Derived in part from French and Latin words for “smoke” (as in smoked cheese), the word “funk” has held a vast array of definitions since the 14th century, variously meaning: a spark, a cowering state of fear, an ill humor, a pungent odor (as of cheese), and, of course, a funky fresh American musical genre that arose from jazz and R&B.
As I was spending today’s early morning hours swingin’ and sock-skidding my very white ass around to some Isley Brothers, I came to the sudden realization that I knew nothing at all about the etymology of the word “funk.”
And what a diverse etymology it is!
To begin this tale of funky freshness, we must travel back to the 14th century, when funk—perhaps curiously—meant “a spark.” This definition grew from the Germanic word fonke of the same meaning.
It was another 400 years before funk developed the (supposedly) completely unrelated sense of “depression or ill-humor”—i.e., “in a funk.”
A slang verb, this sort of funk (or to be funked) first meant “to become afraid, shrink through fear, fail through panic,” a sense that probably draws upon the Flemish fonck (“perturbation, agitation, distress”) and was likely related to Old French funicle (“wild, mad”). The English word quivered its way to noundom in Scotland and Northern England in the 1740s with the same sense—“cowering state of fear”—and then came to convey general grumpiness just a few years later.
Some small, devious part of me wondered if funk in this older sense might have given way to its fragrant definition (“bad smell”) because those who found themselves in a (fearful) funk would shit themselves. But it turns out the aromatic meaning of funk arose from an entirely different origin:
Once upon a time, the French began to perfect the art of turning spoiled milk into delicious gourmet food—i.e., cheese. Lots of cheese. So much cheese, in fact, that there arose a proverb that says there is a different French cheese for every day of the year. French statesman Charles de Gaulle once remarked, “Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a deux cent quarante-six variétés de fromage?” or “How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?”
Today, however, these observations represent vast underestimations, for there are enough French cheeses to last you nearly five years: France alone produces at least 1,800 different raw milk cheese products, and probably more than 2,000 when including pasteurized cheese.
So what does all this have to do with “funk” as a word for a foul smell? Quite a bit, as it happens.
This sense of the word wafted from the dialectical French funkière, or “to smoke,” which came from the Old French verb fungier, or “give off smoke; fill with smoke,” which in turn drifted its way out of the Latin fumigare—also meaning “to smoke.”
Naturally, smoked cheeses specifically represent a well-known and fragrant part of French culture, and therefore the dialectical verb funkière most commonly referred to the cheese-smoking process—and the blessed stink that it emitted. The Latin root also commonly conveyed this sense, as cheeses were first smoked in the Roman Empire around the year 300.
It was around 1620 that the English word funk came to refer to an unpleasant smell, implying the ripe fragrance of a smoked cheese. It seems likely that this sense is a direct result of the fact that *funk* was also (albeit less commonly) a verb meaning “blow smoke upon; stifle with offensive vapor,” as one might when applying smoke to a delicious cheddar or gouda to enrich the flavor and preserve the cheese; but this meaning was not recorded until later in the 17th century.
All odors and ill-humors aside, however, funk is also ripe with another meaning—one more in line with the Isley Brothers, who, along with a vast array of other talented African American artists, developed “a rhythmic, danceable new form of music through a mixture of soul music, jazz, and rhythm and blues (R&B).”
The word’s earliest connections with black culture are pretty racist by today’s standards: In the very early 20th century, funky was sometimes used to describe a body odor that was said to be associated with black people—an old, musty smell, rather like cheese. (While people from different parts of the world often emit different body odors due to environment and cuisine, this particular association had much less to do with that and quite a bit more to do with racial stereotyping.)
But fortunately, this sense did not last, for with the rise of jazz, the word funky was appropriated to convey the less pejorative notion of “earthy, strong, or deeply felt.” Additionally, this meaning may have, in part, been inspired by the smoky atmosphere of jazz clubs. It even appeared with this definition in a 1954 edition of Time magazine.
This sense of the word became so intertwined with black culture and musicians that by the mid- to late 1960s, the noun funk commonly described the musical genre, and the adjective funky adopted its now well-known sense of “fine, stylish, or excellent.”
Stay funky, friends.