Sparky, Jasper, and Bunky

Three morning names a few days ago: used as nicknames, address terms, common nouns. Each with its own story.

Sparky. Three relevant senses of the noun spark are at work here:

(a) the oldest sense: ‘a small fiery particle thrown off from a fire’

(b) a metaphorical extension into the domain of electricity: ‘a visible electrical discharge’

(c) a metaphorical extension of these into human and abstract domains: ‘liveliness and excitement’; hence the adjective sparky ‘lively, high-spirited’

From spark in sense (a) comes a proper name Sparky (with the pet-name suffix –y), naming someone associated with fire, in particular Sparky the Fire Dog, the official mascot of the National Fire Protection Association:


Possibly from this pet name Sparky, or more likely from the adjective sparky ‘lively’, or both, comes Sparky as a dog name, as in Sparky the gay dog in South Park (originally voiced by George Clooney). From the South Park wiki:


Sparky is Stan Marsh’s dog, who is (according to Stan) part doberman and part wolf, and is claimed by Stan to be “the toughest dog on the mountain”. This assertion is challenged, however, by other South Park residents when Sparky’s homosexual nature manifests; first with the mutt Sylvester and then with Clyde’s dog, Rex.

Possibly in the same territory (or possibly related to sense (a) of spark) is Sparky the Sun Devil:


Sparky the Sun Devil is the official mascot of Arizona State University. Originally the ASU athletic teams’ mascot was an owl, then became a “Normal” (named for the Tempe Normal School), then was later changed to a bulldog, in an attempt to make Arizona State Teacher’s College at the time appear more in line with Yale and other universities that held a higher level of respect. The State Press, the student newspaper, ran frequent appeals during the fall of 1946, urging the Bulldog to be replaced by the new Sun Devil. On November 8, 1946, the student body voted 819 to 196 to make the change. On November 20, as reported by the Arizona Republic, the student council made it official. The following day, the first Arizona State team played as the Sun Devils. Two years later, alumnus and Disney illustrator Berk Anthony designed “Sparky”, a devil holding a trident (colloquially referred to as a pitchfork). Anthony is rumored to have based Sparky’s facial features on that of his former boss, Walt Disney. Sparky is officially known as a “mischievous imp”, with no other backstory than that. (Wikipedia link)

Then to sense (b) of spark, which gives us slang sparky (a count noun) or Sparky (a proper name), with the variant Sparks, ‘an electrician’ (“that bloody sparky got the wire crossed”; “Sparky is coming to fix the fuse”) — examples adapted from Urban Dictionary (the word is not in GDoS).

Finally, sense (c) and its derivative sparky ‘lively, high-spirited’, from which we get Sparky used as a nickname (for someone lively and high-spirited), and as an address term (especially from a man to a man) — but then without any necessary connotation of liveliness. This use of Sparky is roughly parallel to some uses of Sunshine (and to Bunky below): a noun or adjective with high affective content serves as an address term, originally preserving the affective content, but then becoming bleached of it (or becoming used ironically).

I told some of the story of Sunshine in a 8/21/16 posting. In many of ts uses as an address term, it’s strongly positive — as when Debbie Novotny (Sharon Gless) uses it affectionately to Justin Taylor (Randy Harrison) in the (U.S.) Queer as Folk. But it’s subject to being taken ironically, so in some UK contexts — notably in interactions between (male) cops and (male) suspects, it’s “used as a form of address, often patronizing with an underlying note of disapproval or threat”.

It’s possible that some irony has been creeping into the use of Sparky as an address term, but I don’t have the data to check on the matter.

Jasper. This one starts with the man’s personal name, and goes on from there. From GDoS:

1 (US) a man, esp. a rustic, a person. [first cite 1894 Boston Daily Globe: A countryman is either a ‘Rube’ (Reuben) or a ‘Jasper’; 1914 Flying U Ranch: like him and that other jasper over there done to Andy] 2 (US) a black person [frst cite 1914] 3 (US) the penis [only cite 1955, from Vance Randolph’s Ozark Folksongs and Folklore: In shot old Jaser, Lucy got it all. / Lucy a got baby, after the ball.]

