spunk),” “strong smoky smell, especially tobacco smell,” “kick, stroke; anger,” and “fear, panic” (for example, to be in a blue funk). The etymology of each of these senses is problematic, and there can be no certainty that any one of them is connected with any other.

How is it possible that punk, spunk, and funk mean exactly the same? We are, naturally, interested in funk “spark; touchwood.” To be sure, burning spunk might have aroused associations with an offensive smell. While inhaling it, people would become angry, panicky, and, if one is allowed to mention the somewhat overused modern slangy adjective, funky. Such steps are easy to reconstruct, for in semantics no river is so broad that it cannot be crossed by an ingeniously built bridge.

Skeat believed that spunk “tinder’ and fungus are related to sponge (because fungus is spongy). From a phonetic point of view, nothing can be said against his conclusion. Greek had the form sphoggos (gg designated ng) “sponge,” and spunk would be an acceptable adaptation of Latin spongia. However, only the fungus-sponge equation is irrefutable, for none of three English words — punk, spunk, and funk – look like a learned borrowings from Latin. Funk “panic” seems to have originated in eighteenth-century university slang. Although a close analog of the phrase to be in a funk has been found in older Flemish, one wonders how it got there and how it made its way to Oxford, where no one would be fluent in Flemish.

A play on some Latin noun suggests itself, but no such noun exists. To give an example of puns and games in this area, I will retell the entry on the slang word fug from The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. Fug means “stuffy atmosphere”; it turned up in printed texts only in the nineteenth century and may be a blending of funk and fogo, both meaning “offensive smell” and recorded also in the nineteenth century. Compare fogus “tobacco,” a seventeenth-century word, perhaps a jocular latinization of fog, but fug exists as a variant of fog in Scots. We are in a maze with no thread to show us the way.

I keep repeating that a good etymology is like a jigsaw puzzle; all the pieces must find their places. Skeat was a great etymologist, but he left his problem in the middle. Spunk and sponge form a natural union only if we forget about funk. Yet we are not allowed to forget it. Perhaps punk, spunk, and funk interacted at one time. Some senses of all three words were “low” and their figurative senses were probably better known than their reference to tinder. They rhyme, a factor that plays an important role in the history of words, for words do not live in isolation; they fight, fall prey to fatal attraction, and tend to behave like spiders in a jar. Although I am unable to disentangle the knot of punk, spunk, and funk to my or anyone’s satisfaction, my tentative conclusion may not be entirely fanciful. Punk, an almost generic name of a swollen object with analogs outside English, was evidently the “progenitor” of this group. Spunk, according to this hypothesis, is punk with “movable s” added to it, a younger word, despite the fact that some inconclusive evidence points to its earlier attestation. Funk may have a prehistory independent of those two (but it hardly goes back to an Indo-European word like sponge). Yet when it arose, it began to play lobster quadrille with them. Today they are inseparable, even though some senses are obsolete and little remembered. Too bad, there is no spunk “a funky glowworm” in Swedish to help us out.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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2 Responses to “Real ‘spunk’”
  1. John Cowan says:

    Fogo has the semantic doublet hogo, which I first met literally the day before yesterday in Robertson Davies’s 1994 novel The Cunning Man (he’s Canadian). The OED finds it first in the 17th century, and derives it from haut-goût, but I find that doubtful.

  2. W. Frota says:

    How about considering that the word “funk” might have come from some West African language/dialect? Would there be at least a slight possibility?

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