spunk

The noun spunk came up on ADS-L recently, in two different senses: ‘spirit, mettle; courage, pluck’ (OED2, with citations from 1773 — Oliver Goldsmith — on) and the “coarse” sexual slang ‘seminal fluid’ (citations from c1890 — My Secret Life — on); the original senses were for various kinds of spark, from which the other two developed.

The ‘pluck’ and ‘semen’ senses have co-existed for over a century, in both British and American English. So we have this bit from the first episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, in an achingly funny job interview between Mary Richards (played by MTM) and Lou Grant (played by Ed Asner):

Lou: You know what? You’ve got spunk.
Mary: Well, yes …
Lou: I hate spunk.

(and then of course he hires her). In this context, spunk is at most a bit slangy, but not suggestive.

On the other hand, here’s John Irving in The World According to Garp (from the OED), in a comic turn:

The boys were beating off, in turn, and rushing with their hot spunk in their hands to the microscopes in the infirmary lab—to see if they were sterile.

These are both U.S. sources. There was some question on ADS-L about the status of the two senses in current British English, with the suggestion that the sexual slang is driving out the older ‘pluck’ sense. Hard to tell from the small sampling of cites in the OED.

 

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