I am taking a couple of weeks off and am happy to present tastings by some of the avid word tasters who regularly read my word tasting notes. Today’s tasting is by Janet Hughes.
Antipodean debates about etymology (and other kinds of cultural property) often head swiftly into a cul-de-sac, where Australia and New Zealand both lay claim to the disputed item, and evidence either way is scarce or non-existent. The evidence for munted is typically equivocal for recent slang – late 20th Century, say the dictionaries. They attribute it variously to New Zealand and Australia, and it apparently has a life in Britain too. I wouldn’t be rash enough to arbitrate. Let’s just say I heard it first in 1992 on the lips of an Australian who had “jumped the ditch”.
A taste, then. The short u sound generates two sorts of echoes: sunny, clumsy, funny ones, and grumpy, grudging ones that warn us to watch where we blunder. Munted sets off both kinds. You get grumpy when something is bust, buggered, ruined, beyond use or repair. You might well have cause to grumble; things get munted more often by an accidental or malicious thump or bunt than by use or old age. A thing that is munted has typically had something done to it. (Not invariably: there’s an Australian diabetes support website called muntedpancreas.)
People get munted specifically by alcohol; many sources give this as its primary meaning. It figures in all those lists of synonyms for drunk, redolent of blundering post-fun muddlement, communication reduced to grunts. This sense has elicited some obscene and dubious etymological punts. Let’s avoid the mucky corners of the cul de sac.
People can also be munters, and not just because they bust things, put dunts in bumpers or heads. It generally mean a useless, unattractive person,a runt maybe; munted, you might think, rather than given to munting. But Munter, a petty criminal character in a popular NZ soap opera,was dumb, accident-prone, a bit of a grunter, but loyal and endearing. “Ya munter!” has joined the many Antipodean insult-endearments, and somehow lost a little of its ugly edge.
Munted too has gone up in the world. When huge earthquakes struck the city of Christchurch in September 2010 and February 2011, the destruction was unthinkable, unprecedented, with black sludge bubbling up through the torn streets and wreckage. Sober, standard words just wouldn’t cut it. The commentators reached for munted, with its connotations of complete destruction, beyond restoration to fitness for purpose, by something external. This defective little verb (an orphan participle) began to sprout new derivatives. The distinction between muntage and muntance, for example, is a fine one: the latter perhaps more abstract and conceptual, the former conrete and even quantifiable by insurance assessors. The ugly overtones were precisely what gave this blunt instrument an edge, elevating it from its sullen slang origins to pretty much a term of art.