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‘Hilarious’ Versus ‘Hysterical’

The root of "hysterical" may surprise you (and make you want to use "hilarious" instead).

By
Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read
Episode #798
The Quick And Dirty

"Hilarious" is a better word than "hysterical" if you are writing about something funny.

When you're rolling on the floor laughing, describe the joke as hilarious, not hysterical. 

‘Hilarious’

“Hilarious” means roughly "super funny"; it comes from a Greek word meaning "cheerful." 

Pandas are hilarious. I love to watch videos of them rolling down hills. They make me laugh every time.

And if you listened to last week’s episode about ‘continuous’ versus ‘continual,’ you’ll note that “hilarious” ends with the same “-ous” suffix we talked about at the end of “continuous,” which means nonstop. Panda videos are continuously hilarious, at least to me.

‘Hysterical’

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“Hysterical” means “excited.” It comes from the same root as “hysteria," from a Greek word meaning "womb" (coming from the idea—hrumph—that only women were emotionally excitable). 

And, I love this, we also used to have the adjective “hystericky” in American English. Here’s an example the Oxford English Dictionary lists from the novel “The Thin Red Line”: “He had had a strange hystericky encounter with his clerk Fife on the march.”

Some kinds of laughter truly can be hysterical. If people are so uncomfortable they laugh in an inappropriate situation, like at a funeral or while they are being robbed, that is most likely hysterical laughter.

Etymonline reports that people started using “hysterical” to mean “funny” in the late 1930s from the idea of people having “uncontrollable fits of laughter.” But some sources tag this use as informal or even sexist when applied to women.

‘Hilarious’ Versus ‘Hysterical’: A Memory Trick

Think of the word 'hysterectomy' when you think of 'hysterical' to remember the root means from 'womb.'

If you decide you want to avoid using the word “hysterical” to mean “funny,” you can remember the difference between the words by thinking of the word “hysterectomy” when you think of “hysterical” to remember the root. And a woman who needs a hysterectomy is likely to be worried, so that’s not funny.

‘Histrionics’

Finally, while researching this topic, I started wondering about the word “histrionics,” which sounds kind of like “hysterical” and has a similar meaning. 

That word comes from the Latin for “actor,” and someone who is displaying histrionics is acting. “Histrionics” can carry a sense of over-the-top theatrics, but it is not related to “hysterical” in any way. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.