Sunday, February 1, 2015

How "Funky" Came To Mean Something Good (African American Vernacular English Meanings)

Edited by Azizi Powell

Latest Revision- Nov. 19, 2020

This is the first of a three part pancocojams series about the word "funk". Part I provides information and comments about the Latin etymology and the Kongolese etymology for the word "funk". That post also provides several definitions for the word "funk" and the word "funky".

Click for Part II of this series. Part II features a video and lyrics of the Hip-Hop song "Fakin The Funk" (remix) by Main Source. That post also includes my comments about the meanings of certain terms that are found in that song's lyrics.

Click for Part III of this series.

Part III presents comments about the meaning of the saying "Don't Fake The Funk On A Nasty Dunk" and includes a video of a commercial in which Shaquille O'Neil uses that saying.

The content of this post is presented for linguistic and cultural reasons.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

Here are two schools of thought about the etymology of the word "funk", "funky", and "put some stank on it". These quotes are numbered for referencing purposes only. Previously I wrote that "I've numbered and labeled these schools of thought giving preference to the one that I feel is the most valid (recognizing that others may disagree)." However, in re-reading these quotes (on Nov. 19, 2020), I believe both of these theories about the origin of the African American Vernacular English origins and meaning of the word "funky" are equally valid.

I. Etymology For "Funk" #1: Kongolese (African) source
Excerpt #1: From [Hereafter given as "stackexchange: funk/funky"], Callithumpian, edited Mar 22 '11 at 12:19
..."Yale art historian Robert Farris Thompson has posited an African origin to the musical use of funky. Here is an expanded quote from his 1984 work, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy:
The slang term 'funky' in black communities originally referred to strong body odor, and not to 'funk,' meaning fear or panic. The black nuance seems to derive from the Ki-Kongo lu-fuki, 'bad body odor,' and is perhaps reinforced by contact with fumet, 'aroma of food and wine,' in French Louisiana. But the Ki-Kongo word is closer to the jazz word 'funky' in form and meaning, as both jazzmen and Bakongo use 'funky' and lu-fuki to praise persons for the integrity of their art, for having 'worked out' to achieve their aims. In Kongo today it is possible to hear an elder lauded in this way: 'like, there is a really funky person!--my soul advances toward him to receive his blessing (yati, nkwa lu-fuki! Ve miela miami ikwenda baki). Fu-Kiau Bunseki, a leading native authority on Kongo culture, explains: 'Someone who is very old, I go sit with him, in order to feel his lu-fuki, meaning, I would like to be blessed by him.' For in Kongo the smell of a hardworking elder carries luck. This Kongo sign of exertion is identified with the positive energy of a person. Hence, 'funk' in black American jazz parlance can mean earthiness, a return to fundamentals."
In the context of this quote "having worked out" means to exert yourself so hard (to put so much of yourself into your actions) that you sweat, and therefore smell earthy. "Earthy" is a smell that is considered "stinky" (odorous), but it is proof that you "returned to fundamentals". Another way of saying "returned to fundamentals" is that "You got down to the real nitty gritty" (the essence, the heart and soul of the matter".

Also, theoretically, people who "have returned to fundamentals" don't mind how they smell or look. At that point, they aren't pretending to be sophisticated, or formal, or something that they aren't. Instead, they are "being for real" (They're the "real deal"). This meaning is the source of the phrase "Don't fake the funk" = Don't pretend to be something that you're not.

More comments about "Don't fake the funk" are found in Part II and Part III of this series.
Excerpt #2: Focus on the African American Vernacular English phrase "put some stank into it"
..."In early jam sessions, musicians would encourage one another to "get down" by telling one another, "Now, put some stank on it!". At least as early as 1907, jazz songs carried titles such as Funky. The first example is an unrecorded number by Buddy Bolden remembered as either "Funky Butt" or "Buddy Bolden's Blues" with improvised lyrics that were, according to Donald M. Marquis either "comical and light" or "crude and downright obscene" but, in one way or another, referring to the sweaty atmosphere at dances where Bolden's band played."
One meaning of the word "stank" is the past tense of the verb "stink". However, in African American English "stank" was and is still a noun that means "to stink really bad." "Stank", like "funky" can be something that is considered very good or very bad (not good).

Telling musicians to "Put some stank on it" means to play music in such a way that dancers go all out (or, to use another African American vernacular phrase "go all in") to the extent that they become soaked with their sweat, and therefore stink. That dancers sweating as a result of their exertions is a sign that the music has touched their soul (the music is soulful).

UPDATE: February 5, 2015
A comment about the official video for Sean Paul's "Get Busy" record serves as a perfect example for the source* of the African American English meaning of the word "funky":

AmericanRattlesnake, 2011
"i love this song but damn it must stink in there with all that ass shaking in such a crowded little room."
Click html "Black House Parties Then & Now (Part II: Sean Paul's "Get Busy" Video)" for a pancocojams post on that video.

