Pluck, Pep, & Gumption: Words for Energy and Enthusiasm

happy dog running on beach

Enthusiasm is one of those words with classical roots that can be broken down into parts that tell a little story. It’s from the Greek word that means inspired, and is made up of the Greek word parts en- meaning “within” or “inside” and -theos, meaning “god.” So enthusiasm is literally “a god within,” or an inspiration that gives you energy or appreciation or motivation.

beagle running with ball in mouth

When you pluck something you pull it off (like “plucking feathers”) or pick it off (like “plucking grapes”). The noun pluck can mean “an act of plucking” or be a synonym of tug or pull.

Another meaning derived from this one, “the heart, liver, lungs, and trachea of a slaughtered animal especially as an item of food,” since these parts are removed by plucking (and if it’s about a chicken or other fowl, the feathers would have been plucked as well).

These organ meats correspond to a common English word for courage and energy: guts. Here’s a typical example of how it can be used with this meaning:

I admired her pluck in going after what she wanted.

The noun pluck is also sometimes used to refer the action of making a sound on a stringed instrument, but it’s still a way to say a person has (metaphorical) guts. Words sometimes used with pluck when used to mean “courageous readiness” or “dogged resolution” include indomitable and perseverance.

happy brown dog running over the hill

Pep means “energy or enthusiasm” in informal and maybe old-fashioned language. This is a bit paradoxical because it’s a very young word in English, relatively speaking—it was first used in the early 1900s. It is used both as a noun and a verb:

The puppy we brought home is full of pep.

The economy has started to pep up in recent months.

Pep is short for pepper, transforming the connotation “something spicy or pungent” into the denotation “something or someone energetic.” We see it most these days in pep talk and pep rally, and the adjective that comes from it, peppy, is also a handy way to say “energetic” (as in “a small car with a peppy engine”). Like zip and vim, the one-syllable pep seems to sound like its energizing meaning; using this word can put some pep in your step.

happy dog running in grass

Vigor is a word that came from French in the Middle Ages. It is synonymous with both strength and force, the latter of which also came from French at about the same time as vigor. It’s a word that most usually refers to physical strength but can sometimes be found in phrases like “intellectual vigor” or “mental vigor” as well. It is paired with vim in the fixed phrase vim and vigor, meaning “energy and enthusiasm,” which, you might notice, is what both vim and vigor mean when used alone. This phrase adds a bit of zip (or vim?) with its emphatic repetition of syllables and alliteration, showing that sometimes language gains strength with momentum.

dog leaping in field

Vim is a bit of an odd duck, a word that is now rarely used without being paired with vigor or sometimes vinegar, which, like the derivative of pepper, pep, is a word for something tangy or spicy or pungent that has also come to mean “full of energy.”

In the 1800s, vim was used by itself as a synonym of “energy” or “strength,” as in “There’s a good deal of vim in me yet” or “There was a more vim in his latest speech.”

Vim was first used in the mid-1800s, and may have come from the Latin word meaning “strength” or “energy,” but, given that it seems to have been initially used in American informal speech and writing, maybe it was just an emphatic syllable.

happy dog surrounded by tennis balls

The oldest meaning of zeal was used in the English versions of the Bible, beginning with the first translation made in the late 1300s. That original meaning was “passion” or “ardor of feeling taking the form usually of jealousy or indignation,” a definition that is no longer used today, but one that connects the word to the related word jealous, which has the same Latin root derived from Greek. Yes, the words jealous and zealous are in fact cousins, and the first uses of zeal six hundred years ago overlapped with today’s jealousy.

Today, zeal implies aggressive but positive energy and enthusiasm in an activity or belief, as in “They attacked their homework with zeal,” or “religious zeal.”

puppy leaping over stick

Gumption started out as a slang word meaning “common sense” in the 1700s. It continued to be used that way for many years:

“Going to Oxford may be all right for the classics,” he growled, " but it's destructive to gumption.” Paul Leicester Ford, The Great K. & A. Robbery, 1896

But over time, gumption has evolved in meaning to “energetic action” or “strength and endurance” or “courage and confidence.”

terrier leaping to bite some leaves

Moxie today is used to mean “energy, pep” or “courage, determination,” but it originated as the brand name of a soft drink.

In the late 1800s, several beverages were marketed as patent medicines that were health-giving or nutritious, including Coca-Cola. These drinks usually had sugar and sometimes exotic ingredients in them; Coca-Cola famously initially contained cocaine, and the special element in Moxie was the less toxic gentian root. Later, many of these drinks were marketed as alternatives to alcohol during the temperance campaigns of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Once it was clear that these drinks weren’t really medicinal, they were often marketed as what we would today call energy drinks. The jump from “a drink that gives you energy” to the name of the drink meaning “energy” isn’t hard to imagine.

Moxie still exists, and today is the official soft drink of Maine. It had always been a regional favorite, and Red Sox legend Ted Williams was featured in advertisements for the drink in the 1950s and 1960s.

spaniel running in snow

Fortitude comes from the Latin word that means “strength.” These two words co-existed for a while as synonyms (Shakespeare used fortitude to mean “strength”), but, like so many Latin synonyms of words with Old English roots, the Latinate word has taken on a more abstract meaning. Compare other pairs like shadow and umbrage or dark and somber or flood and deluge or burn and inflame: the Latin-derived words take on the abstract meaning and the Old English-derived words keep their concrete meanings.

In this case, fortitude added to the meaning “strength” the idea that it takes strength of mind to enable a person to endure pain or face adversity with courage. Strength is physical, and courage is abstract: fortitude brings these concepts together into one word.

And we use the phrase intestinal fortitude as a euphemism for guts.

photo of hungarian pointer hound dog

We all know that metal is a strong material. But the literal strength of metal, used for swords and armor in the Middle Ages, when this word came to English from French, was soon used as a metaphor for strength of spirit or stamina. Usually, metaphors for common nouns don’t change their spelling—think of “paper-thin alibi” or “tall tales.”

But when metal began to be commonly used to mean “strength of spirit,” it changed shape as a word and was respelled to mettle. It’s often used with the verbs test and prove:

This election cycle will test each candidate’s mettle.

Next semester will be another chance to prove your mettle in math.

Mettle conveys the solidity and strength of iron as personal qualities. It’s as if the blacksmith of language forged a new word perfectly suited to convey this idea.