Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

What's the Matter with "Funness"?

In my most recent column for the Boston Globe, I poke fun at new advertising slogans that Apple is using for its iPod line: the latest iPod Nano is "Completely Renanoed," while the iPod Touch is "Engineered for Maximum Funness." Whereas renanoed at least shows a modicum of creativity (turning Nano into a verb capable of taking the re- prefix), funness seems to be an unnecessarily cutesy elaboration on plain old fun. But hang on: can we make a distinction between fun and funness?

The development of funness is part of the gradual move of fun from noun to adjective, which I talked about in a column back in 2008, the last time Apple played the fun card. Then it was Steve Jobs calling the new iPod "the funnest iPod ever," which gave me the opportunity to reflect on why there has been resistance against the forms funner and funnest, at least among people born before 1970 or so. Funness goes even beyond those comparative and superlative forms, though. As Christopher Johnson, author of Microstyle, told me for the Globe column, "Funness implies that fun has so thoroughly morphed into an adjective that you have to put -ness on it to turn it back into a noun."

But Apple is hardly the first to add -ness to fun: I've found examples going back nearly half a century. The earliest example I've turned up is in a column by Matt Weinstock that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in February 1963, attributing the word to a teenager grading his mother:

The new school semester starts today and before it settles into routine a Thousand Oaks mother would like to tell what her son, a ninth grader, does at report card time.
Before bringing home his card, which may not be all that it might be, he takes the offensive by presenting her with his report card on her.
Invariably she rates low on housework, getting D's or even F's on such things as Sink Disarray or Window Washing. She usually manages a C in cooking.
However, it pleases her that she gets mostly A's and B's in character traits, doing well consistently in Interest in Son, Open Mindedness and Funness.
Los Angeles Times, Feb. 4, 1963, p. II6

That ninth-grader might not have had the most progressive views on motherhood, but he was forward-looking in his use of funness. Other early examples are used in a punny fashion. I found a mention of a 1964 teacher's manual by Douglas & Gloria Evans entitled Rhythmic Activities & Physical Funness for the Younger Set: apparently physical funness was more palatable to kids than physical fitness.

Use of funness (or fun-ness) began to creep into the language of advertising in the late '60s. In the January 1966 issue of the trade journal Ice Cream Review (I'm glad that there is such a thing), this line appears: "Too often, the industry has been on the defensive and has not aggressively promoted the value, nutrition and 'fun-ness' of its products." And I found an advertisement for Baldwin Organs from the Dec. 20, 1968 issue of the Port Angeles (Wash.) Evening News: "It's no secret that Baldwin is the finest, and the 48HR adds 'fun-ness' to 'fine-ness' to give you complete happiness in a home organ."

Beginning in the 1970s, funness could sometimes be found in more serious contexts. Take this, from a 1972 review of a show at the Cleveland Museum of Art:

The few instances in which one can dispute the artistic merit usually are justified on other counts, especially humor. Who, for example, could take James Higginbotham's little $10 cloth and fur soft-sculpture "George" seriously? It's got something though, a creepy funness.
Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 2, 1972, p. 14

And then there's this 1973 New York Times article about magazine publisher Malcolm Forbes announcing plans for a cross-country balloon flight:

The strapping executive told luncheon guests: "What in hell has this to do with a business magazine? The answer is, 'Nothing at all' — it's just for the fun-ness of it."
New York Times, Sep. 21, 1973, p. 45

A decade later, one can find funness in another New York Times article, this time about food in the New York Yankees clubhouse:

George Steinbrenner, the Yankees' principal owner, is even taking the fun out of the baseball clubhouse, according to the doctor who set up the first food program for the nation's astronauts. It all started when Steinbrenner ordered that salads, fruits and juices be served to his players in the clubhouse instead of the customary doughnuts, pastries and candies.
"There are some advantages," said Dr. Paul LaChance of Rutgers University, an international authority on nutrition, ''but there also is a fallacy in the sense that there are different degrees of 'funness' in different foods."
"A boiled potato doesn't have any fun in it," he said. "With french fries you begin to add fun to it. With potato chips, you really add some fun."
New York Times, June 3, 1983, p. A24

Usage of funness became more prevalent in the '80s and '90s, often coming up in marketing discussions of the funness of a product. Even though it would be possible to substitute the simpler word fun in some of these cases, there does seem to be something a bit different implied by funness. If fun as a noun denotes activities or experiences that are enjoyable or amusing, then funness is the abstract quality that characterizes those activities or experiences — which can then be applied to everything from mothers to potato chips. It's the difference between "having fun" and "being fun." So if you can grudgingly accept that fun is here to stay as an adjective, then perhaps funness isn't such an outrageous development after all.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.