Sometime last week, I was doing a crossword where one of the answers was zany. The clue was along the lines of “Back from Arizona to the Big Apple the crazy way.” For those who don’t typically do cryptic crosswords – a staple for any cruciverbalist from the UK – the “back from Arizona” gives you the ZA elements (the abbreviation for Arizona backwards), the “Big Apple” gives you NY, and the “crazy” is the clue itself – the meaning of the word zany.
On reflection, it seemed to me a little old-fashioned, and not a word I recall using or seeing for many years. If anything, my recollection would be in relation to ads for “zany” American TV shows or movies. And I say “American” because classic Brit comedies like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the Benny Hill show, even The Young Ones, were never, to my recollection, labeled “zany” – more likely “crazy,” “loony” or perhaps “surreal.”
According to the Corpus of Historical American (COHA), my go-to source for questions about word use over time, the word seems to have made its appearance in the 1930’s, peaked in the 70’s, and is now on a slow decline.
As to its origins, it’s a relatively recent word from the 16th century where it was used to refer to;
…a comic performer attending on a clown, acrobat, or mountebank, who imitates his master’s acts in a ludicrously awkward way; a clown’s or mountebank’s assistant, a merry-andrew, jack-pudding; sometimes used vaguely for a professional jester or buffoon in general.
Resisting the temptation to go off and explore the delightfully intriguing – and clearly underused – Jack-Pudding, the reason the word applies to a comic performer is that it refers to the name of characters in a form of Italian comedy called Commedia dell’arte. In its day, which is the 16th century, it was the Improv comedy of the age. Actors wearing masks would give improvised performances, and the clown characters would be called zanis or zannis, which in turn comes from the Italian Gianni meaning “John.” From this, it was just a small step to switch the word from a noun to an adjective that could be used to describe someone behaving like a “zani.”
This use of the word – as an adjective – is now the dominant one. In fact, it’s so dominant that most people don’t even know that it was originally a noun and are surprised to discover its origin. The single reference to zany in the COHA chart above in 1840 is as a noun from Herman Melville’s Mardi and a Voyage Thither, where he writes, “Azzageddi, you are a zany!”
Between 1870 and 1890, the COHA examples similarly have it as a noun, but by 1940, we see a mix of examples of the word as both noun and adjective, and by 1960 it is almost exclusively used as the adjective.
The flip has happened.