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Yesterday's Dumbing of Age:

In fact Walky is right about homonym. The OED's overall gloss is "The same name or word used to denote different things", with the more specific sense "Philol. Applied to words having the same sound, but differing in meaning".

Billie is right about the etymology — for the verb funk "To blow smoke upon (a person); to annoy with smoke" the OED says

Etymology: perhaps < French dialect funkier = Old French funkier , fungier < Latin *fūmicare (Italian fumicare ), fūmigāre , < fūmus smoke.

and adds that the noun, though apparently from this verb, is recorded earlier.

The Wikipedia article for funk music explains that

The word funk initially referred (and still refers) to a strong odor. It is originally derived from Latin "fumigare" (which means "to smoke") via Old French "fungiere" and, in this sense, it was first documented in English in 1620. In 1784 "funky" meaning "musty" was 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".

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. As late as the 1950s and early 1960s, when "funk" and "funky" were used increasingly in the context of jazz music, the terms still were considered indelicate and inappropriate for use in polite company. According to one source, New Orleans-born drummer Earl Palmer "was the first to use the word 'funky' to explain to other musicians that their music should be made more syncopated and danceable." The style later evolved into a rather hard-driving, insistent rhythm, implying a more carnal quality. This early form of the music set the pattern for later musicians. The music was identified as slow, "sexy", loose, riff-oriented and danceable.

Of course the exchange is not really about word senses and etymologies.



  1. Brett said,

    May 23, 2017 @ 9:26 am

    The most famous tune by Booker T. and the M.G.'s is called "Green Onions," According to Booker T. Jones, "The bass player thought it was so funky, he wanted to call it 'Funky Onions', but they thought that was too low-class, so we used 'Green Onions' instead."

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 23, 2017 @ 9:45 am

    Buddy Bolden's musical career ended (circa 1907) a decade before the first surviving jazz recordings were made, so we have lots and lots of anecdotes from other New Orleans musicians who recorded in the Twenties and Thirties about what he was like and how he played but it's difficult to know with any certainty what is history and what is mythology. The tune possibly originally and informally (you could call it whatever you wanted if you weren't trying to sell records or sheet music or piano-player rolls or something like that where someone might be concerned about propriety) known as "Funky Butt" was repurposed and recorded (with new words and who knows what other changes in melody etc.) by Jelly Roll Morton as the standard known by various titles including "Buddy Bolden's Blues." Lots of lyrical variations beyond those originally recorded by Morton exist. A recent version by Henry Butler (born in 1949 and perhaps the greatest still-living practitioner of the distinctive New Orleans style of piano playing that stretches back through the generation of Fats Domino and Professor Longhair all the way to the generation of Morton and probably beyond that into the unrecorded 19th century) begins with the couplet "I heard old Buddy Bolden say / Dirty butt, stinky (or perhaps "stanky") butt, take it away." Which seems some evidence that "funky butt" is to be understood in the purely olfactory sense as opposed to what one might call the "shake your booty" sense. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbHbZSJI26s

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 23, 2017 @ 10:03 am

    Re Brett's Booker T. & M.G.'s anecdote, Wilson Pickett had a huge hit with "Funky Broadway" in 1967, not all that long after "Green Onions" was a huge hit (in 1962). Whether there had been a significant change in the meaning (and thus perceived low-classness vel non) of the lexeme in the intervening five years or simply a significant loosening of norms of propriety because of the goddam hippies or whatever is not clear to me. (Checking an online version of the voluminous James Brown discography, it looks like did not have a hit record with "funky" in the title until 1969, but did release an instrumental titled "Funky Soul #1" as a b-side back in '67.)

  4. BZ said,

    May 23, 2017 @ 10:49 am

    I've never heard of "funk" meaning smell

  5. Michael Johnson said,

    May 23, 2017 @ 11:19 am

    Is Walky right about 'homonym'?

    When I read the comic, I took the concern to be about polysemy, or something like that: polysemy isn't a species of homonymy. So you wouldn't want to say 'strong' for tastes and 'strong' for physical strength were homonyms. 'Funk' seems pretty similar.

    When I just google 'homonym', it gives me the definition: "each of two or more words having the same spelling or pronunciation but different meanings and origins." I agree that etymology shouldn't be the criterion (so against Billie too), b/c 'bank' and 'bank' are clearly homonyms, but arise from same word.

    I think there's a serious question of where polysemy ends and homonymy begins– maybe it's just a boring vagueness thing, but I suspect not.

  6. mollymooly said,

    May 23, 2017 @ 3:23 pm

    Homonymy vs polysemy seems to me like a Useful Distinction. Google Scholar finds many linguistics papers making this distinction.

    OTOH only a pedant insists on using "mass" rather than "weight" in everyday conversation; perhaps insisting on "polyseme" rather than "homonym" is equally pedantic.

  7. Bob Crossley said,

    May 23, 2017 @ 5:00 pm

    "Funk" meaning "smell" isn't much known or used here in the UK so you're not alone in never having heard of it. I don't think I heard the usage until the 90s, though I've known "funk" as music since my disco heyday in the 70s. I don't think it had much currency here before that even among jazz fans (and I was raised to the sound of Satchmo on 78 rpm).

    The more usual non-musical meaning in the UK is "panic". According to OED this is "Mid 18th century (first recorded as Oxford University slang): perhaps from funk in the slang sense ‘tobacco smoke’, or from obsolete Flemish fonck ‘disturbance, agitation’…" – a possible homonym by the strict definition.

