What do you regard as the glue that holds narratives together? If you say syntax–the rules of which are codified in grammar–you’re right on the technical level. But a subtler kind of glue, the collection of words and expressions that we call discourse markers, is what enables us to shape and perceive narrative as a cohesive whole in which the parts fit together congruently and flow from beginning to end.

Speakers and writers draw on a common set of discourse markers when inserting linguistic signposts to indicate the direction they are taking or to clue up their audience about how something should be taken. As a writer, you can of course insert these markers as you go along; then you have the option of revising them later when you edit your work, usually with a view to clarifying it. Discourse markers in speech, to my mind, are more interesting for a couple of reasons: you can’t go back and change them because conversation can’t be edited, and the informality of speech gives us a much wider range of expressions. We have all the standard discourse markers used in writing, as well as their colloquial equivalents or near equivalents.

What discourse markers occur in the previous paragraph? There’s of course in the second sentence, which I insert to make it clear I know that you already know what I’m about to say; there’s to my mind in the third sentence, a handy formula for introducing an opinion. There’s as well as in the last sentence, which indicates that I’m adding another like item to something already supplied.

In conversations lately I have been monitoring discourse markers and I’ve found something funny. Here’s what I mean.

My cousin and I catch up on the phone regularly. Regardless of what I may say, at some point she will come back with this: “Well, it’s funny . . .” and then proceed to relate something that may be directly related, but more often is tangential to what I just said. Why is it funny? I don’t think she means funny ha-ha, I think she means funny peculiar (or to use the VT’s definition of this sense, “Beyond or deviating from the usual or expected”). But what she has to say is rarely at all peculiar; it’s just somehow prompted by what I said, and it’s rarely unusual or unexpected. Perhaps she has simply truncated the longer formula. It’s funny you should say that, which I think of as a way to introduce a coincidence of thought or subject matter.

All of this was in my mind when I was listening to the NPR radio program “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” last week and this exchange occurred between the host Peter Sagal and guest “Slash”, a rock guitarist:

SAGAL: You know, one of the things I'm curious about is - you and your band became so iconic. I just can't - I don't know - I can't imagine what it's like. Like, if you ever walk into, like, a music store, do you know that some idiot is going to be in the corner just butchering one of your songs on a (laughter) - you know?

(some related banter intervenes)

SLASH: It's funny, though, 'cause I used to work at a music store at one time, and so I do know what that's like, for other - to have guys come in, sit down on an amp and plug in and play any number of Zeppelin or Van Halen songs (laughter). So I've been through that.

Is Slash’s funny the same funny as my cousin’s? Before I knew it I was off on a wider search for discourse markers that use funny.  I conclude that variations of the “funny” discourse marker are common. But do all the funnies mean the same thing or are there slight variations? If this is so, are speakers drawing on the very flexible semantics of funny, or do the surrounding words supply some nuance? Why do we characterize or introduce so many directions in conversation as funny?

There’s that’s funny, which typically introduces an observation that the speaker finds remarkable or unusual:

There’s also funny enough, which has an impressive 1,235 occurrences in a contemporary corpus. It’s a parenthetical discourse marker to introduce a slight or suspicious coincidence:

Funny enough seems to be a near relative of (It’s) funny how, though to me, the latter often signals even more suspicion and less coincidence:

Funny how is further colloquialized to Ain’t it funny how, which is followed by the same sorts of clauses that follow the shorter form.  (Hat tip here to fellow VT writer Nancy Friedman who alerted me to this relevant Willie Nelson tune.)

Another pattern I see is it’s funny to _________, where the blank is filled with a verb, often one of perception, to introduce something unexpected:

But here there’s genuine ambiguity because this construction can clearly be used to mean funny ha-ha, and it’s up to the listener to decide which is meant.

But there’s a question that underlies all of the foregoing: is it funny (peculiar) that English has a word that can mean such contrary things? Here’s a sense inventory from a popular dictionary in which the meanings are listed in descending order of frequency:

  1. providing fun; causing amusement or laughter; amusing; comical
  2. attempting to amuse; facetious
  3. warranting suspicion; deceitful
  4. Informal. insolent; impertinent
  5. curious; strange; peculiar; odd

Funny started out life in English innocently enough, by simply adding the productive adjectival suffix -y to fun and doubling the consonant to make the spelling conform to rules. A quick stroll through the historical usages of funny (via the OED) reveals a couple of surprises: first, that funny is a relatively new word (1750s), and secondly, a mere 50 years passed before it went from meaning “amusing, affording fun” to also meaning “odd, peculiar”.

In my knowledge of other languages, funny translates poorly, imprecisely at best. It usually translates into a number of different words corresponding to its various senses. But perhaps for that reason it is just the right word to characterize the many sorts of turns that conversation can take, leaving it to the listener to decide in what way or how much something is funny.

The common retort question “Funny ha-ha or funny peculiar?” didn’t come along until nearly 100 years after the first ambiguities of funny emerged. But its persistence suggests that we still sometimes struggle to decide just how funny something is.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.