In a networking meeting some time ago, I was asked to spot an error in a comedy show flyer. I spotted several possible errors (whether they were actually errors depended more on style than anything else) and asked my questioner what he thought. He pointed to a sentence that read something like this:
This troupe of hysterical actors will make you cry tears of laughter as you watch their on-stage antics.
What caught my friend’s attention was the adjective hysterical. He had learned the word as referring to the emotional outbursts of people who could not control themselves. My friend understood the writer’s intended meaning, but thought the word hysterical was poorly chosen. Hilarious would have been a better choice, he believed.
That got me thinking. Has hysterical’s meaning of extremely funny become widely accepted by lexicographers (the folks who write and edit dictionaries)?
I first looked in my Webster’s New World College Dictionary (2008 edition). Its entry for hysterical is1. Of or characteristic of hysteria 2. a) Like or suggestive of hysteria; emotionally uncontrolled and wild b)extremely comical 3. Having or subject to hysteria
So, according to the 2008 version of Webster’s, using hysterical to refer to a group of comedians was very appropriate. Still curious, I looked at an American Heritage Dictionary from 1994. That dictionary defines hysterical as1. Marked by or due to hysteria. 2. Having or prone to having hysterics. 3. Informal. Extremely funny.
I noticed that using hysterical as an adjective meaning extremely funny was proper only for informal situations. Finally I looked at the oldest dictionary in my library: a Random House Dictionary from 1978. It lists hysterical as an adjective form of the noun hysteria. It defines hysteria as1. An uncontrolled outburst of emotion or fear. 2. A psychiatric disorder characters by violent emotional outbreaks, disturbances of sensor and motor functions, etc.
No mention of a definition related to being funny. I suppose one could argue that the first definition could be applied to someone so filled with joy they could no longer contain the pleasure within them and so had to laugh uproariously.
So three dictionaries differing from each other by both publisher and printing date each define hysterical in different ways. The fact that all three are from different publishers, however, makes it difficult to conclusively argue that hysterical’s meaning growing to include extreme humor was a function of time. One could also argue that modern dictionaries from American Heritage and Random House still retain their historical definitions.
In the hope of resolving whether time or publisher was the greater factor, I turned to OneLook.com. For serious wordsmiths, or those merely curious, OneLook is a great tool. It enables people to look up words in many dictionaries at one time and compare entries. When I want to see what are the common definitions of a particular word I almost always go to OneLook and spend some time looking up the word’s definition in several dictionaries.
So I entered the word hysterical in OneLook and searched the listing for an entry from American Heritage or Random House. Seeing an entry from American Heritage, I opened it to discover it defined as1. Of, characterized by, or arising from hysteria. 2. Having or prone to having hysterics. 3. Informal Extremely funny: told a hysterical story.
Apparently, American Heritage lexicographers continue their belief that expressing humor is an informal use of hysterical. Their only real change from 1994 to now was to add an example to hysterical’s third meaning.
Interestingly, while many dictionaries in OneLook’s listing for hysterical did not include Webster’s New World College Dictionary definition of extremely comical, those that did not were almost unanimous in using hysterical laughter as an example of excessive or uncontrollable emotion.
Will extremely funny continue to be an informal use of hysterical in another 20 years? Perhaps, but to find out for certain, be sure to consult a future current edition of your favorite dictionary.
* Apologies to Bob Dylan, whose third studio album title The Times They Are a-Changin’ was just too applicable to this post to not borrow.If you care, share.