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How funny is facetious?

Q: How do you assess the state of “facetious” today? Do most people use it to mean humorous or to mean joking, often inappropriately? Do you find this ambiguity problematic or do you think context is usually sufficient for understanding?

A: All in all, “facetious” is a slippery term. Some dictionaries recognize two meanings, some only one. And those that give only one definition differ as to whether “facetious” remarks are biting or benign.

It’s safe to say, however, that both the meanings you mention are in use today.

The word can simply mean humorous—that is, not serious. But “facetious” can also mean waggish or jokey, sometimes in a flippant or inappropriate way.

We generally depend on the context, or the manner of the delivery, to tell us whether a joke or witty comment is merely amusing or has a bite to it.

Obviously, that’s easier when the witticism is spoken (with vocal inflections and perhaps wry facial expressions), than when it’s written.

The different senses of “facetious” can overlap, of course, which is probably why some standard dictionaries mush them together.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says only that “facetious” means “playfully jocular; humorous,” as in “facetious remarks.”

And this single definition comes from Cambridge Dictionaries Online: “not seriously meaning what you say, usually in an attempt to be humorous or to trick someone,” as in “I make so much money that we never have to worry – I’m being facetious.”

On the other hand, the Macmillan Dictionary recognizes only the negative meaning of “facetious.” The sole definition is “trying to be funny in a way that is not appropriate.”

Some other dictionaries recognize wider uses for the adjective. 

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has these definitions: (1) “joking or jesting often inappropriately: waggish,” as in “just being facetious”; and (2) “meant to be humorous or funny: not serious,” as in “a facetious remark.”

M-W’s online edition gives longer examples, including this illustration for inappropriate humor: “a facetious and tasteless remark about people in famine-stricken countries being spared the problem of overeating.”

The Oxford English Dictionary also has two broad definitions of “facetious” in modern usage: (1) “characterized by or given to pleasantry or joking, now esp. when inappropriate or flippant”; and (2) “witty, humorous, amusing.”

That “now esp.” comment in the OED suggests that the dictionary’s editors believe that when “facetious” is used in a joking sense today, the flippant side of the word—the one with the bite—is more common.

The OED’s earliest published citation for “facetious” in the modern sense appears to use the word to mean witty and amusing. It’s from A Treatise of the Felicitie of the Life to Come (1594), by the Scottish minister and poet Alexander Hume:

“To heare the merry interloquutors of facetious Dialogues, pretty and quicke conceits, and rancounters of Comediens, in their comedies, and stage plaies.”

In a more contemporary citation, we find “facetious” used to describe an article that’s an extended joke (though a harmless one) about two literary figures who were dead ringers for each other.

“The resemblance between the two is extraordinary,” Robert H. Boyle writes in the New York Times Book Review (2000). “I decided to write a facetious article stating that Joyce and Jennings had been separated at birth.”

The references are to James Joyce and an angler named Preston Jennings, whose volume A Book of Trout Flies was published in 1935, four years before Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

In accompanying photographs, the two authors look nearly identical. Boyle argues, among other things, that the “fin” in Joyce’s title is no coincidence, and that his phrase “speckled trousers” is code for “speckled trout.”

Boyle’s article is hilarious, but not flippant or inappropriate.

(None of the OED’s examples of “facetious,” in our opinion, seem to represent inappropriate humor.)

So far, we’ve been discussing the meanings of “facetious” that have survived in modern usage. But an earlier sense of the word in English was lost long ago.

This “facetious,” first recorded in 1542, meant “polished, elegant, agreeable,” and was used to describe a person’s manners or style, according to the OED.

Oxford has only four examples, concluding with this one from Samuel Mather’s An Apology for the Liberties of the Churches in New England (1738):

“I Have a Letter in my Hands, and the very Original Letter, of the learned and pious and facetious Mr. Charles Morton of Charles-Town in New-England.”

What kind of etymological roots could grow a word meaning both elegant and funny? Slightly different roots, it seems.

The “facetious” that’s now obsolete (“polished, elegant, agreeable”) comes ultimately from the classical Latin facetus (clever, whimsical), which in post-classical Latin came to mean courtly.

And the “facetious” that has survived into modern usage is descended from the classical Latin facetia (a joke or jest).

Finally, an interesting aside: In booksellers’ catalogues the word “facetiae” is a euphemism for pornography, according to Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.). It means “jests” in Latin.

Keep that in mind next time you’re shopping for printed rarities.

Update (March 26, 2014): A reader writes to remind us that “facetious” is one of only two common words that contain all five vowels in order. The other is “abstemious.”

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