Overpowered by Funk

Marge, when kids these days say “bad,” they mean “good.” And to “shake your booty” means to wiggle one’s butt. Permit me to demonstrate…  – Homer Simpson

What do you think of when you hear the word funk? Possibly music, with a particular catchy, sexy kind of grooviness. Or perhaps not necessarily music, but something else with a similar kind of cool. You might also be thinking of the 1970s at the same time, but funk of course is truly timeless.

You may, however, think of a smell. Not just any smell, but one so overpowering, so ripe, so pungent that it’s completely repulsive. Old blue cheese wrapped in a dirty sports sock on a hot summer day kind of repulsive. That could certainly be described as funky. But why would we use the same word for two such different things?

The answer lies in the fact that, really, there isn’t such a huge difference between the two. It seems that funk as in smell came first, being derived from the dialectical French funkière (to blow smoke), and dating back to the 15th century. And while we can never know exactly when music was first described as funky, but it’s pretty certain that it was used mainly in the African-American community in the 1950s to refer to jazz music. If something had a particularly infectious rhythm, it was described as funky, meant in the sense of smell.

But not in a wholly negative way. It referred to the funk of lots of people close together, sweating and dancing, or just two people sweating together in their own private way. Yes that might make a funk, but that doesn’t mitigate the pleasure. In fact, it might well be an important part of it. We tend to think in terms of binary oppositions: positive/negative, black/white etc. But in reality, the things that give us pleasure tend to be a mixture of different feelings and sensations which might seem contradictory, but in fact work together. Like cheese. The most celebrated cheeses, generally, are those with a strong, pungent smell, and with a somewhat gloopy texture. Sensations which, if we could measure them objectively, would be considered unpleasant. But for a cheese lover, these are all parts of the pleasure of eating cheese. Like the powerful kick and bitter taste of strong alcohol: very few people drink it for the taste alone (though the drunkenness might be an important factor too. Moving away from the kitchen, some people like to talk dirty in the bedroom. Most of us don’t like to be dirty in the literal sense, but in that context, it’s all part of the pleasure.

Popular slang has often demonstrated this complexity in how we experience pleasure. Good music is funky. When I was younger, bad, sick, and ill all meant cool at various times. In Dublin, something cool is deadly, which shouldn’t sound cool at all. Even memes are dank. I wonder if it’s relevant that teenagers are usually at the forefront of slang. Perhaps they’re more attuned to the true filthiness that’s comingled with pleasure because they’re more direct in experiencing and seeking pleasure, before the weight of the world crushes their spirits. Perhaps their inherently rebellious nature makes them sniff out the more transgressive, more shocking aspects of pleasure.

Perhaps then we should be grateful to teenagers, for opening our eyes to the more risqué, more obscure elements of pleasure, and permitting us to indulge in it a little. They have to be good for something after all.


4 thoughts on “Overpowered by Funk

  1. With the word funk I think music then smell but there is also one other concept that comes to mind mood. Whether off beat or just bad; on many days I’m in an either funky kind of mood or just a funk. (noun) ~~dru~~

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