What is the real meaning of “funky”?

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Dear Cecil: You are really cool when it comes to blowing the cobwebs off old words and phrases and telling us what they mean. But can you do the same with some new stuff? What does “funky” really mean? I don’t think your most unabridged tome will have an answer. You may have to ask Don Cornelius. Roger K., Dallas


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Thanks for the advice, son, but you’re dealing with a professional. It seems clear funky originally meant smelly. The question is, smelling of what? The Oxford English Dictionary takes the demure view that funky meant “moldy,” although it notes that “funk” has often been used to mean tobacco smoke and may derive from the Latin fumar, to smoke. By one account funky was applied to the smoky interior of jazz clubs and the somewhat ripe smell of the denizens thereof, from there was extended to the music, and finally acquired its current meaning of “hip in a down-and-dirty sort of way.” (Funk, by the way, dates back to 1623 — new it’s not.)

That’s the family-newspaper version. A less respectable view has it that funk is “the pungent odor given off by the sexually aroused female” (The Dictionary of the Teenage Revolution and Its Aftermath, 1983). Believe what you will. I take no sides.

One last thing: funk in the sense of fear or panic, e.g., “he was in a blue funk,” is a completely separate word deriving from the Flemish fonck, fear.

You say it’s funky, I say it stinks

Dear Cecil:

Re the origins of “funky”: In Flash of the Spirit, his brilliant exploration of the sacred in African art, music, and dance, anthropologist/art historian Robert Farris Thompson proposes an alternative etymology for funky that also illuminates the word’s longtime association with “smelly”:

“The slang term `funky’ …seems to derive from the Ki-Kongo lu-fuki, `bad body odor.’ …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. …This Kongo sign of exertion is identified with the positive energy of a person. Hence `funk’ in American jazz parlance can mean earthiness, a return to fundamentals.”

This by no means negates the “sexually aroused female” theory of the word’s origin, for the odor of a woman in heat is symbolic of “positive energy” in its most primitive form.

— Cree M., New York

This bad body odor = artistic integrity thing might fly with jazz folk, Cree. But don’t try it out on your wife.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.