The Word

A fun whodunit

A noun morphs into an adjective. Who's to blame?

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jan Freeman
March 30, 2008

EVERYBODY HAS A usage gripe to share, or two, or 20. But some people want more than a hearing: They want to know whodunit. Who changed pled to pleaded, or dived to dove? Who coined the dreadful incentivize? And who made fun into an adjective?

Reader Barry Briss is not the first to complain about so fun and funner, but he's the first to demand that names be named. "Who decided to drop the word much from so much fun?" he asks in an e-mail. "Who added the -er to fun?"

He's not likely to get satisfaction. Innovations like so fun generally spring from the spoken language: Colonel Mustard, in the ballroom, whispers a neologism into the shell-like ear of Mrs. Peacock, who shares it with Mrs. White in the kitchen. By the time the new usage sees print, it has probably been percolating for decades.

The lag time may be shorter these days, it's true. Miss Scarlet, in the library, texting on her cellphone, and Professor Plum, in the lounge, posting to his blog, don't need a mainstream editor to approve their verbal adventures.

Still, changes in our language, like the murder on the Orient Express, are generally the work of groups, not individuals. But if we don't know who forced fun into adjectival servitude, the language detectives have a theory or two about motive, means, and opportunity.

In the beginning, we had fun, the mass noun, as in "We had a lot of fun," which is grammatically parallel to "We had a lot of fondue." But the noun fun, as nouns will do, also lent itself to attributive uses, modifying other nouns: "We had a fun evening" is standard English, just like "We had a fondue party."

It's also common, though, to use fun as a predicate: "That was fun." And though fun can be a noun here, it can just as plausibly be read as a predicate adjective - grammatically equivalent to That was amusing (or lovely or fabulous).

Besides, points out Bryan Garner, we need fun to fill a gap in the lexicon. "Unlike other nouns of emotion, fun hasn't had a corresponding adjective to mean 'productive of fun,' " he writes in Garner's Modern American Usage. Funny, the logical candidate, was long ago drafted for other purposes, and can't take this job. So we make a slight adjustment, and presto: Fun is an adjective.

It didn't change roles overnight: The online Oxford English Dictionary lists fun as a noun, but notes its use as an attributive, "passing into adj[ective] with the sense 'amusing, entertaining,' " in the mid-19th century, when a writer described a household with a designated "fun-room" set aside for "dancing and romping."

The attributive fun shows up in a trickle of citations for the next hundred years, and then, in the mid-20th century, in a steady stream. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage quotes Time magazine in 1946: "This language problem has its fun side, too."

The '50s bring fun hats and fun times; in the '60s we get fun furs, along with first sightings of so fun. (Only decades later, with the new vogue use of so - "you are so dead," "we so don't care" - do we get the negative version, "it's so not fun.") And then there's funner - which sounded like a joke, at first, but will have to be taken seriously if fun is really an adjective.

Few language commentators have objected to the evolution of fun. It's normal, after all, for English words to switch parts of speech, though adjectivizing nouns is not so common as verbing them.

Steven Pinker, the Harvard psycholinguist, once said that anyone born after 1970 or so probably heard fun as an ordinary adjective. And even those born earlier - most of them, anyway - see the writing on the wall; fun may be labeled casual or informal, but rarely illegitimate.

Still, for anyone looking to blame someone for the fate of fun, I do have a scapegoat to offer. A search of Google Books showed that an especially prolific user of adjectival fun was Rose Franken, a popular novelist and playwright in the '40s and '50s. According to The New York Times, her play "Claudia" was the critics' choice for best of the 1941 season, and her work "displayed a steadfast conviction that marriage was a compound of gaiety and disaster."

Claudia is a bit of a drip, from what I have read, but her domestic complications fueled not just that play, but also eight novels and two hit movies. She and her friends had "fun ideas" and "fun evenings" and "fun times." And they were very, very popular.

So if you think so fun is a crime, here's a scenario worth investigating: It was Ms. Franken, in the study, with a typewriter.

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