Monday, April 30, 2012

A to Z: Zany!

Hey, I made it! It's the end of the A-to-Z Challenge. Let's look at some Zaniness, shall we?

According to this site, the word 'zany' was first used in English by none other than William Shakespeare, although its origins are apparently Italian:

Somebody zany is amusingly crazy or clownish. If you object to my definition, then you may be in the company of the compilers of several current dictionaries. It’s a hard word to pin down — we all think we know what we mean by it, but we may find describing it in plain English surprisingly hard.

That may have something to do with the way the word has evolved. It was first a noun, to describe a performer in the commedia dell’arte, an improvised Italian comic form of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The zany was a foolish servant, a buffoon, who attempted to mimic the actions of his master, himself a clown. The servant was given the generic name Giovanni (the Italian equivalent of John), much as English servants of the same period were frequently called Andrew (indeed, one English equivalent to the zany was a merry-andrew), or as a Glaswegian might call someone Jimmy as an all-purpose name. In time Giovanni turned into zannie and we imported it in that form.

. We tend to think of zany as meaning a special kind of madcap comedy, one in which questions of sanity are best left at the door. Here's Merriam Webster on the case:

1: being or having the characteristics of a zany

2: fantastically or absurdly ludicrous (a zany movie)

However, looking at definition number one under zany as adjective, I see that zany can also be a noun. This, I did not know! y interesting word, actually. Merriam-Webster defines it thusly (same link as above, toggle a link there to switch from noun to adjective):

1: a subordinate clown or acrobat in old comedies who mimics ludicrously the tricks of the principal

2: a slavish follower

3a : one who acts the buffoon to amuse others

The noun use of zany seems to have dropped out of usage, in favor of the adjective. I've never, to my knowledge, heard of someone refer to a 'zany', but I have heard, many times, someone or something described as 'zany'. So how about some zaniness in fantasy and SF?

Well, there's quite a lot of comedy to be found in both genres. Fantasy isn't all long, wordy, and ponderous tales involving plucky rural heroes making their way across a vast continent to the very stronghold of evil; there's plenty of funny stuff be found. But not everything that is funny is also zany. I'd definitely file the books of Christopher Moore in the 'zany' category, and they are cheerfully zany, full of wild leaps in logic and loaded with highly eccentric characters; his books are, in the words of Merriam-Webster, "fantastically or absurdly ludicrous". That's part of their charm. Moore writes the kinds of books where two women in a rubber raft at sea find themselves in between two whales who are about to engage in the physical act of whale-love, or where a six-year-old Jesus causes a stir in his hometown when he makes his own face appear in the Passover bread.

Interestingly, Moore has also written a book that fits the noun use of zany, the wonderful Foole, in which Moore tells the story of King Lear from the viewpoint of the Fool...the zany, you might call it.

Lois McMaster Bujold's "Miles Vorkosigan" books aren't really zany, per se, but they do have moments when the humor rises to a certain level that's almost zany. Ditto Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastard Sequence (comprising The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies. I suspect that the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series is pretty zany...but I wouldn't know. I haven't read them. (I'll hang my head in shame.)

Fantasy and SF in the movies? There, it's easier to find zaniness on display. Ghostbusters is pure zaniness, through and through. So is Back to the Future, Galaxy Quest, and most of Star Trek IV. Men in Black is zany, and amongst animated films, The Emperor's New Groove is as zany a film as I can remember. And you have to include the films of Monty Python, which are as zany as it gets and which are often filled with fantastical content.

I'm sure it comes as no surprise that I'm a fan of zaniness, both in life and in fiction. Serious things are good, but zaniness is a part of life, is it not? Life should be a little bit zany...or a lot zany, if you can manage it. The trick is to find your preferred versions of it and incorporate them into your life. Don't be afraid to, as Merriam-Webster defines it, "act the buffoon to amuse others"...even if it means the occasional pie in the face.

And with that, I come to a successful close of the A to Z Challenge for 2012, Huzzah! Maybe I'll do this again next year....


Jeremy Bates said...

Well said, I agree that 'zany' should be a part of everyone's life. It definitely spices the dullness and routine of everyday.
Hope to see you in next year's A to Z challenge again.

Roger Owen Green said...

most excellent, you zany fool!

Call me Paul said...

Wow! You made record time. It took me almost two years to complete my A to Z series.