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Funny Bone

I mean, whassup with the pinkie? It’s not always pink, amirite?

Dear Word Detective: While doing our morning ritual crossword, my partner and I answered the usual clue for arm bone (ulna). I asked her, a retired Registered Nurse, to refresh my memory on all the arm bones and she reminded me of the radius and humerus. I’ll confess to making the pun about the elbow-funny bone connected to the “humorous bone.” My next thought was to ask you what you could dig up about the funny bone. — Charlie Nunzio.

Dig up, eh? Now there’s an idea: a comedy series about undertakers called “Funny Bones.” Or maybe a madcap CSI clone where the chief excavator is a stand-up comedian by night, a la Seinfeld. Or maybe a show about a dour Supreme Court justice who receives an arm transplant from a deceased shock jock and is mortified when his zombie elbow insists on making rude jokes at inappropriate moments. Like “My Mother the Car” without the car. By the way, since I don’t watch as much TV as I’m supposed to, at least one of these ideas may already have been used, in which case I have others. So give me a call, Viacom.

Onward. As you’re about to suspect, I’m not an expert on human anatomy. (I was unaware until recently, for instance, that people have two kidneys, which strikes me as bad design. What you want is one kidney and some special backup organ, a spare tire for the body, that can also fill in for the gall bladder, liver, etc., right?) Anyway, nothing I say here should be taken too literally. Don’t go disassembling yourselves and then come crying to me.

The “humerus” is, of course, the bone connecting the shoulder to the elbow. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it as “The bone of the upper arm, extending from the shoulder-joint to the elbow-joint.” I was not aware, incidentally, that the term “arm” to an anatomist means what you and I call the “upper arm.” The rest, from the elbow down, is called the “forearm,” which is attached to the paw. The forearm is composed of two long, straight bones, the “radius” and the “ulna.” None of these terms, unfortunately, have fascinating or romantic origins. “Humerus” comes directly from the Latin “umerus,” which simply means “shoulder,” but was used in English to mean the upper arm starting in the 16th century. “Ulna” is the Latin word for that bone in the forearm, and is related by a rather convoluted trail to the English word “elbow.” A “radius” in Latin is a spoke, staff or other rod-like object, so there’s no real mystery there.

The term “funny-bone” (or “funnybone”) first appeared in English in the mid-19th century (“It is like rapping a man … over the funny-bone,” 1867). The “funny-bone” is not a bone per se, but actually a spot on the elbow where the ulnar nerve passes over the end of the humerus and is thus susceptible to pressure. Striking your “funny-bone” on a door-jamb or other hard object is likely to produce a strong, and sometimes very unpleasant, tingling sensation in your arm. The feeling is usually “funny” in the “funny-strange” sense rather than the “funny-haha” sense, although spectators may find your grimaces amusing.

It’s a curious coincidence, and no more than than a coincidence, that the name of the “humerus” bone is so close in spelling, and even closer in sound, to the English word “humorous,” meaning “producing laughter; funny.” There is, however, a connection between “humor” and human physiology. The word “humor” (from the Latin “umor,” body fluid) originally, in medieval medicine, meant one of four fluids (blood, phlegm, choler, and melancholy, or black choler) thought to regulate bodily health and mood. One’s “humor,” in the 15th century, was thus simply one’s state of mind, and an “ill-humored” person was simply a chronic crankypuss with unbalanced fluids. “Humor” went on to apply more specifically to temporary flights of fancy or strange behavior (“Mariners … who had come ashore to see the humors of Election Day,” N. Hawthorne, 1850). Eventually “humor” came to be used almost exclusively to mean, as the OED puts it, “The faculty of perceiving what is ludicrous or amusing, or of expressing it in speech, writing, or other composition; jocose imagination or treatment of a subject.”

The resemblance of “humerus” to “humorous” has, aside from fueling the inevitable puns, almost certainly perpetuated the use of “funny-bone,” but most uses of the term today are in a figurative sense, using “funny-bone” to mean “sense of humor” (“Tickling golf’s funny bone at the US Open,” USA Today, 6/15/11).

Meantime / Meanwhile

In the meantime, in between time, we’re getting really sick of peanut butter.

Dear Word Detective: I have a few questions about the word “meantime”? What exactly is the “meantime”? Similarly, what is the difference between “meantime” and “meanwhile”? I noticed that some authors (specifically, Emerson) use “meantime” in situations where I would use “meanwhile.” — Josh.

