The English Pedant – Why fun is not funny

Funny is a funny word, isn’t it? Funny haha or funny peculiar, that is the question. Or it’s one question, anyway: there is also the similar but not identical concept of fun.

Lots of things in life can be fun but don’t make us laugh. A trip to the zoo or a game of darts. Flying a kite. Having sex. These things are fun, but they don’t necessarily cause us to giggle, cackle or any of the other variants of laughter.

To the non-native English speaker, though, it’s not so much that the two words are interchangeable, but more that fun doesn’t exist, or doesn’t need to exist anymore. They experience something that is what we would call fun and they say it’s funny.

Anyone who has ever explained the difference will know the look of disbelief, pity, almost contempt, on their face. “I enjoyed it,” they’re thinking. “And English adjectives often end in y. Therefore it was not fun, it was funny. Fun is a noun.”

We can and do use it as a noun, in fact. That was fun. We had fun.

So it can be “that was fun” or equally well “that was funny”?

Well, you think, it’s funny you should say that, because I’ve been speaking English all my life and there has always been that difference.

So no. It was either fun or it wasn’t. Unless it caused hilarity, in which case it was funny.

And then there’s the “peculiar” meaning of funny. How did that come about? Probably simple misuse a few generations back, because it doesn’t mean hilarious or even mildly amusing. It means puzzling. The Pedant’s ancestors would have been hard at work, pointlessly pointing out that the King’s English was being corrupted. Or the Queen’s if it happened in Victorian times.

There’s another strain of the word, too, which is particularly prevalent in British English: meaning awkward, difficult, or argumentative. You find “I’m not being funny” or perhaps “I’m not trying to be funny” as a disclaimer before a question or statement criticizing something. “I’m not being funny, but are you going to wear that cap in court?” or “I’m not trying to be funny, but haven’t you got any decent CDs?”

It’s a losing battle, of course, just as resisting any language change is. Many Americans are now saying funny when they mean fun. You get swamped with it and start doing it yourself.

With the worldwide issue of immigration  as prominent as it is, we come to the question of whether people settling in a new country should be obliged not only to speak the language but to speak it properly.

And that, frankly, is unenforceable, because there are so many variants among the native population. When there are Scots asking “How?” when they mean “What?”, we haven’t got a leg to stand on.

When there are millions of African Americans saying “Ah ight” instead of “All right” how can we insist that Spanish speakers learn the difference between v and b, so they can differentiate between very and berry?

But shouldn’t we at least try? And shouldn’t newcomers at least listen to what we’re saying, just as we try to pronounce their language properly?

I once worked with a Polish woman, well-educated and highly intelligent, who insisted on pronouncing salmon as sal monn. And when I say she insisted, I mean I pointed out to her that it was one of the most common mistakes among non-native English speakers, and that it should sound something like sammen, but she said, “Well, you say it your way and I’ll say it mine.”

The cartoon Brit in France turns up at a campsite and is looking for the office. “Essa kerr – eel ee ah – ern byoroe eecee?” If he’s staying, should the French let him labour in this way or should they teach him how to say it correctly? Surely a polite and helpful demonstration would be better for all concerned.

Shouldn’t we accept we still have a lot to learn and keep trying?

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