  8. Xmun said,

    May 23, 2017 @ 7:17 pm

    I'd have thought (I mean, vaguely remember from my English youth) that "funk" simply means "fear" or "fright". A severe case of it would be a "blue funk", which might be considered a rough synonym of "panic".

  9. JPL said,

    May 23, 2017 @ 7:47 pm

    Don't forget 'funk' in the sense of "despondent mood". My mother always said of someone in a despondent mood, "He's in a (terrible) funk." This is different from "funk' n.3 in the OED. The OED uses the word 'funk' in the sense of a style of music (in its definition of 'funkadelic', a George Clinton creation), but does not recognize that sense with a separate entry and definition. It's probably safe to say that "funk" as a style of music in the modern pop sense (as distinct from, although historically connected to, the original jazz usage) originated with James Brown's "Papa's got a brand new bag", (funk is the brand new bag) and his musical developments leading up to it. The word at this stage carried the connotation not really of smell in the older usage, but of reveling in something "nasty and low- down", enjoyment not constrained by the expectations of polite bourgeois society. What connects these senses is something like what the Wikipedia article calls "the sweaty atmosphere at dances where Bolden's band played". What I'm wondering is, what is the connection between "nerd funk" and funk?
    An example of the latter:

  10. Victor Mair said,

    May 23, 2017 @ 9:32 pm


    My mother always said, "He's in a blue funk". That was about sixty years ago. It didn't mean "panic" as with Xmun. It meant "despondent".

  11. Chad Nilep said,

    May 23, 2017 @ 9:43 pm

    @Michael Johnson

    As mollymooly reveals, there is a not-insubstantial literature on the differences among polysemy, homonymy, and semantic "fuzziness". This includes some early work by Language Log's own Geoff Nunberg.

    Nunberg, G. 1979. "The non-uniqueness of semantic solutions: polysemy." Linguistics and Philosophy 3(2):143-184.

  12. TWJ said,

    May 23, 2017 @ 11:30 pm

    It should be noted that the "stank" referred to above is "standard" English "stink," and that the vowel is the same for other words like "think," and "pink," etc.

    E.g., George Clinton singing about (olfactorily) funky weed: "somethin' stank and I want some." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBYA-hte7uw

  13. Fiddler said,

    May 24, 2017 @ 1:19 am

    "Funk" is quite commonly used in the cannabis world. A search at Leafly generates examples in several senses of the word:

    [C4's] … aroma is highlighted by a thick, earthy tone that mixes with flavors of pine and citrus. Its deep, relaxing effects are recommended to those battling depression and anxiety, and are sure to blow you out of any funk you may find yourself in. …

    OG Glue Sniffer is described with "… production and pungent aroma of Gorilla Glue #4 with the OG and Cookie funk of its Grateful Breath father. This loud genetic synthesis infuses the limbs with waves of warm relaxation while stimulating a strong euphoric buzz between the ears. …"

    Deep Sleep: … reduces users to a puddle of sleepy relaxation. The flavor of Deep Sleep is very sweet and fruity on the inhale with a nice OG funk on the exhale. Fans of OG Kush will love these thick, resinous, purple-tinted flowers. …

    and then Dr. Funk: Dr. Funk is a mostly indica strain that balances genetics from Blueberry and Bubba Kush. You can taste this strain’s lineage as flavors of sweet berry and earthy sharpness activate on the exhale. Its tight, compact buds and orange hair-like pistils are obscured under a thick dusting of crystal trichomes, which hint at Dr. Funk’s potency.

  14. ajay said,

    May 24, 2017 @ 4:31 am

    I had no idea that the musical meaning derived from something to do with "smoke, smell". I just assumed that it was from the "fear/panic" meaning, via some sort of association with uncontrolled vigorous movement, dancing and so on. Interesting!

    My mother always said, “He’s in a blue funk”. That was about sixty years ago. It didn’t mean “panic” as with Xmun. It meant “despondent”.

    I would say "blue funk" is an extreme state of funk – sort of "paralysed immobility".

  15. Vince said,

    May 24, 2017 @ 5:06 am

    Perhaps Professor Pullum could provide further information, but in 1966 Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band released an album titled 'Hand Clappin' Foot Stompin' Funky-Butt… Live!' which suggests to me that the executives of Pye Records in London were not aware of the low-class status of "funky" (or the American meaning of "butt")

  16. Alyssa said,

    May 25, 2017 @ 11:28 am

    As an American, I'm familiar with the "smell" meaning of funk, but I had no idea it could mean "fear/panic". Interesting!

  17. Rose Eneri said,

    May 26, 2017 @ 8:46 am

    Regarding funk used to describe a smell – Toward the end of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" from 1984, we hear Vincent Price say, "The foulest stench is in the air. The funk of forty thousand years. And grizzly ghouls from every tomb are closing in to seal your doom."

  18. Paige said,

    May 26, 2017 @ 10:30 am

    I grew up in Kansas using "funk" in relation to mood, smell, and music. I'm sure I got all three senses of the word from my Midwestern mother. My grandpa's awesome given name was Eugene Funk Mood (Funk was his mother's maiden name), but alas he was not a musician (though he did smoke a pipe, which now seems even more appropriate given the origin of the word "funk").

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