Monday, February 27, 2012

What the Funk?

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, currently has an exhibit of artifacts relating to the Egyptian King Tutankhamun, or Tut, as his pals called him, or Funky Tut, as Steve Martin referred to him in that eponymous golden oldie “King Tut.”  What is a “funky Tut”?  What, for that matter, is “funk”? 

As it turns out, there are two kinds of funk. One means “a state of extreme fear” or “depression,” either emotional or economic. This funk derives from the Flemish word fonck (“agitation, distress”) and was first noted in English as Oxford slang around 1743.  This kind of funk is sometimes known as a “blue funk”—and has nothing to do with Martin’s views of Tut.   (A 14th-century Middle English but now obsolete funk meant a “spark.”)

Funky Tut is more than likely a reference to the kind of funk derived from the dialectical French funquer (“to give off smoke”), which was applied to certain popular music in the early 20th century.  Funky, meaning “having a strong, offensive odor, like smoke or cheese” has been in use since 1784.

Another view says that funky has semantic roots in the Kikongo word lu-fuki, meaning “bad body odor,” which was emblematic of work of great integrity, requiring great exertion, i.e. perspiration.  Those who were lu-fuki (or funky) were energetic, positive, sweaty achievers with B.O.

As applied to African-American jazz music, around the turn of the century, funky (and the back-formation noun funk) referred to an honest, earthy, back-to-basics sound. The word later evolved to mean “groovy, mellow, deeply felt, sexy, rhythmic, syncopated, danceable,” always with a strong carnal quality.  By the 1950s, the term was being applied more broadly to jazz music, especially soul and rhythm-and-blues.

Time Magazine in 1954 referred to “funky, authentic, swinging blues, down to earth, smelling of earth.” Funky evolved further in the 1960s when it acquired the broad sense of “stylish, authentic, eccentric, or excellent.”

So there you have King Tut—groovy, mellow, sexy, stylish, and probably, after all these thousands of years, smelling pretty bad, as well.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has emerged from his funk—more of a puce funk than a blue one—to deposit these words in a funky little pile:

            What ever became of the great Guy Lombardo?
            By now he’d be older by far than Don Pardo.
            His music was sweet,
            Just like cream of wheat,
            And earned him pots full of big-buck, super-star 

            But now the hot music we hear is called crunk,
            Not too long ago we all knew it as funk,
            It may be progressing,
            But not with my blessing--
               I’m afraid it’s becoming electronic junk.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Dear Abbey

As you may be aware, PBS has a huge hit on its hands with the BBC costume drama Downton Abbey.  So far the series (which will continue next fall) has centered on the vicissitudes of the Crawley clan—the Earl of Grantham and his family—and their servants.  Owing to the British law of primogeniture, the Crawley daughters cannot inherit the title, the estate, or the fortune of the Earl’s American wife. 

The action takes place between 1912 and 1920—and a number of language mavens have taken pains to point out numerous linguistic anachronisms in the script. I am indebted to an astute customer of this blog for this account by Ben Yagoda in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He writes:

“The rumblings started last fall in an article in The Telegraph, complaining that Downton characters used such not-yet-coined words and expressions as get shafted, fed up, and boyfriend.

The peripatetic and formidable language commentator Ben Zimmer picked up the ball and added a few more offenders to the list, including I’m just sayin’ (to defuse a comment), step on it, floozy, contact  (as a verb), uppity, when push comes to shove, [and] I couldn’t care less.”

A third Ben—Schmidt—ran the entire script of Downton Abbey through Google’s Ngram data base, which could find no period references to fingerprint (as a verb), moral high ground, heaven’s name, or many other phrases.

But hold on just a cotton-pickin’ minute!

In the first place, some of the objectionable citations are not anachronisms at all. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary attests uppity in 1880 (the word appeared in Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus in 1881). Another useful source, the Online Etymological Dictionary, assures that floozy (“a disreputable woman”) can be traced to 1890s slang; boyfriend (“a woman’s paramour”) was used in 1909;  contact was in use as a verb meaning “to put in a position next to” as early as 1834; and fingerprint was a verb by 1905.

