Flunk

When “final” means truly finished.

Dear Word Detective: A group of friends and I were wondering about the etymology of “flunk,” as in to “flunk out” or to “flunk a course.” (The more I say it the weirder the word sounds.) Anyway, the usual sources say the origin is unknown, but I like to hear your theories on the matter. No pressure, of course! –Jenny Nunemacher.

No problem. I’ve never had fear of flunking. In fact, I’m the only person I know who has never had one of those dreams where you walk into a college class you’ve neglected to attend all semester and discover that the final exam is being held. Perhaps I was immunized by having it happen in real life.

To “flunk,” of course, means “to fail,” specifically “to fail utterly” and often “to fail spectacularly.” “Flunk” is usually used in academic contexts, although real-world uses are also common (“Lenny was cute but he flunked the not-living-in-his-parents’-basement test”).

It is true that “the usual sources” (most dictionaries) label “flunk” as “origin unknown,” but it would be more accurate to tag the word “origin uncertain.” We do know that “flunk” first appeared as US slang in the early 19th century with the general, non-academic sense of “to give up, to back out, to fail” (“They were, of course, exposed to the fire of the red-coats … but they didn’t flunk a bit,” 1850).

But “flunk” may well be a relic of 18th century college slang, inherited from our cousins across the pond. “Flunk” appears to be a modification of the verb “to funk,” British university slang meaning “to flinch or cower, to back out of,” based on the noun “funk” meaning “distress,” possibly derived from the Flemish word “fonck” meaning “agitation; distress.” There may also be a bit of the old American slang verb “to flink,” a variant of “to flinch,” mixed in there.

That noun “funk” is still very much with us, and we speak of someone sunk in a state of depression and anxiety as being “in a funk.” But the “funk” found in “funky” is, thankfully, from an entirely different “funk,” this one originally meaning “bad smell,” specifically a musty or moldy smell, or a smell of smoke (from the Old French “fungier,” to give off smoke”). In the early 20th century, “funky” was taken up by jazz musicians to mean “authentic, earthy, passionate.” So while “funky” cheese remains a bad thing, we can appreciate the beauty of “funky” music.

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