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Make 'em say crunk

The etymological significance of coded language -- or why some words just sound good in hip-hop

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"But remembering the early civility they brought upon these Countreys, and forgetting long past mischiefs; we mercifully preserve their bones, and pisse not upon their ashes."

-- Sir Thomas Browne, Urn Buriall, 17th cent.

Modern English, like much of recent Southern hip-hop, derives its spunk and vibrancy from the tension of opposing elements. In language, as in Dirty South rap, the elegant and the rank shack-up and co-depend. Hip-hop is that way because, most agree, that's basically how life is -- more so for some than others. But in the case of our often confounding, unnecessarily complex and lovably mutt-like English, blame it on the Battle of Hastings. You know, the one back in the '60s -- the year 1066 to be exact.

When the Normans from France beat the Saxons on their home turf and settled in as rulers of England, they brought with them an ornate, flowing Romance language, multi-syllabic in all its Latinate glory. Meanwhile, the short, sharp, blunt-speak of the Germanic-derived Old English -- a name later adopted by gangsta rap's choice beverage -- had served the conquered Saxons just fine for at least 500 years (giving Modern English useful words like mad, fight and puff, as well as fuck, shit and thousands of others). But as the Normans and the Saxons mixed and mingled over the first half of the last millennium, Latin-based words -- such as incensed, quarrel and inhale, as well as intercourse, defecate and thousands more -- entered the local tongue, integrating so much Franco frou-frou that English, as we speak it today, became a new language entirely.

While the Normans and Saxons have long since settled their beef, class differentiation between the usage of dominant and marginalized peoples have survived in our vocabulary. Just compare two words that once meant the same thing: The French word for those buildings we live in has transmuted to English as the haughty, sloping mansion, while Germans gave us the simple, utilitarian house (and the hip-hop slang crib, you'll note, is Old English as well). But the clash of Latin- and Germanic-rooted words also informs the way we receive meaning in much less conspicuous and more important ways.

While our Latin-derived vocabulary still tends to be the province of more formal speech and privileged classes, the terse eloquence of Germanic/Old English-derived words spark the language of the underdog. More than their meanings, the mere sounds of many Germanic words carry an unpolished, almost subversive, edge that lends nicely to hip-hop. And that explains, for the most part, why you don't hear in-your-face street-rappers claiming that they fail to comprehend the significance of a certain situation, but you might hear them say they just don't give a fuck.

And that, of course, brings us to that late, late adaptation of old Germanic English: crunk. The arbiters of hip colloquy no doubt deem the term to be oh-so late-20th century, heaping it on the compost pile of perishable verbiage. It's still useful, though, and it warrants redress.

An Atlanta hip-hop idiom that seeped its way into national slang, crunk -- or commonly, get crunk -- roughly decodes as the state of being elevated in spirit or enthusiasm; that is, of being cranked up (drug connotations notwithstanding). While its root, crank, is itself a fine example of Old-English severity, crunk goes it one better by mutating from a weak verb (one with suffix added, as in dance/danced) to a strong verb (with an internal vowel change, as in swim/swum). That the new word now rhymes with drunk doesn't hurt either, making crunk not only severe and strong, but earning a bacchanalian shade as well. All in all, it's a truly marvelous specimen of the visceral impact a Germanic-rooted word can have in our modern language: Just say it to yourself a few times -- it's downright nasty.

Though the term undoubtedly germinated among influential insiders long before it reached most of our ears, crunk first entered the national hip-hop discourse around 1998, when it appeared in the chorus of OutKast's breakthrough pop hit, "Rosa Parks" ("We the type of people make the club get crunk"). The rest would be linguistic history, except that OutKast are by no means the beginning nor the end of crunk.

Of course, OutKast can easily claim some degree of crunkdom. In fact, they have a certain knack at adding new glory to already punchy Germanic words -- turning ineffable stink into planetary Stankonia. Still, their degree of crunkness is less than pure. They are, after all, the group that souped-up a Latinate root (music) to create something called Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. There's something much more refined and studied about OutKast that tempers their crunkness. They're part crunk, sure, but they're at least as much cultivated and classical.

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