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funk

March 28, 2017

I was listening to the radio in the car yesterday and the song Funkytown (by Lipps Inc) came on. What a good song that is. Anyway it got me thinking about the word funk. We don’t hear that word so often these days but in the 70s it was ubiquitous, appearing in song titles like Play that Funky Music, Funky Stuff and Funky Chicken, the names of bands, like Funkadelic, and expressions like strut your funky stuff (ie dance). But what does “funk” actually mean? Well, according to wikipedia it’s a style of Afro-American music which appeared in the 60s, influenced by jazz, characterised by a strong beat decorated by complex rhythms, in which the drums and bass are prominent, with small emphasis on melody and chord progressions but making use of repeated rich complex chords, often in minor keys. (By this definition Funkytown is not actually a very good example of funk.)

But where did the word come from? I was once told by a friend (a certain Mr Rob Lemkin) that it originally meant “pubic sweat”. I have no idea if this is true but it sounds as if it ought to be true. And when you consider that funk in British English is also an old slang word for “fear”, the idea that it has a connection with sweat does seem plausible.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

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6 Comments
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    Presumably this is a similar case to bad being used to mean good. Originally funk(y) does appear to have meant bad smelling – there was a blues song called Funky Butt in about 1900 and the American expression “defunk your junk ” indicates it still has that meaning.

  2. Ah – thanks for that.

  3. Simon Carter permalink

    Chas & Dave had a song called Poor Old Mr. Woogie which questioned why in the eighties boogie was everywhere but the woogie component disappeared. Maybe the Bugle Boy was responsible.

  4. Oh yes, I remember that. Not one of their best. I think boogie-woogie was originally a style of piano-playing, wasn’t it? But I do recall how many songs, especially funk songs, used the word ‘boogie’ in the lyrics in the 70s. I think it was a handy double entendre meaning both a) dancing and b) sex.

  5. Simon Carter permalink

    Yes there were many songs with Boogie in the title from Boogie Nights and Boogie Wonderland to Led Zeppelin’s Boogie with Stu and even Johnny Cash with Gospel Boogie. Not forgetting the 70’s earworm Boogie Oogie Oogie.

  6. Mark Brafield permalink

    There is a particularly explicit episode of ‘Sex and the City’ in which a certain act is carried out. I blush to recall it in public but suffice to say it leaves one in no doubt that ‘funky’ is still used in contemporary American to mean unpleasant smelling or tasting. I leave the rest to your imagination. On a lighter note, when I was at law school I had a friend with an incredibly posh accent. Needless to say, he is now a barrister. He also had a wonderfully deadpan sense of humour, and he once told me that one of his fantasies was to flag down a taxi on Chancery Lane, lean in, and with his poshest voice ask ‘Is this the way to ….funky town ?’.

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