II. Etymology For "Funk" #2: Latin (European) source
Excerpt #1:
"The word funk initially referred (and still refers) to a strong odor. It is originally derived from Latin "fumigare" (to smoke) via Old French "fungiere" and, in this sense, first documented in English in 1620. In 1784 "funky" meaning "musty" is first documented, which, in turn, led to a sense of "earthy" that was taken up around 1900 in early jazz slang for something deeply or strongly felt.[4][5][6]"

Excerpt #2:
"funky (adj.) ..."old, musty," in reference to cheeses, then "repulsive," from funk (n.2) + -y (2). It began to develop an approving sense in jazz slang c.1900, probably on the notion of "earthy, strong, deeply felt." Funky also was used early 20c. by white writers in reference to body odor allegedly peculiar to blacks. The word reached wider popularity c.1954 (it was defined in "Time" magazine, Nov. 8, 1954) and in the 1960s acquired a broad slang sense of "fine, stylish, excellent."funk (n.2) Look up funk at"bad smell," 1620s, probably from the verb funk in the sense "blow smoke upon; stifle with offensive vapor" (though this is not recorded until later 17c.). It is from dialectal French funkière "to smoke," from Old French fungier "give off smoke; fill with smoke," from Latin fumigare "to smoke" (see fume (n.)).

Not considered to be related to obsolete funk (n.) "a spark," mid-14c., fonke, a general Germanic word (compare Dutch vonk, Old High German funcho, German Funke. The Middle English word is probably from Low German or from an unrecorded Old English form.

In reference to a style of music felt to have a strong, earthy quality, it is attested by 1959, a back-formation from funky (q.v.)."
FumbleFingers, writing in "stackexchange:funk/funky" on Mar 21 '11 at 15:06 also indicates that African American musicians "co-opted" (took, borrowed) the "stinking" meaning of "funk" from Latin sources:
"funky originally meant pungent / earthy, with relatively positive associations to "passive" qualities such as the smell of a cheese, which just sits there mouldering away. Since being co-opted into jazz slang it's acquired the more "active" overtones of actual movement in the sense of lively, rootsy, etc. (funky music encourages dancing & foot-tapping)."
I'm not convinced that the Latin meaning for "funk" preceded the Kongolese meaning of "funk" among Black folks in the United States.

From, Sissy J. Depp February 25, 2005
funky 
"Unconventionally modern and stylish.

From, Steagles February 12, 2006
1. Something thats cool or admirable (this usage has fallen out of popularity)
2. A bad smell, normally an odor of pubic must*

. Whoa, baby, you smell funky (compliment in 1976)
2. Whoa, baby, you smell funky (NOT a compliment in 2006)

The word "must" is probably a typo for "musk".

1.The definition of funky is something that smells bad or it is something artistic, modern, unconventional or cool.

a.Old smelly socks are an example of something that would be described as funky.
b.The cool, hip apartment of a young artist is an example of something that would be described as funky."

"Funk is a music genre that originated in African-American communities in the mid-1960s when African-American musicians created a rhythmic, danceable new form of music through a mixture of soul music, jazz, and rhythm and blues (R&B). Funk de-emphasizes melody and chord progressions and focuses on a strong rhythmic groove of a bass line played by an electric bassist and a drum part played by a drummer. Like much of African-inspired music, funk typically consists of a complex groove with rhythm instruments playing interlocking grooves. Funk uses the same richly colored extended chords found in bebop jazz, such as minor chords with added sevenths and elevenths, or dominant seventh chords with altered ninths and thirteenths.

Funk originated in the mid-1960s, with James Brown's development of a signature groove that emphasized the downbeat—with heavy emphasis on the first beat of every measure ("The One"), and the application of swung 16th notes and syncopation on all bass lines, drum patterns, and guitar riffs.[2] Other musical groups, including Sly and the Family Stone, the Meters, and Parliament-Funkadelic, soon began to adopt and develop Brown's innovations. While much of the written history of funk focuses on men, there have been notable funk women, including Chaka Khan, Labelle, Lyn Collins, Brides of Funkenstein, Klymaxx, Mother's Finest, and Betty Davis."...
The words that are written in italics were given that way in this article.

This concludes Part I of this series.

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  1. During the '70's & '80's on the west coast (southern California), the term "funk" or "funky" was used by African American musicians primarily to describe a clever syncopation in which the electric bass, electric guitar & keyboard locked with the drumbeat to create a highly infectious catalyst for dancers. Although the players could be referred to as "funky", it was more about the how the groove stank in it's organic earthiness like an old, massive tree trunk deeply rooted in the musty soil.

    1. Thanks for sharing that information, Dice.

      I appreciate it!