But more important than quibbling over the earliest citations of these words, there is a fatal flaw in any argument that a word or phrase is anachronistic: there is no way to prove with certainty when a locution entered the language.  It might have been used for quite a while before it saw print--and even the print evidence is inconclusive as to a word’s earliest appearance, since that represents only publications that have survived the ravages of time and been found by a researcher.

Yagoda concedes that the whole question of anachronisms is really irrelevant in a dramatic context. He puts the issue to rest by pointing out:

“But does it really matter? That is, in 1591, Shakespeare had his character Richard III [1452-1485] say, “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”… The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the word [discontent] was coined in–what do you know?–1591 by a certain playwright from Stratford-on-Avon.

For those of you who may not be familiar with Downton Abbey, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou has furnished this quick summary:

            The Earl of Grantham and his American wife
            Have a great big house and a happy life,
            But no male heir, and that’s a glitch,
            ‘Cause daughters can’t inherit (ain’t that a bitch!).
            Lady Mary (that’s daughter number one)
            Is set to marry the heir presumptive’s son,
            But he sets sail on the good ship Titanic,
            You can guess what happened—now there is panic!
            One night Lady Mary finds a Turk in her bed
            And somehow or other, he winds up dead.
            That’s all hushed up (but we’ll hear of it later),
            And a new heir, Matthew, arrives with his mater.
            He and Lady Mary don’t hit it off,
            So she takes up with a newspaper toff,
            While Matthew gets engaged to lovely Lavinia,
            Who’s pretty as a rose and sweet as a zinnia.
            Then Matthew’s paralyzed but cured by a miracle,
            If this weren’t so serious, you’d find it satirical.

            Meanwhile, in the quarters down below,
            The servants have their own imbroglio.
            The valet Bates (Grantham’s wartime aide)
            Has a really mean wife, but wants to marry a maid.
            The wife threatened Bates (and someone overheard her),
            And the upshot is Bates is charged with murder.
            Alas, he’s convicted and winds up in prison,
            And meanwhile, other complications have arisen:
            Lady’s maid O’Brien and footman Thomas
            Plot evil deeds that add to the dramas.
            Lady Sybil decides that she will go for
            Branson, the left-wing Irish chauffeur,
            The newspaper toff says he’ll tell all about the Turk
            If Lady Mary will not marry him—the jerk!
            Lots of folks get sick with Spanish flu,
            And one kicks the bucket—but I won’t say who.           
            And then, when everyone has been put through the     
            Maggie Smith drops in with another one-line zinger.
            There’s a good bit more that I can’t explain,
            So tune in next year and see Shirley MacLaine,
            Who’s sure to make each of us a fan again
            Of every Downton Abbey shenanigan.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Severely Severe

Mitt Romney, trying hard to attract far right-wing voters, has garnered severe criticism in his use of language for having said he was a “severely conservative governor” of Massachusetts. Many learned people find fault with this use of the word severely (never mind the word conservative).

Calling Romney “self-destructive,” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman archly maintained the most frequent meanings of severe are “disabled, depressed, ill, limited, and injured.” Another supercilious columnist said Romney spoke of conservatism “as though it were a disease.” (Hmm, maybe he's on to something.)

But Romney’s getting a bum rap, at least on this point.  Despite the fact that the phrase “severely conservative” does sound a bit peculiar, it actually makes perfect sense. Look at the dictionaries.

Webster's New International (2nd edition) likes “serious in feeling or manner, sedate, grave, austere” as severe’s first definition.  Nothing odd about that for a conservative, is there?

Webster’s more up-to-date Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition) gives the primary meaning as “strict in judgment, discipline, or government,” followed by “stringent,” “restrictive,” “scrupulously exacting,” “establishing exacting standards of accuracy and integrity in intellectual processes,” “sober,” and “restrained.” So far, so good.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first meaning as “rigorous in condemnation or punishment,” followed by “strict in matters of conduct,” “austere with oneself,” “shunning laxity or self-pleasure.”

