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The adjective "funny" (from fun) is relatively recent:

Funny (adj.)
"humorous," 1756, from fun (n.) + -y (2). Meaning "strange, odd, causing perplexity" is by 1806, said to be originally U.S. Southern (marked as colloquial in Century Dictionary). The two senses of the word led to the retort question "funny ha-ha or funny peculiar," which is attested by 1916. [...]

Fun (n.)
"diversion, amusement, mirthful sport," 1727, earlier "a cheat, trick" (c. 1700), from verb fun (1680s) "to cheat, hoax," which is of uncertain origin, probably a variant of Middle English fonnen "befool" (c. 1400; see fond). Scantly recorded in 18c. and stigmatized by Johnson as "a low cant word." Older senses are preserved in phrase to make fun of (1737) and funny money "counterfeit bills" (1938, though this use of the word may be more for the sake of the rhyme). See also funny.

[ Online Etymology Dictionary - etymonline.com ]

When I looked at the Cambridge, it struck me as a learner that "funny" doesn't seem much about humor anymore from the semantics point of view. I reproduce the helpful outline and the examples included with the "humorous" meaning:

funny adjective (HUMOROUS)
humorous; causing laughter:
Do you know any funny jokes?
I've never found Charlie Chaplin very funny.
It's a really funny film.
It's not funny - don't laugh!
Breaking your leg isn't funny (= is serious), I can assure you.
No matter how disastrous the situation there always seems to be a funny side to it.
Don't you try to be funny with me (= be serious and show respect), young man!
He was being funny but I think he was half serious.
A funny thing happened in the office today.
Her new book's hilariously funny.
His speech was full of inanities that were meant to be funny.
He's naturally funny - he doesn't even have to try.

funny adjective (STRANGE)
- strange, surprising, unexpected, or difficult to explain or understand:[...]
funny adjective (DISHONEST)
- informal dishonest; involving cheating:[...]
funny adjective (UNFRIENDLY)
- [after verb] UK informal unfriendly or seeming to be offended:[...]
funny adjective (ILL)
- [after verb] informal slightly ill:[...]
funny adjective (CRAZY)
- UK informal slightly crazy:[...]

[ Cambridge Dictionaries Online - "funny" ]

Personally, I would have been unsure about "A funny thing happened in the office today." But more important there is one meaning about humor and five variations on the "strange/not normal" theme; it does not speak about usage proportions though. On the other hand many compositions such as funny money/business/farm are quite not about humor.


This is about the origin and evolution of the "not humorous" meanings of "funny". The question is twofold:

  1. What is the (language) context for this taking shape in Southern U.S. in 1806 and is it just random or is there a reason this happened then(and there)? Is the Harper's magazine quote from the Century about how you feel when someone "doesn't send for you" related to that time and place?
  2. Back then, did the semantics of the word rapidly or gradually "shift" towards the not funny/strange meanings(dishonest, unfriendly, ill, crazy, not all informal anymore) and are those meaning expanding today at the expense of the "humorous" meaning; is that supported by anything from usage? Is "funny ha-ha or funny peculiar" still relevant or helpful to assess any of this?
  • As far as I'm concerned, "funny" only has two meanings: humorous and odd. I've never heard the other meanings before. – Catija May 1 '15 at 1:37
  • @Catija Being 'strange', 'dishonest', 'unfriendly', 'ill', 'crazy', or even 'humorous' are all different ways to be 'odd'. – DCShannon May 1 '15 at 1:39
  • @DCShannon I have no clue how "dishonest", "unfriendly", or "ill" are ways of being "odd". "odd" = "strange" – Catija May 1 '15 at 1:41
  • @Catija "I feel funny" is the sense in which 'funny' can mean 'ill'. When I feel funny, I don't feel normal. I feel odd. This is the signal that I'm ill. Unless you think most people are dishonest, then dishonest is abnormal and therefore odd. Same thing for unfriendly. – DCShannon May 1 '15 at 1:43
  • @DCShannon I'll give you "ill"... Though I think the dictionary could do a better job of explaining it. I equate "ill" with sicknesses, not a mere upset stomach. I still don't see how you could use "funny" to mean "dishonest" or "unfriendly". – Catija May 1 '15 at 1:45
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In the etymology you've posted, 'fun' is described as "to cheat, hoax" as early as the 1680s. 'Funny' is then attested at a later time as a modifier with a slightly modified sense emphasizing the humorous aspect of something like a hoax or joke. A particular 'cheat', 'trick', or 'hoax' could seem more like a good-natured laugh or more like a mean-spirited attack. You see this spectrum of meanings in the various definitions.

