Ever wonder where the word mondo comes from? As used in a phrase like “a mondo party” or the old magazine title Mondo 2000, it has connotations of bigness and hipness and weirdness. It gets used precisely because of its imprecise implication of coolness. Brandish it with a swagger and nobody will challenge you, being thereby intimidated by the Louis Armstrong principle: “Man, if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know.” Of course, the word mondo is Italian for world, but how far does that get you? Why does the Italian word for world mean big and weird in English? The answer comes from the wildly successful 1962 mondo movie, Mondo Cane, or A Dog’s World, sometimes called the very first shockumentary. Old hat now, but wildly outrageous at the time. Here’s a good NY Times article about it:
Dispatches From a World Gone Wonderfully Wrong.
Pop culture words implying coolness are famously difficult to pin down. My favorite is funky. Try to explain to a foreigner just exactly what funky means. You can’t do it. But you can happily use it in a sentence. How does that work? Here’s a lovely quote from dictionary.com about the word history of funky.
When asked which words in the English language are the most difficult to define precisely, a lexicographer would surely mention funky. Linguist Geneva Smitherman has tried to capture the meaning of this word in Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America, where she explains that funky means “[related to] the blue notes or blue mood created in jazz, blues, and soul music generally, down-to-earth soulfully expressed sounds; by extension [related to] the real nitty-gritty or fundamental essence of life, soul to the max.” The first recorded use of funky is in 1784 in a reference to musty, old, moldy cheese. Funky then developed the sense “smelling strong or bad” and could be used to describe body odor. The application of funky to jazz was explained in 1959 by one F. Newton in Jazz Scene: “Critics are on the search for something a little more like the old, original, passion-laden blues: the trade-name which has been suggested for it is ‘funky’ (literally: ‘smelly,’ i.e. symbolizing the return from the upper atmosphere to the physical, down-to-earth reality).”