Why your definition of fun is important

In this series of blog posts, on fun, I explain why I am interested in fun, and what I mean by fun and why the current definition of fun, and how we think of fun, is unhelpful to a productive approach to life.

A serious question to start with, how would you define fun? I am not asking you to describe what fun means to you but to define the word. It is quite difficult. Most people begin by explaining those things that we think of as fun activities or maybe even people. Their answers reflect their own experience of fun.

If you struggled trying to define fun, you are not alone; even academics specialising in researching fun have found it difficult to explain what they mean by fun. It is so difficult that many researchers have just ignored the definition and lumped fun in with other words. It doesn’t help either that, like many words in English, fun has changed its meaning over the last few hundred years; and I will argue, has come full circle back to its original meaning.

When I first started looking at history of how we have used the word ‘fun’ in English, it was like a light switching on for my research. First things first, we will never be able to pinpoint the first time anyone used the word fun, or even what they meant by it. All we can do is look at the written records of a word. The first recorded of fun seems to have been in 1440.

In terms of earth-shattering events (in Europe at least), 1440 seems to have been a bit of a non-starter, with the notable exception of having a new king of Denmark or the death of the (alleged) serial child-killer, Gilles de Rais in France. However, more important, in 1440, we find the first recorded use of the Anglo-Saxon word ‘fon’ from which we get (one origin) for our word fun. Fon is used to explain foolish behaviour – how people become foolish or how they are made to look foolish.

A century later, the meaning of fon was changing to refer to people being with toyed with. By 1685, (a much more interesting year for British history as it was the year James Stuart became James II of England and we had the Monmouth Rebellion) fon had transformed into fun. But, importantly, fun was being used to describe how people were being used as the playthings of others; namely, criminals! Fun described how people were cheated and tricked by confidence tricksters. The great Dr Johnson, in 1755, dismissed fun as a ‘low cant’ word; meaning it was only to be used by the lower classes! Johnson did, however, suggest that fun was evolving and could be used to describe merriment and ‘frolicksome delight’. I suppose such merriment and frolicksomeness was only to be had with the lower classes.

Why is the history important? It’s important because the early definitions of fun reflected the way fun was used to cheat people. Just think of how we use fun today. Of course, we talk about fun in terms of pleasurable activities, events or people, but we can also fool ourselves into believing that having fun is the most important thing in our lives. And that is without saying anything about how fun is used by employers, advertisers or even governments to control our behaviour – and that is why I think we have returned to the original meaning of fun!

In the next post, I will explore a different, and very different origin of the word fun.

See also: Why it is important to embrace Being Fun