Thursday, February 9, 2012

Did you hear the one about "hysterical"?

After a reader e-mailed me, a few years back, to explain that only God could be said to “create” anything -- the rest of us, his teachers insisted, can only make, fabricate, and build -- I thought I’d heard everything in the weird-peeve department. But Henry Hitchings, of all people, is nurturing a language prejudice almost as eccentric. I learned of it from a review of his latest book, “The Language Wars,” in the Wall Street Journal, where Barton Swaim writes that Hitchings
knows that the meanings of words change over time, and rightly deplores the conceit of those "fusspots" who berate people for incorrect usages, but "I wince," he admits, "when 'hysterical' is used as a synonym for 'hilarious.' "
I’ve heard hundreds, maybe thousands, of word peeves in my lifetime, but I’ve never come across this one. Surely Hitchings, who’s still in his 30s, has never lived in a world where hysterical didn’t mean “funny.” So where did he learn to wince at it?

It's true that hysterical "funny" is not especially ancient. The OED didn't add a listing for the sense until 1993, with the earliest example from Mario Pei in 1969:  "To describe something as really funny, a woman will use 'hysterical'." As, indeed, Elizabeth Janeway did in her 1943 novel, “The Walsh Girls”:
She had never seen anything so funny in the world as Alice's face when Connie called her a bitch. It was the funniest thing that could have happened. It was hysterical.
But it wasn't just women. Google Books also finds the usage in Vincent Price's “I Like What I Know: A Visual Autobiography‎” (1959):
The evening was a plodding delight . . . plodding because I was determined to find something hysterical in every word she said, and when I left … I felt like an idiot because she hadn’t been that funny.
Hysterically funny, the long form of our "hilarious" hysterical, shows up quite a bit earlier. This example from an 1886 short story may be transitional – the narrator is both trying to amuse a young woman and being driven slightly crazy:
My behaviour was often fatuously absurd. Anon I became hysterically funny. Altogether I compared very unfavourably with the bright and facile Stephen.
But in this report from the City College Quarterly, about a student play performed in 1913, hysterically clearly means “exceedingly”:
In particular, David Grant and David Bogen distinguished themselves for remarkable acting. … Mr. Bogen's antics and falsetto voice were hysterically funny.
As it does in this story in Boy’s Life, 1936:
“Funny, aren’t you?” said Alan. "Screamingly, hysterically funny," Happy agreed pleasantly.
You might be guessing, about now, that hysterical is a British nit, but no; none of the usual 20th-century guidebooks, British or American, mention the usage, though a couple of reference works label it informal. In fact, I found just one writer who condemns it: Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, who seems to have launched a campaign to restore the purity of hysterical.

Don’t use it to mean "funny," she advised in "The Grammar Devotional" (2009). "Hysterical means 'excited.'" And she made hilarious/hysterical one of the confusable word pairs in her 2011 book, "Grammar Girl's 101 Misused Words You'll Never Confuse Again."  "People will say 'hysterical' when they think something is funny," she told Neal Conan in an NPR broadcast.
But hysterical actually means excited in a negative way … when you're saying someone is hysterical, it's like, you know, hysterical laughter after a bank robbery when everyone is freaking out.
I doubt that Fogarty and Hitchings influenced each other; more likely, there's a lurking anti-hysterical movement out there, a scattering of teachers or editors hoping to reverse this previously uncontroversial extension of the word's meaning. Or is it not so tiny? If you've ever been cautioned about using hysterical to mean "hilarious," please let us hear the particulars. 


Ø said...

I propose a movement to squelch the use of "hilarious" for "funny". Properly it means "mirthful", which is really not the same thing. (I'm not serious.)

Jonathon said...

I think I've come across this warning before, but I don't remember where. I don't give it any credence, though.

Ø said...

Seriously, as I see it, what has happened to "hysterical" is a lot like what happened to "awful" and "awesome" and "nice" and "pretty": a nuanced sense has been somewhat overridden by a more general colloquial sense: it's been at least a little bit ruined, skunked, if you want to be peevish about it, which I don't.

But I don't buy the idea that the influence of "hilarious" had anything to do with the fate of "hysterical". There is such a thing as hilarious laughter, in the good old sense of "hilarious", which accounts sufficiently for the fact that people came to say "hilariously funny" and eventually (with some loss of nuance) "hilarious"="very funny". Likewise there is such a thing as hysterical laughter, in the good old sense of "hysterical", which accounts sufficiently for the fact that people came to say "hysterically funny" and eventually (with some loss of nuance) "hysterical"="very funny".

Both words have lost something; it's too bad, but the language will live; I don't think you can blame either case on the other.

Don said...

Professor Paul Brians' Common Errors in English site has this entry for hysterical / hilarious:

People say of a bit of humor or a comical situation that it was “hysterical”—shorthand for “hysterically funny”—meaning “hilarious.” But when you speak of a man being “hysterical” it means he is having a fit of hysteria, and that may not be funny at all.

Marc Leavitt said...

When I went to my alienist, he treated me for hysteria, the uncontrollable acting out which affects me when peevologists make ex cathedra pronouncements which cause me to laugh hysterically, almost maniacally, and I think that's hilarious.

John Burgess said...

^^ +1

Faldone said...

I would object that Marc Leavitt could not be diagnosed with hysteria as he does not have a uterus.

Gregory Lee said...

So where did he learn to wince at it?

That's interesting. Maybe he never learned it directly through language experience, but was able to construct his own theory that the "funny" sense was recent, just from considering the different senses. A sort of folk internal reconstruction that, as you've found out, turned out to be correct.

Anonymous said...

To Faldone, I would say as regards Mr. Levitt, "Don't rub it in," but since he doesn't have a uterus...