Words: Fun

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THE DEATH of Screaming Lord Sutch brought a number of tributes, some more apt than others. An unnamed "police source" was quoted in the Sun as saying that he was "such a figure of fun", but I don't think this could have been what the source really meant to say. The Sun's reporter called him "the joker who became a political institution", which again seemed to strike a wrong note. The commonest current meaning of joker is no longer "a person who makes jokes". A joker these days is simply a person, and most of the time it's not too kindly said. ("Who's the joker who left without paying?" etc.) This meaning of it started off as antipodean slang, but is now part of the general vernacular, and it was surprising to find it used ambiguously in the Sun.

But if it's not very nice to be referred to as a joker, it's very much worse to be called a figure of fun. Fun in this sense is what you poke at people. Sutch was a brilliant performer, but he was not just a clown: he wasn't just trying to make people laugh at him. He wanted to make us laugh at others, to laugh with him, particularly at other politicians whose pretensions he despised.

Fun has a dubious history. Etymologists used to disagree about its origin, some saying it came from the Gaelic for a merry tune, others that it was from the Middle English fon meaning "fool", which is much more likely, since its very first meaning in modern English was to cheat, or make a fool of; the noun seems to have come later and began by meaning a hoax. It had changed by Johnson's time. He defined it as "frolicsome delight", but he didn't think much of it. He classed it as "low cant", by which he meant slang.

Later it became more respectable, but not entirely. The OED has a telling quote from Samuel Hall, the Victorian scribbler and House of Lords reporter who, my Dictionary of National Biography informs me, was highly enough thought of to be given a civil list pension.

Hall wrote about someone in 1845: "His wit and humour [is] delightful, when it does not degenerate into `fun'." The inverted commas round fun make it clear that the word, if not also the thing itself, could still be regarded as what Johnson would have called "low", or at any rate that someone else's idea of fun was not shared by Samuel Hall. (He certainly wouldn't have enjoyed Stanley Holloway's Blackpool, which was noted for fresh air and fun.) By the end of the century the word had gone lower, and had become a slang euphemism for sex.

The distinction between fun and humour, as pointedly made by Samuel Hall, was perfectly understood by the publishers of a plagiaristic contemporary of Punch in the 1870s. They called it Fun to show what a giggle it was going to be compared with its stuffy old rival: that whereas Punch was merely humorous, Fun would be what is now called funny-ha-ha. As it turned out, it was rather feebler than Punch was, and not even funny-ho-ho.