Morning spunk: same word, different word

In a sense, a re-play of an earlier posting, “spunk” of 3/16/11, which was about spunk ‘spirit, mettle, courage, pluck’ vs. spunk ‘semen, seminal fluid’. Now spunk appeared as a morning name for me a few days ago, along with the ‘pluck’ context of the interview between Mary Richards (played by Mary Tyler Moore) and Lou Grant (played by Ed Asner) in the first episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show: Grant: “You’ve got spunk … I hate spunk.”

That led me to NOAD2, where I found a single noun entry with three subentries:

1 informal courage and determination.
2 tinder; touchwood.
3 Brit. vulgar slang semen.

(Note: seminal spunk might be more common in BrE than AmE, but it is scarcely unknown in AmE, as a search will readily confirm.)

Speaking informally, this dictionary presents these three as a single word with three different uses (all of which ae available in my speech), while I would have thought these were three different words which just happened to be identical in spelling and pronunciation. What could possibly unite them?

The answer, of course, is the etymology of these three items (I’ll get to the actual etymology in a little while): the entries in English dictionaries are arranged etymologically, so that pen ‘ enclosure for animals’ and pen ‘writing implement’ are in separate entries, as are bank ‘land alongside a river or lake’ and bank ‘financial institution’, while the mass noun straw ‘dried stalks of grain’ and the count noun straw ‘hollow tube for sucking drink’ are under the same entry, because they share an etymology (the second is a metaphorical development from the first). From the psychological point of view, however, all of these are separate words, as are the three items spunk above. (The two items straw, in fact, have figured in psycholinguistic studies of lexical ambiguity.)

Of course, lexicographers don’t think that the two items straw are “the same word” (or that the three items spunk are); the organization into entries is a convention for putting some order into a huge collection of data. But I doubt that ordinay people using a dictionary appreciate this; they’ll be inclined to think that same entry means same word, different entries mean different words — and then, if they think about it, they’ll be puzzled by things like spunk 1-3.

Actually, ordinary people are all over the map on same word vs. different word.

Sometimes they take the view that same material substance — especially same spelling — means same word, period. So there’s only one bank, and only one pen, and people are sometimes willing to explain why they’re the same word: the crucial feature for pen is containment (both the enclosure for animals and the writing implement contain something — ink, in the case of the writing implement), and the crucial feature for bank is accumulation (the riparian feature is an accumulation of soil, rock, etc.; the financial institution accumulates money). People can be quite earnest about such explanations.

Sometimes they take the extreme opposite view: if you can articulate a meaning difference, then we’re looking at different words: there are two verbs describe, one referring to physical description, the other to character description (see this posting); there are two nouns sweater, one referring to open-front, cardigan-style, sweaters, the other referring to closed-front, pullover-style sweaters; there are several nouns newspaper, one referring to a publication considered as a physical object (I bought a newspaper from a machine), another to a publication considered as an abstract object (The newspaper is published daily), another to the building in which such a publication is produced, another to the institution that publishes it, etc. Such people (implicitly) take the position that there’s no difference between vagueness and polysemy, on the one hand, and ambiguity, on the other.)

I’ll accept that there is such a difference, and forgo discussion here about tests for ambiguity (a complex topic), and go on to the three nouns spunk, turning now to the question of how the language got itself to such a place. The true story here turns out to be not unlike the stories that some people offer about the two nouns bank and the two nouns pen — except that for spunk we have evidence about the historical progression.

Etymological notes. For this we go to OED2, which starts with a spark:

1. Sc. and dial. A spark, in various senses. Chiefly in fig. use
[for example:] 1599   A. Hume His Recantation 10,   I feel no spunk of faith in me.
1815   Scott Guy Mannering I. xi. 175   Ye may light a spunk o’ fire in the red room.

From this, three similar metonymic developments (based on contiguity rather than similarity): from ‘spark’ to  ‘fire’ to ‘that which produces a spark, flame, or fire’:

2. Touchwood; tinder, match, or amadou prepared from this. [amadou in NOAD2: a spongy substance made by drying certain bracket fungi and formerly used as an absorbent in medicine, as tinder, and for drying fishing flies.]
3. One or other of various fungi or fungoid growths on trees, esp. those of the species Polyporus, freq. used in the preparation of tinder.
4. Sc. (and north.). A slender slip of wood tipped with brimstone and used for conveying or producing fire; a match, a lucifer.

This is spunk-2 in NOAD2.

On a separate branch of semantic development, a metaphorical extension from ‘spark’, giving us NOAD2’s spunk-1:

5. a. Spirit, mettle; courage, pluck.
b. In phr. fellow, man, etc., of (..) spunk. [1774   Westm. Mag. 2 10   He is a fellow of Spanish spunk, and will run any man through the body, who dares to censure his portraits.]

And from this ‘spirit’ sense, according to OED2, a metaphorical extension to the body (although the OED doesn’t suggest this, possibly encouraged by the original ‘spark’ sense — here,’spark or (genetic) origin of life’), NOAD2’s spunk-3:

5. c. coarse slang. Seminal fluid. For the sense development, compare the obs. slang mettle, which had the same meaning. [first cite in My Secret Life c1890, which can probably be antedated a bit]

If you looked at ‘pluck’, ‘tinder’, and ‘semen’, you might come up with a story with sparks or fire as the common denominator, but that would be just an flight of imagination; remember pen and bank (not to mention the rationalizations of people who use classical malapropisms). Without the chain of textual evidence, these three items could just be accidental homophones / homographs. (Seminal spunk could, for example, have been onomatopoetic in origin, mimicking the pop of ejaculation — imagine, “The rifles fired, spunk spunk spunk!”)

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