The Grammarphobia Blog

Funny you asked

Q: Here’s a question that might be fun for the blog: “Smelly” is something characterized by a smell. “Witty” is something characterized by wit. So what’s up with “funny”? Why does it mean amusing or comical rather than something that’s fun?

A: The adjectives “smelly” and “witty” are formed from the nouns “smell” and “wit” plus the suffix “y.” Similarly, the adjective “funny” is formed from the noun “fun” plus the suffix “y.”

A great many of our English adjectives are formed after this noun-plus-suffix pattern.

The Oxford English Dictionary explains that “the general sense of this suffix is ‘having the qualities of’ or ‘full of’ that which is denoted by the n. [noun] to which it is added.”

These are the principal definitions of “fun” in the OED: “A cheat or trick; a hoax, a practical joke” (circa 1700); “diversion, amusement, sport; also, boisterous jocularity or gaiety, drollery … a source or cause of amusement or pleasure” (1727); and “exciting goings-on” (1879).

For “funny,” the definitions are “affording fun, mirth-producing, comical, facetious” (1756); “curious, queer, odd, strange” (1806); and, in the expression “funny business,” it means “deceitful or underhand” (1888). We still use “funny” in all of these ways.

In summary, something that’s full of or characterized by “fun” in any of its senses can reasonably be described as “funny.” Of course, words tend to take on a life of their own, and not everything that’s “fun” can be described as “funny” in the ha-ha sense

As Woody Allen’s character said after a sex scene in Annie Hall, “That was the most fun I ever had without laughing.”

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