At it's core, 'funny' means 'unusual', 'unexpected', or 'odd'. All the definitions you've included in your questions are just different, more specific ways in which it is used to mean this.

Humorous

Things which are completely expected, known, and ordinary are generally not funny. Most humor involves misdirection and surprise, so it fits in with the ideas of unusual and unexpected, i.e. 'odd'.

Strange

I hope this is clear.

Dishonest

Things or people which are dishonest are not what they're expected or believed to be. Some uses of 'funny' in this sense include "funny money" and "funny business".

Unfriendly

I'm not familiar with this usage, but I'm not from the UK. The closest thing I can think of is "you're acting funny" when someone seems to be offended. This is said because the person is not acting in their usual manner, but instead in an offended manner. I suppose this could be extended to general unfriendliness fairly easily.

Ill

The important thing to note here is that 'funny' can mean "slightly ill". Feeling funny is between feeling healthy and feeling sick. You don't feel like you normally do, but you don't feel awful either. A simple stomach ache probably doesn't go beyond feeling funny, but the flu takes you all the way to sick.

A synonym for this sense of 'funny' would be 'quesy'.

Crazy

Crazy things are so unexpected and unusual that we often can't figure out why they would be that way.

  • Thank you! So I had it backwards it seems i.e. the humor would be an exception to the meaning(so to speak). Are you sort of implying "fun" was used as an adjective in those 50 years to do what "funny peculiar" did from 1806? Also, any idea why U.S. Southern? – user16335 May 1 '15 at 6:25
  • @Amphiteóth I can't really speak to how words were used in the 18th century without a lot more research. This answer is based almost entirely upon my understanding of how the words are used now. – DCShannon May 1 '15 at 18:25
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    @Amphiteóth I wouldn't call humor an exception. Those meanings are all based on the unexpected. It's even been asserted that humor is based on harm and misfortune, like the target of a practical joke. A quote from Stranger in a Strange Land: "I had thought – I had been told – that a ‘funny’ thing is a thing of a goodness. It isn’t. Not ever is it funny to the person it happens to. Like that sheriff without his pants. The goodness is in the laughing itself...a bravery…and a sharing…against pain and sorrow and defeat." – DCShannon May 1 '15 at 19:00
  • Thank you! That's quite interesting and somewhat disturbing as I have to reassess the meaning of something I took for granted. My question arose in no small part after reading about Fr. "drôle" (it's both a noun and an adj.; root is Scandinavian drolle, initial meaning is "bon vivant"; as an adj. used as an attribute with "de" + noun i.e. "drôle de personnage", this did slide towards "weird/suspicious" - there is reference to this being like what happens in En. with "funny" - but it's the case of "funny business". In so many words it was a specific application, not global as I had thought.) – user16335 May 1 '15 at 20:50
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Is it possible that the origin of the word Fun/Funny has some kind of connection to the Ancient Greek poet "Αριστοφάνης " Aristophanes ? Aristo meaning excellence and Phanes meaning the visible / obvious . As Aristophanes was recognized as a satire/comedian in his time maybe the second part of his name Φανής (Phanes) sounds spoken "Funnies" over the ages became fun/funny in reference to both strange,lucrative and humorous.

  • Thanks! I do not have the expertise to say really. Maybe take a look at the ELU site for more deeply grounded etymology questions. You could research it further and present that with your question... – user16335 Feb 20 '16 at 21:36
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    Thank you, I took your advice and checked The ELU site and will continue research on the subject 😊 Of "Αριστοφάνης " known as the father of comedy here in Greece , the reference to the playwright /poet was his use of satire in order to criticize the politicians of his era ,thereby making himself very popular with the people and unpopular with the ruling elite. – D.A.P. P. Feb 22 '16 at 4:09

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