Saturday, 8 October 2011

etymology at dawn

Friends have been raving about Sex at Dawn: the Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, a book that questions widely held notions about the origins of human sexuality. I don't know much about anthropology, however at least one anthropologist has big problems with this book. But here on page 83, Ryan and Jethá talk about a subject I am familiar with:

Robert Farris Thompson, American's most prominent historian of African art, says that funky is derived from the Ki-Kongo lu-fuki, meaning "positive sweat" of the sort you get from dancing or having sex, but not working. One's mojo, which has to be "working" to attract a lover, is Ki-Kongo for "soul". Boogie comes from mbugi, meaning "devilishly good." And both jazz and jism likely derive from dinza, the Ki-Kongo word for "to ejaculate."

Have questions about etymology? Ask an art historian!

The fact is that the origin of all these words is unknown, except for funky, which is probably from French.

The reference is Flash of the spirit: African and Afro-American art and philosophy by Robert Farris Thompson. This is what he writes:

Many a Ki-Kongo-derived word has been described by etymologists as "origin unknown." The word "jazz" is probably creolized Ki-Kongo: it is similar in sound and original meaning to "jizz," the American vernacular for semen. And "jizz," suggestive of vitality, appears to derive from the Ki-Kongo verb dinza, "to discharge one's semen, to come." Dinza was creolized in New Orleans and elsewhere in black United States into "jizz" and "jism."

The slang term "funky" in black communities originally referred to strong body oder, and not to "funk," meaning fear or panic. The black nuance seems to derive from the Ki-Kongo lu-fuki, "bad body odor," and is perhaps reinforced by contact with fumet, "aroma of food and wine," in French Louisiana.

He goes on; you can read the whole thing.

This is pure speculation, as far as I can see, and in fairness Thompson qualifies his claims with "seems" and "probably" and "appears". It is not etymology; etymology requires evidence. As Grant Barrett says in his review of Daniel Cassidy's book How the Irish Invented Slang:

Evidence. Above all, Cassidy needs to support his claims with published evidence that shows the etymological path. Dated, continuous, in-context quotations from any written source will always be superior evidence over phonetic speculation based upon national, linguistic, or ethnic pride.

I am bothered that the authors of Sex at Dawn would simply repeat Thompson's claims, without bothering to consult an expert.


JM said...

Thank you. Speculation masquerading as etymology is so damn common in books on nearly any topic, and it deserves to be questioned.

(Love your blog, by the way!)

Glen Gordon said...

"The fact is that the origin of all these words is unknown, except for funky, which is probably from French."

Speaking French myself I was perplexed what word you might be referring to as a source but Wiktionary posits dialectal funquer. Yet Wikipedia only promotes the African etymology with no mention of the French word.

To be honest, given the partly African roots of jazz and funk, offering Ki-Kongo origins doesn't seem so outrageous on the surface. I've seen much more whimsical etymologies like that of "person" being attributed, not to Latin personare (as is surely the answer), but to a mistranslation of a single instance of Etruscan phersu which is assumed blindly to mean 'mask' (when it more probably means 'Persian' given the mural in question).

goofy said...

The OED says "funky" and the noun "funk" are derived from the verb "funk", and the verb is "perhaps < French dialect funkier". There is no mention of an African origin.

You're right that Thompson's speculations aren't outrageous.

Jonathon said...

At least it's a better attempt at etymology than some other books on popular anthropology, like When God Was a Woman.

Glen Gordon said...

If we're looking for more outrageous examples, how about Martin Bernal's etymology of Greek φρήν by pointing to Egyptian pȝ rn "the name" as a source.

First of all, "the name" in Egyptian would have been pronounced *pa rin at the close of the 2nd millennium BCE. (The vocalism of the noun is preserved in Assyrian Bukurninip = bȝk-n-rn-f.)

Maybe one could justify somehow the correspondence of short Egyptian *i with long Greek ē but the quantum leap required to accept the semantics of this proposal is too much for me to endure. He begins with "The semantic correspondence, too, is much less problematic than it might initially appear." This signals to the reader that they should strap in their seat belts and prepare for a rough ride through ahistorical speculation.

Despite the amateurish quality of his claims, Bernal is professor emeritus at Cornell University which is why I remain very irreverent towards anyone who dares brag to me about their university degree but displays a less-than-university competence in their specialty.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Loved this, including the David Cassidy reference which I also commented on in 2007.

It reminded me also of baseball statistician Bill James's irritation with David Halberstam's errors in Summer of '49, and his disquiet at wondering whether DH's Vietnam reporting, which ultimately influenced American actions, was equally sloppy. Turns out it was worse than sloppy. Yeah, I wrote on that, too.

I linked to this post and lauded the site in general. Thanks.

Anthony said...

The question is - how would a non-linguist know that Thompson's explanations were bullshit? I have no good way of knowing whether the general thesis of Thomspon's book is actually based on sound scholarship or not, much less whether his excursions into a subtopic were well informed. At least Ryan and Jetha have given enough citation that one can track down their source, and possibly evaluate it.

goofy said...

That's a fair question. You could look the words up in a dictionary and see that the standard etymologies don't agree with Thompson's. There's also the fact that Thompson is an art historian, not a historical linguist.