Funny Bone

Also: Tickle One’s Funny Bone

Meaning of Idiom ‘Funny Bone’

1. The funny bone, although it is not an actual bone, is a point on the human body where the ulnar nerve in the back of the elbow above the joint runs close to the humerous (upper arm bone) and lacks the protection is has along the rest of its length. When this area is impacted, such as by banging the elbow against the edge of furniture, the nerve can be smashed against the bone, resulting in tingling, numbness, and pain that radiates down the forearm into the ring and middle fingers. 1Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.,2Pare, May. Body Idioms and More: For Learners of English. United States?: Mayuree Pare, 2005.

2. A funny bone can also mean a sense of humor. When someone has a good funny bone he has a good sense of humor. 3Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.,4Pare, May. Body Idioms and More: For Learners of English. United States?: Mayuree Pare, 2005.

3Tickle Your (or someone’s) Funny Bone: When something tickles your funny bone it makes you laugh or amuses you.  5Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.

Usage

The result of hitting your “funny bone” is not actually considered humorous. Instead, it is very painful and uncomfortable. It could be described as a funny feeling though, using another sense of the word, meaning strange. See the origin below for more.

Examples Of Use

“Ouch, I hit my funny bone.”

“Wow,” said Janet, rubbing her elbow, “I hit my funny bone earlier and it still hurts.”

“My favorite show growing up was the Lucille Ball Show. It really tickled my funny bone.”

“Get a few drinks in George and you realize he has quite the funny bone.”

Origin

Used since the early 1800’s.

It is suggested that funny bone is a play on the word humerus, the name for the bone of the upper arm, and its similarity to humorous, meaning amusing or funny. 6Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.,7Pare, May. Body Idioms and More: For Learners of English. United States?: Mayuree Pare, 2005. Although this may be true, it seems unlikely that an idiom based on a knowledge of human anatomy could have arisen in the early 1800’s. The idiom probably derived from the “funny” feeling one experiences from hitting the area described in definition one above. From there, a transference to the more common sense of the word funny, meaning amusing, should not be unexpected. This origin is lent further credence by the fact that another version of the idiom, rarely used today, is crazy bone.

The notion that funny bone derived from the name of the upper arm bone was, instead, more likely a joke enjoyed by anatomy students after the idiom was already common. As explained by James Mitchell in Significant Etymology: Or, Roots, Stems, and Branches of the English Language (1908):

“The funny bone, or, as Americans more frequently term it, the crazy-bone, is the term popularly applied to what anatomists call the inner condyle of the L. humerus…a blow on which jars the ulnar nerve and produces a funny tingling sensation. A good dissecting-room joke for first-year’s students is, Why is the funny-bone so-called? “Because it borders on the humerus.” This jest is seriously taken by a recent etymologist who explains the word funny-bone as being a pun on the word “humerus.”

The related idiom “tickle one’s funny bone,” used at least since the early 1900s, derived from the use of “funny bone” in definition two above, combining the connotation of humor with the fact that one laughs when tickled.

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Sources   [ + ]

1, 3, 5, 6. Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
2, 4, 7. Pare, May. Body Idioms and More: For Learners of English. United States?: Mayuree Pare, 2005.