It's a fantastic word, isn't it? For such an oddball word, I'm guessing it's actually fairly well known, but maybe I just think that's just because I went to UC Santa Cruz and can remember extracurricular activities sometimes officially sanctioned and sometimes not that centered around spelunking. It's cave exploring, in case you haven't heard it. I have to admit that I never visited any of the caves on campus, and didn't really even know where they were. I'll try to rectify that here.
But it was while I was watching The Amazing Race the other night that I got to thinking about the word again. I guess it was when the show visited Indonesia, where the teams had to descend 160 feet into a dark cave to search for a mask and dagger. (Frankly, it would have been climbing the bamboo ladder back up again that would have been my undoing.)
Why is it called spelunking? It's got to be either a foreign word or a made up word and I'm wondering why people were so attracted to it that it's common to use it rather than the more familiar 'cave exploring'. I'm going to guess that it's a real word from somewhere else. Germany?
How about you?
Not made up, though it does have an obsolete source, namely spelunk, which was Middle English for cave. That comes as so often, from the Old French (spelunque or spelonque), back to Latin spelunca and finally to the Greek spelynx.
Here's what's interesting though. Spelunking is kind of a revived word. Apparently a guy named Clay Perry coined the word while on assignment for the Federal Writers Project to describe the activity of a group of men and boys who were exploring the caves of New England in the late thirties and forties. But 'spelunker' soon became associated with cave 'enthusiasts' as opposed to the more serious 'cavers', and a bumper sticker was eventually circulated maintaining that 'Cavers Rescue Spelunkers'.
Typically, this distinction seem to have been lost on Santa Cruz. And I mean that in a good way.
There is another slang meaning of spelunking, but you are going to have to go over to the Urban Dictionary and research that one for yourselves...
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