(Sense 3 illustrates the very frequent metonymy in which a man’s name is used for ‘penis’,)

From a 11/17/10 posting on the address terms sport and pal (again, primarily male-to-male):

it might be that people who use sport for male address … see it as coming from a different subterritory of the address-term domain: names (like Joe) and nicknames (like Mac) converted to generalized male address (in which case, there’s some inclination to lower-case the word in writing): “Hey, mac, can you tell me how to get to the arcade?”. (This one makes it into the OED, draft revision of June 2009: “colloq. Used as a familiar form of address to a (male) stranger”, with both capitalized and lower-cased cites.)

My suggestion is that some people might connect address-term sport to Sport used as a nickname (in the way that other nouns — Killer, for instance — and many adjectives —Red and Tiny, for instance — are so used).

The term is now decidedly old-fashioned, close to obsolete.

A bit more on the passage of male proper names to generic address terms, from a 8/14/14 posting about a Zippy:

Zippy calls the counterman Stan, once in each of the four panels; in the third panel, the counterman objects that his name is Lester, but Zippy pays him no mind. What’s going on here?

It seems likely that Zippy is using Stan as an all-purpose address term for a man, for someone whose actual name is unknown or unimportant (palbuddy, and some other nouns are also used this way, trading on the use of these as affectionate address terms). Other men’s names, in particular Charlie, are used this way on occasion, and in fact Zippy is given to this usage, especially in diners.

Bunky. Or however you spell it. This one goes from common noun to (proper) address term. From GDoS:

bunkie (also bunkee, bunkey, bunky) [US army use bunkie, a bunkmate; thus a friend] 1 (US milit. / campus / prison) a room-mate, a cell-mate; a friend [first cite 1858] 2 (US) a general term of address, usu. condescending. [first cite 1899]

The general term is now rare, though possibly kept alive by Eddie Lawrence, the Old Philosopher. From Wikipedia:

Eddie Lawrence (born Lawrence Eisler; March 2, 1919 – March 25, 2014) was an American monologist, actor, singer, lyricist, playwright, artist, director and television personality, whose unique comic creation, the eternally optimistic Old Philosopher, gained him a devoted cult following for over five decades.

… In September 1956, a single titled “The Old Philosopher” rose to the Billboard Top 40 chart, a rare distinction for a comedy record by a little-known performer. It turned out to be a one-hit wonder for Eddie Lawrence, and paved the way for his long comedy career. In a four-minute routine, a crotchety, ridiculous-sounding character recounts a litany of nonsensical calamities. Speaking in a comically downtrodden, empathetic voice, and accompanied by a flute or an accordion rendition of “Love’s Old Sweet Song,” or “Beautiful Dreamer”, he begins “Hey there, friend” — or “cousin” or “bunkie” or “Hi ya Folks”, or “pal” — “They say that your wife went out for a corn beef sandwich, and the corn beef sandwich came back and she didn’t”? “You say you lost your job today …”, followed by a litany of improbable disasters like “Your daughter’s goin’ out with a convict?” and “Your wife just confessed she spent your last 60 bucks for a deposit on an airplane hangar?” or “Your car’s engine breaks down, and an animal runs off with one of your shoes, while your car sinks in the mud, with your wife screaming”? Pause as the flute or the accordion, retires. Eddie asks plaintively, “Is that what’s troubling you, friend?”

… one last LP appeared, Is That What’s Bothering You Bunkie (Epic LN 24159). Taking its title from “The Old Philosopher”‘s catchphrase, Bunkie contained five new “Old Philosopher” monologues and six other routines.


You can watch the routine here.

3 Responses to “Sparky, Jasper, and Bunky”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Richard Jasper on Facebook:

    My dad always maintained that the frequently employed “jaspers” in “Let’s cut the jaspers off at pass” in Hayes Code westerns was a euphemism for “bastards.”

    The studios might have been using jaspers to avoid bastards, but if so, they were taking advantage of a term from well before the Hayes Code.

  2. JackH Says:

    And Sparky the electrician on HGTV:

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