Clowny With a Chance of Fun

Mrs. Marion Greenwald, who usually has something to say — and smile — about the column, asked about the expression “fun, as in, ‘It’s so fun.’”

(Personal note: I can’t mention Mrs. Greenwald without a grateful salute to her and to her late husband, lbcl”c, Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald, z”l, who she — and all of us — recently lost. … A simply great man. )

I thought Mrs. Greenwald’s question was innocuous enough. Turns out using fun as an adjective is hair-trigger incendiary in the war of the words. It’s right up there with “I literally exploded.”

What is “fun”? The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists the first use of fun as a verb: “To cheat, hoax; also, to cajole.” From 1685, in Roxburghe Ballads: “She had fun’d him of his Coin.”

OED’s second citation is from A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew, 1699: “What do you Fun me? Do you think to Sharp or Trick me?”

Not an auspicious beginning. “Canting crew” is defined in the 1898 Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: “Beggars, gipsies, and thieves, who use what is called the canting lingo.”

By the later 1700s, fun hustled its way from pickpocketing to more innocent amusements. Samuel Johnson still called fun a “low cant word,” but others were more fun-loving. OED listed these definitions: “Diversion, amusement, sport; also, boisterous jocularity or gaiety, drollery. Also, a source or cause of amusement or pleasure.”

(A digression … call it wistful thinking. When my daughter Naama was around three, we lived in a one-donkey town called Givat Ada. On Pesach and Sukkos we would take her to the rides at Luna Park in Tel Aviv. She called it “the amuse-me park.” OK, back to the fun work.)

In 1962, John Algeo wrote in American Speech:

“The future development of adjectival fun needs watching. We can surely expect to find pure intensifiers used with it: a very fun party is only a matter of time. We may even anticipate being told that one car is funner than another, and that will be the funnest thing of all.”

A year later, also in American Speech, Dwight Bolinger proclaimed the fulfillment of Algeo’s prophecy when a teenage member of Bolinger’s family said, “It’s so fun!”

“The term fun is a shining example of the gradual emancipation of a form once securely barricaded behind the wall that separates nouns from adjectives, but which undermines it first at one weak point and then another. …” Eventually, Bolinger said, the wall gave way; fun escaped and became an adjective.

OK, buckle your seatbelt. We’re going to be doing some grammar here. (I’m often tempted to throw grammar from the train, but I don’t want to lose you now. So hold on tight.)

Ben Zimmer, on, gets technical. (How fun is that!)

“Fun crept into adjectival usage in large part because of its ambiguous use as a predicate, as in ‘That party was fun,’ where it can be read as either a noun or an adjective. When fun is a predicate, you can only tell which part of speech it is when it gets modified: ‘That was great fun’ or ‘That was lots of fun’ reveals it as a noun, while ‘That was so fun’ or ‘That was very fun’ reveals it as an adjective. … Similarly, fun is a noun in ‘Dad is not as much fun as Mom,’ but it’s an adjective in ‘Dad is not as fun as Mom.’”

I know, I know; but please keep your seatbelt fastened. This isn’t El Al.

Bryan Garner, the Words Keeper (ask me later), wrote in Garner’s Modern English Usage that fun came into vogue as an adjective, but only as what he calls a “casualism.” That’s not a religion and has nothing to do with sweat pants. It means words that are acceptable, but only in informal English. He quotes lexicographer R.W. Burchfield: “In serious writing it (so far) lacks a comparative and a superlative.” But Garner adds that is not true of spoken English, “especially among those born after 1970.”

Just a thought: It occurred to me that in Hebrew and Yiddish there are words for play, pleasure, joy and enjoyment, but no equivalent of “fun” — meaning a combination of the pleasure principle and the pursuit of happiness.

Not to get sanctimonious, I wrote to the secular purists: The Academy of the Hebrew Language. They replied in Hebrew (so what did you think?).

Google translation: “In certain contexts you can take the word fun, or fun, such as, for example, is a business just for the fun of it. …”

There was more. But all the terms the Academy used for “fun” were hanaah (enjoyment), taanug (pleasure) and shaashua (delight).

I couldn’t help but think of the verse (Tehillim 119:92), “If not for your Torah, my delight ­(shaashuai), I would have perished in my affliction.”

Are we having fun yet?

Please send smiles, sticks and stones to

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