Much further down the list in all the lexicons is the meaning that Romney’s critics would like to ascribe to his turn of phrase—“harsh, inflicting physical discomfort or pain, attended with a maximum of distress.”

Roget’s Thesaurus gives as synonyms for severe: “uncompromising, unyielding, obdurate, arbitrary, iron-handed, and arrogant.”

So admit it: Romney is  “severely” conservative (or at least he wants to be so regarded by the GOP base).  If you want to criticize him, I’ll give you a list of more substantive issues than his alleged misuse of that word.

Whether the Bard of Buffalo Bayou is severe or not depends on whether he gets up on the conservative or liberal side of his bed. You be the judge:

            Show me a man who is strong and severe,
            Obdurate, arrogant, grave, and austere,
            Show me a man who is stringent and rigorous,
            Vital and vigilant, virile and vigorous,
            Show me a man who is strict and restrictive,
            Sober, exact—and a little vindictive.
            Show me a man who is harsh and sedate,
            Looking unpleasant from something he ate,
            Show me that man, hard as rock, ossified—
            And I’ll bet he’ll be on the conservative side.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Lead, Follow, or Quote Correctly

Republican Candidate Mitt Romney tried to invoke the memory of a Revolutionary patriot when he declared in Florida: “In another era of American crisis, Thomas Paine is reported to have said, 'Lead, follow, or get out of the way. Mr. President, you were elected to lead. You chose to follow, and now, it's time for you to get out of the way.”

Fighting words in these times that try men’s souls!—but it would help if the quote were based in reality.  Tom Paine, that old trouble-making Deist, never said any such thing. Romney at least said Paine “is reported to have said” it—which is technically correct. If you Google the quote, you’ll find it credited to Paine at many sites, such as BrainyQuote, ThinkExist, and QuoteDB. Tch, tch.

An on-line search of all of Paine’s published works does not reveal these words, or anything approximating them. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations has no such citation. Of course, Paine might have uttered the words in passing to his barber or his bootblack, but such an event is not recorded.

Moreover, the terseness and rude bluntness of the phrase does not have the cadences typical of most eighteenth-century prose, including Paine’s.  If he had wished to utter such a thought, Paine would probably have written something like: “I implore you to provide sorely needed generalship against our tyrannous enemies, or to follow steadfastly those brave patriots already in the fore, or, failing either of those alternatives, to remove yourself as an obstacle in the path of progress.” 

No one can really pin down the origin of this popular saying. “Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way” is the title of a 1981 biography of media mogul Ted Turner, who “is reported” to have the saying mounted on his desk. Maybe Turner thought of it. 

General George S. Patton also “is reported” to have said, "We herd sheep, we drive cattle, we lead people. Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way."  The no-nonsense Patton is also noted for such quotes as “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country; he won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

A deficient leader and an unreliable follower, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou is content to stay out of the way, until he has something to say, which happens more often than is necessary.
            Twelve Republicans, God’s gift from heaven,
            Trump tripped up, then there were eleven.

            Eleven Republicans, with a Presidential yen,
            Johnson non-started, then there were ten.

            Ten Republicans in the candidate line,
            Roemer went nowhere, then there were nine.
            Nine Republicans eager to debate,
            Pawlenty had plenty, then there were eight.           

            Eight Republicans tried to rise like leaven,
            Cain wasn’t able, then there were seven.

            Seven Republicans remained in the mix,
            Bachmann fell back, then there were six.

            Six Republicans, hoping to stay alive,
            Huntsman missed his shot, then there were five.

            Five Republicans, playing hard to score,
             “Oops!” Perry fumbled, and now there are four.

            Four Republicans, which will it be?
            Is Santorum next, to leave only three?

            Three Republicans, still quite a few,
            Paul may move on, leaving only two.

            Two Republicans, which one will run?
            Gingrich or Romney, there can be only one.

            One Republican, when all is said and done.
            But Obama’s in the way—so then there’ll be none.