Don’t panic

Language has a way of enticing even the smartest of speakers to succumb to sloppiness, prompting misuses to spin out of control. Inspired by one too many examples, I offer today’s friendly reminder.

A rule of thumb:

Hilarious – good.
Hysterical – bad.

Perhaps that’s oversimplifying things a bit, but it serves as a helpful reminder that each word has its own distinctive meaning.

With common misuse, the distinction has grown more subtle.

“Hysterical” and “hilarious” are not interchangeable. Yes, online dictionaries have added one as a synonym of the other in recent times, but I’m not buying it.

As a matter of instruction, “hysterical” means to be in emotional shock. Some of its most common synonyms include: irrational, panic-stricken, jumpy, nervous and anxious.

People often describe movies or books or television shows or comedians as hysterical; therein lies the danger.

I suppose it could be accurate to describe a movie as hysterical. That is, if hysteria is a predominant theme. Theoretically, Titanic could be called hysterical, but it certainly is not hilarious.

One might call a comedian hysterical. He might be funny, hilarious, in fact, but is he shrieking uncontrollably? Ben Stein, for example, can be hilarious, but he is never hysterical.

When something is extremely funny, it is hilarious. Full of hilarity. When a person is extremely funny, she is hilarious. If she is having a hissy fit, she is hysterical. Remember, hissy derives from hysteria.

I could say that I found something so hilarious that I became hysterical. But it is I who was hysterical, not the thing that I found hilarious.

There’s the lesson for today. Your homework: Keep an ear out for one week and report back on how often you hear hysterical misused. Extra credit: Correct the offenders and hope they take it in good spirit and don’t become hysterical.

13 Comments

Filed under All Things Wordish

13 responses to “Don’t panic

  1. M.E.

    I was on a bus in NYC when it broke down in fairly rough neighborhood back in the 70s. The first thing the driver said was “Don’t anybody panic.” That was hilarious. Nobody got hysterical.

  2. I’m not sure I’m buying your rebuke of those of us who find some comedians hysterically funny. I suspect (but actually have no idea) that “hysterically funny” may be the phrase that started the synonymous treatment of hysterical and hilarious. And I think it has a basis in reality. I’ve, in fact, seen many a comedian or movie that has made me convulse uncontrollably with laughter — a condition that could accurately be described as hysteria. I think the beauty of the English language is that it evolves and grows like a living thing. And the evolution of hysterical from bad to good doesn’t bother me in the least. But that’s just me. …

    • I totally buy “hysterically funny.” I too have been stirred to hysteria, to tears and near incontinence, by a good piece of humor. That’s a good hysteria. But again it is I who is hysterical, not the stimulus. Maybe it’s just my peeve. I believe we should reserve “he’s hysterical” for someone who really is. Thanks for your comments!

      • Okay, I give. Your distinction is absolutely correct. But I fear that if dictionaries are starting to accept the synonymous usage, this might be a quixotic quest. ESPN, among others, has coined some ridiculous usage that makes my skin crawl (to “go yard” as a verb meaning to hit a home run). But playing the grammatical precision card does no good, I’m afraid. I’ll try it out on the next misuse of “hysterical” I hear and let you know how I do. …

  3. Uh-oh, I’m afraid I am one of the offenders you speak of… I’m so glad I know this now! Thanks for the lesson; I shared it on Facebook. 🙂

  4. One more example of how language is always changing, mostly not for the better.

  5. Hilary

    Can I be hysterical, but still Hilary-ous? Or Hilary-ish?

  6. I’m gonna guess here that using “hysterical” for “hilarious” could have begun as a deliberate malapropism, such as Jimmy Durate was fond of. I certainly remember hearing it all my life. Some people might not have understood that it was a malapropism, or turned it into a frequent, tired joke. Then it could easliy become a standard usage.

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