What makes a word funny

Three words that currently make Gabriel bust a gut (besides anything his brother says or does): coffee, booby, crap.

Gabriel’s riotous enjoyment of said words made me start thinking about the body of such words (etymology is one of my ongoing fascinations—in fact, when I began writing book reviews for Eighth Day Books, my co-worker / friend / boss Warren Farha had to gently remind me that I need not include a word origin in every blurb I wrote).

Upon searching out lists of inherently funny words, I found that at least one of G’s words made it onto every list: booby (1590s, from Sp. bobo “stupid person, slow bird,” probably from L. balbus “stammering.”) My own short list follows, complete with (minimal) commentary and corresponding origins. Because word origins involve history, and history is inherently complicated and messy (though incredibly interesting), some of the entries are rather long. Enjoy! Or if word origins aren’t your thing, ignore them altogether.

1. Flummox: 1837, origin uncertain, probably from some forgotten British dialect. Candidates cluster in Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, southern Cheshire and also in Sheffield. “The formation seems to be onomatopoeic, expressive of the notion of throwing down roughly and untidily.” So says the Oxford English Dictionary. Never let it be said that the OED editors lacked imagination.

2. Canoodle: “to indulge in caresses and fondling endearments” [OED], U.S. slang, of uncertain origin. The earliest known source is 1859, British, identifying the word as American.

3. Doozy: also doozie, 1903 (adj.), 1916 (n.), perhaps an alteration of daisy, or from popular Italian actress Eleonora Duse (1859-1924). In either case, reinforced by Duesenberg, the expensive, classy make of automobile from the 1920s-30s. This word is a favorite in the Jantz household. Particularly by my father, Gary, and grandfather, Leon, especially when used to describe a particularly bad storm.

4. Kerfuffle: “row, disturbance,” c.1930, first in Canadian English, ultimately from Scot. curfuffle, 1813, first used by Scottish writers, from a dialect word of Scotland based on fuffle “to throw into disorder;” first element probably as in kersplash.

5. Mollycoddle: 1833, originally a noun, “one who coddles himself,” from Molly (pet name formation from Mary), used contemptuously from 1754 for “a milksop, an effeminate man” + coddle, c.1600, “boil gently,” probably from caudle “warm drink for invalids” (c.1300), from Anglo-Fr. caudel (c.1300), ultimately from L. calidium “warm drink, warm wine and water,” from calidus “hot,” from calere “be warm” (see calorie). Verb meaning “treat tenderly” first recorded 1815 (in Jane Austen’s Emma). No offense meant toward my two lovely nieces, Molly Sue (currently loves the word “popcorn”) and Molly Anabelle (enamored with “meow”).

6. Rambunctious: 1830, probably altered (by influence of ram) from rumbustious, 1778, an arbitrary formation (perhaps suggested by rum (adj.) and boisterous, robustious, bumptious, etc.) from robustious.

7. Vomitory: 1595–1605; from L. vomitōrius, of or pertaining to vomiting, also an opening through which something is ejected or discharged. A vomitorium is an opening, as in a stadium or theater, permitting large numbers of people to enter or leave.

8. Skedaddle: “to run away,” 1861, American Civil War military slang, of unknown origin, perhaps connected to earlier use in northern England dialect with a meaning “to spill.” Liberman says it “has no connection with any word of Greek, Irish, or Swedish, and it is not a blend.” He calls it instead an “enlargement of dial. scaddle ‘scare, frighten.'” No idea who Liberman is, but I’m sure he knows what he’s talking about.

9. Rigmarole: 1736, “a long, rambling discourse,” from an altered, Kentish colloquial survival of ragman roll “long list or catalogue” (1520s), in Middle English a long roll of verses descriptive of personal characters, used in a medieval game of chance called Rageman, perhaps from Anglo-Fr. Ragemon le bon “Ragemon the good,” which was the heading on one set of the verses, referring to a character by that name. Sense transferred to “foolish activity or commotion” c.1955, but known orally from 1930s.

10. Pratfall: 1939, from prat “buttock” + fall (v.). Yeah, it means to fall on your butt.

11. Ornery: 1816, Amer.Eng. dialectal contraction of ordinary. “Commonplace,” hence “of poor quality, coarse, ugly.” By c.1860 the sense had evolved to “mean, cantankerous.” This is a funny one. What original meant ordinary has come to mean mischievous in a rather extraordinary way.

12. Logorrhea. 1902, from logos (word) + ending from diarrhea. Essentially meaning loquaciousness or talkativeness. More coarsely put, someone with diarrhea of the mouth.

That’s a fun one to end on. But I guess it brings us full circle to G’s love of the word crap. Stay tuned for a list of beautiful words in coming weeks.

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