Q: Last weekend a friend went on a rant about the unnecessary introduction of “comedic” into the English language. I think it’s overused for “comic,” but has different connotations. Your mission, should you choose to accept it!
A: We won’t go so far as to say that “comedic” is unnecessary. But it can usually be replaced by “comic,” a simpler and less academic-sounding term.
Of the two adjectives, “comedic” has a narrower meaning. Most dictionaries define it as having to do with comedy.
But “comic” means that and something more—funny.
For example, you could use either word here: “He prefers comic [or comedic] roles to tragic ones” … “Satire is just one element in the comic [or comedic] genre.”
But only “comic” will do when you’re talking about something that makes you laugh: “The feud stemmed from a comic misunderstanding” … “The dog provided comic relief.”
So writers who use “comedic” to mean funny—as in “several comedic moments” or “a comedic facial expression”—are misusing the word.
The standard American dictionaries, and most British ones, recognize this distinction. (Two of the British dictionaries—Longman and Macmillan—have no entries at all for “comedic.”)
The definitions in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) are typical:
“Comedic” is defined solely as “of or relating to comedy.” But “comic” is defined as both “characteristic of or having to do with comedy” and “amusing; humorous.”
The definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, are similar, though those for “comic” go into much more detail.
Of the two adjectives, “comic” is older. It was first recorded in English writing, the OED says, in the sense “of, relating to, or of the nature of comedy (esp. Greek or Roman classical comedy) as a literary or dramatic genre.”
The earliest known example of the adjective used in this sense is from a 1567 translation of Horace’s Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry):
“To Menander the Commicke gowne of Afphranus was fit.” (The references are to two comic playwrights—Menander in ancient Greece and Lucius Afranius in Rome.)
And here’s the dictionary’s most recent example for this sense of the word: “The comic playwrights seeking to follow Plato had to come to terms with Aristophanes whether they wanted to or not.” (From Martin Puchner’s book The Drama of Ideas, 2010.)
As for “comic” in the sense of funny or amusing, the earliest example in the OED is from the early 17th century:
“That Comicke impreza: If wise, seeme not to know that which thou knowest.” (From Richard Brathwait’s The English Gentleman, 1630. An “impreza,” normally spelled “impresa,” is a maxim or proverb.)
And here’s the dictionary’s most recent citation for “comic” in the laughable sense: “Mary Alice leans forward and scrunches up her face into a delightfully comic mug.” (From the Christian Science Monitor, May 13, 1995.)
This meaning of “comic,” by the way, is pretty much identical to that of the earlier “comical,” which is defined in the OED as “intentionally humorous; funny,” and dates from about 1590.
As for “comedic,” it was first recorded in the 17th century, according to the OED, but after that it wasn’t used much—if at all—until the mid-19th century.
Here’s the dictionary’s first example: “This might be the comedick catastrophe of our verie fearfull-like Episcopall tragedie.” (From a letter written in 1639 by Robert Baillie, a Church of Scotland minister and author.)
This is the dictionary’s second example: “Such a definition … would have the singular luck of excluding our very best comedic dramas from the list of comedies.” (From George Darley’s introduction to an 1840 collection of the works of Beaumont and Fletcher.)
Even as late as the 1860s, “comedic” was so uncommon that this writer thought he (or she) had invented it:
“The comic element … soon associated with itself a comedic element, manifested in the representation of manners and characters of the current age. … I ask pardon for coining this word comedic; but comic, in the signification which it has gradually assumed, does not express what I mean.” (By an author signed “J.A.” in the Ladies’ Companion, 1864.)
George Bernard Shaw also felt called upon to substitute “comedic” for “comic” in an article he wrote for the Saturday Review in 1897:
“Speaking of the masters of the comedic spirit (if I call it, as he does, the Comic Spirit, this darkened generation will suppose me to refer to the animal spirits of tomfools and merryandrews).”
Apparently both “J.A.” and Shaw felt that “comic” had begun to imply too much revelry, and wasn’t appropriate in serious discussion of comedy as a dramatic genre.
As you might suspect, all these words have roots in classical Latin and Greek.
The adjective “comic” is from the Latin cōmicus (of or belonging to comedy, or comic). The Romans got it from Greek: kōmikos, derived from kōmos (a festivity or revel with music and dancing).
“Comedic” is from the classical Latin cōmoedicus (of or relating to comedy, or comic), which in turn is from the Greek kōmōidikos, derived from kōmōidia (comedy).
Finally, “comedy,” which came into English in the late 14th century, is partly from Anglo-Norman and Middle French (comedie) and partly from Latin (cōmoedia), which is derived from Greek (kōmōidia).
We like the definition Samuel Johnson gives “comedy” in his dictionary of 1755: “A dramatick representation of the lighter faults of mankind.”
In our opinion, writers sometimes use “comedic” as a pompous substitution for “comic.” But that’s one of their lighter faults.