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shameless pleading

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).

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