When I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth back in the mythical 1960’s, people were always looking over their shoulders. The school had a rugged outdoorsman mentality (it was all-male in those days), which compensated rather actively for the intense class work and studying that went on all week. Weekends were devoted to blowing off steam via drinking, skiing, partying, or road trips. The more studious and intellectual were always looking off wistfully at places like Harvard, thinking that’s where we should have gone, while the more rugged among us vigorously performed our ruggedness as if to prove that, in spite of our smarts, we actually were real men. In short, you had to succeed both physically and intellectually.
It was little better in grad school. At Yale there was no rugged outdoor ethos; instead, you had metropolitan envy. People were always looking over their shoulders at New York, and a kind of star system prevailed. Prematurely gray faculty with book-white skin plodded between the department and the library, their outsized reputations trailing behind them like stellar magnetic fields. Between classes, at lectures, during social events you could watch graduate students circling into orbit. Everyone was thinking about position, reputation, and success.
Either way – and not just in the Ivy League – school was all about success. It was about meeting goals set by the institution and its agents, the faculty. We were encouraged to internalize these goals and discipline ourselves to achieve them. School rewarded us according to performance. It functioned as what Foucault would call a “governmentality,” and I mean to lay some emphasis on the last four syllables. As Thoreau observed, “It is bad to have a southern overseer … but worse if you are the slave driver of yourself.” It no wonder that schools would not teach, nor want to teach, about failure. The subject is taboo. And yet it sits on everyone’s mind.
Note how we speak of “failing” a course. It could be construed in the sense of letting down or breaking down, as in “I failed you” or “the equipment (link, chain, bolt, coupling, component, mechanism) failed.” Notice here the connotations of betrayal, disintegration, or collapse counterposed to the expectation of integrity, reliability, or strength. Also of interest is the vivid “flunk”, a word of obscure origin but with a sturdy Anglo-Saxon heft. It has overtones, as well, of “flush”, “thunk”, or “sunk”. The onomatopoeia suggests an inert object falling and hitting the floor or sinking into deep water. Inertia is key: the object has no more energy or life, no power of self-motivation. You can say, “He flunked the course” or simply, “He flunked,” or more expansively, “He flunked out.” Charles Livingston (American Speech 21:1, 16-18) connects it to “funk”, meaning “to shy away from, avoid, back out.” This sounds plausible, but where did the “l” come from? It also occurs in “flop” and “flub”, whose connotations resonate with those of “flunk.” The Oxford Dictionary of Etymology says that “flop” is a variation of “flap.” I suppose a flap would flop if it opened and hit the ground. As for “flub” it, too, is an Americanism “of obscure origin,” arising circa 1920. Since “flunk” (also an Americanism) first appears circa 1800, its “l” does not descend from either of these but may share a common ancestor.
So, if you flubbed your exam and flunked the course, or worse, flunked out, it would certainly create a flap at home!
But we digress …