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.