A funky thing happened (on my way to understanding)

Posted by on August 01, 2012

Every language has words that its own speakers, or speakers of other languages, deem untranslatable. No language should have words that are incomprehensible; for that, we have dictionaries. Some words, however, pose problems even for lexicographers because they seem to mean too many things, or change their meaning, chameleon-like, according to subtle shifts in the context in which they’re found. One such word is funky. Even apart from its peculiar usages, which I’ll get to, it’s off the blocks with a couple of distinct challenges. First, it’s actually two words, not one: there are two separately derived words in modern English spelled f-u-n-k-y, though one is far more frequently used than the other. Second, the use of funky in English’s two main dialects, British and American, differs considerably.

Let’s start with the funky that’s the less used of the two. Funky one is derived from funk one. That funk means (in the UK) a state of trembling fear, and (in the US) a state of dejection. There’s a bit of crossover in usage, especially since the British meaning is now a bit dated and Brit speakers may have absorbed and circulated the American sense to some degree. But at present you’re pretty safe in deciphering a funky horse as one that is spooked, not dejected, and a funky mood as belonging to someone that is dejected, not jittery with fear.

Funky two is derived from funk two. Funk two is a strong, offensive odor. It’s an Americanism, despite being derived from a French verb. Funky two can in fact carry over that meaning predictably (what is that funky smell?) but the figurative extensions of this funky travel far beyond the olfactory, and even with a dictionary in hand you may end up doing a bit of headscratching to figure out what it means. Let’s look at some corpus examples.

1)    Celebrities like the hotel because it’s comfortable and funky.

2)    How can you stand living in that funky hole?

3)    They spelled my name funky on the student register.

4)    The song has only three chords and a funky beat.

5)    They closed their funky downtown location and opened up in a suburban mall.

6)    Now his hair is all funky dreadlocks.

7)    He gave me this funky look, like I was dissing him or something.

8)    She mixes in antiques with funky, clunky bits of 50s and 60s décor.

9)    There are funky little spiders all over the pansies this morning.

10)    Common calculations of a company’s worth include funky things like goodwill.

The list could go on but that’s probably enough to keep us busy for a while. Now for a bit of exegesis:

The meaning of funky in 1), 8), and probably 6) (unless his dreadlocks actually smell) is a common, perhaps the most common meaning of funky: “fashionable in a way that is unusual and shows a lot of imagination.” When funky is used appreciatively, especially of fashion, décor, architecture, and the like, this is usually the sense intended. Dictionaries are oddly silent on how this sense arose but they lump it with the “foul-smelling” homograph.

The meaning of funky in 2), and possibly in 5), partakes more of the pejorative sense of funky that arises from “foul smelling”: old, musty, undesirable. In 5), it’s unlikely that the downtown location actually smelled, but the sense is that it was a bit outdated and not in keeping with what was required. It’s entirely possible though that the funky in 5) is the same as the funky in 1).

The funkys in 3), 7), and 10) are probably the furthest removed from the word’s core senses, but they are not uncommon. Funky in 3) clearly means “incorrectly.” In 7), it may mean no more than “odd” (unusual and unexpected) in a slightly depreciative sense. Similarly in 10), the notion of “unexpected” arises, though not with any pejorative connotation.

This leaves the unproblematic sense in 4), concerning music: with a simple beat, and good for dancing. Sense 9) seems to be an appreciative sense of funky, which may only combine the notion of “odd and unexpected” with “cool.”

Cues to somewhat vague or ambiguous uses of funky can often be picked up from adjacent adjectives, but even here instinct has to be the best guide, and a computer program that was tasked with accurate sentiment extraction from sentences containing funky might well fall flat on its face. Is funky old generally more appreciative than old funky? You would probably have to study hundreds of examples to decide. In response to “How was the restaurant?” you might conclude two different things from “It was really funky.” and “I found it rather funky.” It’s a very funky word, funky.

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