Tuesday, June 4, 2013


Photo by Gord McKenna

Yeah, no trick questions here--I just happened to pay more attention to the word recently and wondered what the whole idea behind it was. I have a feeling that having time to wonder  about whether things are fun or not is a relatively recent human development, although on the other hand I think fun itself has probably been with us for a long time. But what is it?


I'm always surprised when a simple English word that we all know, use (and can probably even spell in this case) proves elusive. "Fun" turns out to be a bit in that frustrating "origins unknown" category. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, its sense of "diversion" or "amusement" comes second. First off, it meant  a trick or hoax. The  noun came from the verb form, which meant to cheat or hoax, and preceded the milder meaning of the noun by a good bit. Before that, though, it all gets a bit hazy. Some think it comes from the Middle English fonnen, to befool. "Fond" is apparently related. But no one really knows.

There are a few fun things about "fun", though. For one thing, it doesn't really have a true correlate in other languages. Or so says Darius Kazemi, over on his blog, Tiny Subversions. I was thinking the same thing--how do you really translate the word?

Says Kazemi:

Did you know that the word “fun” is unique to the English language? In other languages, the word they use in similar circumstances translates to “diversion,” “amusement,” or something similar, but there is no word meaning exactly “fun.” (The etymology of the word goes back to Middle English, where we lose the trail.)
We don’t really precisely know what fun is: it seems to be a chimera consisting of many different emotions. So it’s disingenuous to say that a game is or isn’t some degree of fun. That said, fun still exists as a concept, whether we like it or not.    

Kazemi also recommends the book A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster, which I might just have to check out sometime.

Personally, I don't really think fun has much to do with fond. It does have a relation to funny, of course, and funny has a connection to that older meaning of hoax, as in the phrase "something feels funny about this to me." Is it possible that funny, as in odd, actually has a connection to the word phony?

Whatever else, though, etymologists do seem to have a lot of fun. Regular readers here will be familiar with the dry humor of Anatoly Liberman, and if not, I should be writing about him soon. If you look at etymological sources at all regularly, you will soon run across the attribution "Skeat", but it was not till now that I actually came across the actual irascible voice of the  man. This entry in Notes and Queries comes from the volume dated July to December, 1880.

It's fun.

The “etymology ” of fun from A.-S. feán (not fean) is too ridiculous to be worth “powder and shot”; one wonders who could ever have proposed it. It is new to me, but welcome as an addition to my list of curiosities. Fun can hardly be from Old French, or there would be some trace of it in Old English. I should like to see an example of fun as a substantive earlier than 1700. Spenser's fon is not an adj., but a sb., and means a fool, just as Chaucer's fonne does. We do indeed find fonly as an adverb, Shep. KaL, “ May,” 58 ; but it is either a printer's error for fondly, as we may charitably hope, or one of Spenser's own (very numerous) errors in attempting to deal with archaic English, with which his acquaintance was, from a scholarly point of view, very meagre indeed. The relation of fond to fon is well known, and given in my Etym. Dictionary; both words are Scandinavian, not French at all. The relation of fun to fon is not clear. There is a verb to fun, to cheat, clearly from the Scandinavian; but the common sb. fun in the sense of joviality is, as I have said already, best explained by the Irish and Gaelic fonn, pleasure. I suspect it was imported from Ireland in the days of Swift, but further illustration of the history of the word is much desired.
                                                                                                         Walter W. Skeat



  1. Well, this was ... fun. Reminded me of the expression, "We're just funning you," which I'm pretty sure meant kidding around, teasing, spoofing, and said after the victim is getting pretty agitated. Not a fond memory at all!

    You and your readers might enjoy "Riddle of the Labyrinth" by Margalit Fox about the solvers of Linear B.

  2. Yes, Collagemama, fun does seem to be very much in the eye of the beholder.

    Thanks for the book tip. I will add it to the enormous virtual TBR pile.

  3. The expression "belle fun" has come into some use in Quebecois French in recent decades.

  4. "Belle fun" is something we should try and spread down here below the border, I think.

  5. I think I first heard "belle fun" in a French Quebecois pop song of my youth called "Je Suis Cool."