Sheesh. Classy crowd we’ve got around here. Citations from Emerson, with other presumably serious authors hovering in the shadows? You know what I think of when someone asks about “meanwhile”? The interstitial caption in old westerns reading “Meanwhile, back at the ranch….” And if I turn my attention to “meantime,” my mental iTunes (more of an eight-track cassette player, actually) starts playing the refrain “In the meantime / in between time / ain’t we got fun?” from the old 1920s song “Ain’t We Got Fun?” Incidentally, I had never known (Thanks, Wikipedia!) that Ain’t We Got Fun?, written by Richard A. Whiting, Raymond B. Egan and Gus Kahn, was cited by George Orwell as an expression of working-class discontent after World War I. Come to think of it, the lyrics do have a definite edge.

The semantic distinction between “meanwhile” and “meantime” is easy to define: there isn’t one. The two words are synonyms, both meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “The time intervening between one particular period or event and another” or “During the intervening time between one particular period or event and another; while or until a particular event occurs; at the same time; for the present.” Both can be used as either a noun (“In the meantime, let’s set the table so we’ll be ready when guests arrive”) or an adverb (“Mean time, his Affairs at home went upside down,” Jonathan Swift, 1704). “Meantime” has also been used, rarely, as an adjective to mean “temporary” (“The lost sheep’s meantime amusements,” Robert Browning, 1873).

The “mean” in “meantime” and “meanwhile” is the adjective “mean” meaning “occurring between two points in time,” based on the noun “mean,” middle point, from the Latin “medianus,” in the middle. (This is a separate word from the other adjective “mean” in the sense of “nasty,” which comes from Germanic roots meaning “common, low-quality.” And the verb “to mean” in the sense of “to connote” or “to intend” comes from yet other roots meaning “to tell or say.”) The “while” in “meanwhile” is the noun form of the word, meaning “a period of time,” thus serving the same function as the “time” in “meantime.” We also use “while,” of course, as an adverb meaning “at the same time” (“While the cat’s away, the mice will file a restraining order”).

Meanwhile, back at your question, your sense that there is a difference in usage between “meanwhile” and “meantime” is not just your imagination at play. Some usage authorities maintain that “meantime” is best used as a noun (“In the meantime, wipe the beer off your desk and put out that fire”) and “meanwhile” ought to be used as an adverb (“Meanwhile, Billy-Bob was dating Bobbie’s sister’s daughter Billie, which gave everyone a headache”). That distinction is a fair description of how the words are most commonly used today. But, as the eminently sane Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (available free through Google Books) notes, “The evidence shows that ‘meantime’ and ‘meanwhile’ have been used interchangeably as nouns since the 14th century and as adverbs since the 16th century.” So while different authors may have different preferences, there’s no logical difference between the words and, more importantly, no history of writers consistently observing such a distinction.

December 2011 Issue

... and your little dog, too.


Oh, ye of little faith. I promised that there would be a proper December Issue before month’s end, and here we are.

I carried over the modified meme-version of our logo graphic this month. Oddly enough, I made that graphic before I saw the Wizard of Oz one, though I definitely had that caption in mind.

My absolute favorite of the breed, however, is the Magritte treatment below. My first thought on seeing that was “Gee, that would make a great shower curtain.”

Speaking of little dogs, our pal Pokey, the little yellow doggie that wandered in about twelve years ago, is showing her age. She appears to be almost entirely deaf, mostly blind, and somewhat demented to boot, though Pokey was never the brightest bulb on the porch even on a good day. The good news is that she remains indefatigably cheerful; when she detects that you are putting food in her bowl, she bounces into the air, all four feet off the floor, tail wagging as madly as it did the first day she was here.

Unfortunately, Pokey’s vision, or lack thereof, is a problem because she follows me all over the house. She always has, probably because she was dumped in the woods to starve and is understandably insecure even after all these years. The first few weeks she was here, in fact, she slept on a futon in my office and I had to sit with her and tell her bedtime stories every night so she’d settle down and sleep. Well, I probably didn’t really have to, but I did. Anyway, she can climb stairs just fine, and so she does while I work in my office on the second floor every day. But she’s very reluctant to descend the stairs, as she really must at least a few times a day.

So I have to help Pokey downstairs, a process that involves coaxing her to the head of the steps, then gently grasping her collar and supporting her just enough to encourage her, but not so much as to make her panic and start thrashing around. Meanwhile, I have my own problems going downstairs, so I have to grip the banister with my other hand and try not to lose my balance. I’m starting to think a winch and a basket might be a better idea. The scary part is when we approach the bottom of the stairs and Pokey decides, every so often, that she’s sick of the whole laborious process and might as well jump. From the fourth step up. With me attached. I ought to sell tickets.

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