Q From Tim McGowan, Minneapolis, USA: Why does the word funk have so many different meanings? Are they at all related in some distant past, or have they just grown up spontaneously and independently? I first learned of funk when I was growing up (I was born in America in ’63), and then it was funky, meaning cool or groovy (I thought). Then I learned funk was a style of music, and only a few years ago I learned (from Julia Louis-Dreyfus on TV’s Seinfeld) that it can also mean smelly. It didn’t help to look it up in the dictionary; there I learned that funk can be a state of abject terror. Groovy. Stench. Blues. Horror. Are there any connections that can be drawn between these diverse meanings?
A Truly a word for all seasons.
Let’s start with “smell”, which is the oldest sense of funk, dating from the early seventeenth century. It’s suggested it may come from the French dialect verb funkier, to blow smoke on a person or annoy them with smoke, a word that’s probably based on Latin fumus, smoke (and is yet another example of a useful term that’s missing from English). Instances usually refer to air thick with tobacco smoke (some readers may think of fug in the same sense, but the two words are not connected). Though it was known in Britain, early examples came from America, and it stayed active there long after it had gone out of use over here.
The sense of abject fear or cowardice is about a century less old, first being recorded in 1743. It may have appeared first as Oxford University slang. It is usually said that it is a distinct word to the earlier sense, deriving instead from an obsolete Flemish word fonck, fear. (Despite the weight of authority behind this, I can’t help feeling that there was some association with the smell of fear in there somewhere.) Whatever its source, that sense stands alone and isn’t connected with any of the others, though blue funk is directly linked. (In Britain a blue funk is a state of panic or great fear, while in the US it refers more to a state of dejection or depression.)
However, the modern sense of a musical genre and the Black English term funky for something excellent both derive from the surviving American sense of funk for a bad smell. The word funky was around in the 1920s to refer to an obnoxious smell, especially to refer to a person who smelled bad, say of sweat. However, it is certainly older than that.
Several subscribers pointed out that the blues song Funky Butt, which is associated with Buddy Bolden, is known from around the beginning of the twentieth century. Anne Hegerty wrote “At least a hundred years ago there was a dance hall in New Orleans whose official name was Kinney’s Hall or McKenna’s Hall (sources differ) but which was known to local jazz and ragtime musicians and dancers as Funky Butt Hall (ie Smelly Bottom Hall). Buddy Bolden used to play there, and his career ended in 1906”.
Whatever its origins, funky was later transferred in Black English to refer to somebody or something objectionable or worthless. By a process common in Black English, by the end of the 1930s funky was being applied to things that were satisfying, impressive, or generally approved of (think of wicked and bad, two other examples of this kind of deliberate inversion). The music sense — unpretentious, down to earth, rooted in the blues — turns up in the early 1950s as a further evolution of meaning that could consciously hark back to the Buddy Bolden song. The noun funk in this sense is a back formation from funky.