Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I am confused between these words. Dictionaries say they are similar, but I vaguely remember my schoolteacher apprising me of a difference between them. I would love if someone could elucidate.

share|improve this question
    
This question is easily answered by consulting a dictionary. Voting to close. –  Robusto Feb 5 '12 at 17:03
    
@Robusto: I strongly disagree. Obviously, since I don't accept any meaningful difference apart from the fact that comic can also be a noun (a stand-up comic, a children's comic, etc.), whereas comical can only be an adjective. –  FumbleFingers Feb 5 '12 at 17:58
    
@fumble: So far mine seems to be a minority opinion. –  Robusto Feb 5 '12 at 19:05
    
@Robusto: Go on, I'll bite. What's the distinction that's so obvious to you, given the lack of consistency among the four answers posted here so far? –  FumbleFingers Feb 5 '12 at 19:07
    
@Fumble: You mistake my meaning. I didn't say it was an obvious distinction, just one (or more) that could be resolved by a dictionary look-up or two. It seems some of the answers here (present company's excepted) could have benefited from that as well, instead of creating distinctions that do not actually exist. –  Robusto Feb 5 '12 at 20:06

5 Answers 5

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Comical - Humorous, lighted-hearted situation or behavior inspiring amusement.

Comic - In contrast to tragic. From the point of view of the ancient Greek dramatists, tragedy had to involve the fate of a great personage, e.g. a king. Comedy on the other hand, dealt with the common people, the masses. To this day, this formula remains intact in that comedy as a form of entertainment is largely intended to appeal to the masses. The behavior of such lessor figures was felt to be amusing from the point of view of tragic figures. Hence, comical is an attribute often assigned to comic.

"The behavior of the masses is truly comical."

share|improve this answer

Irene's, Mustafa's, and Jack's distinctions ring true, and those are indeed many of the invited inferences that cluster around these two words. There are more, and more ways to talk about them.

Comic occurs most often in generic terms, like comic opera, stand-up comic, a pile of comics (cf a couple of comics, a pair of comics), referring to things or events or actions or images(, etc.) that are intended to be deliberately funny -- to make other people laugh. It also refers to the people doing the intending and the acting, etc; and to the socioeconomic system that is implied by such artifice. It's Artificial, not natural.

Comical, on the other hand, seems to refer exclusively to amusing Natural things, etc. Stuff that really happens; shit my dad says. I don't think they need to be ludicrous or absurd; those are extremes on the humor spectrum. Even gentle irony can make one laugh sometimes. I agree, though, that excess absurdity or boffo ludicrosity often makes the laugh bigger.

When it's natural, anyway. But not when it's obviously contrived, which seems to be the point.

That said, I'm afraid the bad news is that this generalization does not generalize to other such pairs. The -ic/-ical derivational suffix, which derives an overt adjective from a noun (or from something else; it's a sloppy affix), appears mostly with -ic (10,903 words), but also often with -ical (2,619 words).

Most (but not all) of the -ical words appear also in the -ic list. And there isn't much, if indeed any, systematic pattern visible to me from a desultory inspection of the isolated word lists. But maybe there is one. Anyway, there they are; data is always preferable to speculation.

(By the way, these lists were extracted from a "wordlist.txt" file that was the spellchecker dictionary on the University of Michigan faculty email system for a couple of decades. As explained here)

share|improve this answer
    
I think that "natural things" is a spurious distinction. My guess is that anything called a comic/comical coincidence probably isn't deliberate/artificial. But comic still occurs more often. I reckon it's just ignorant people thinking that "longer word" = "more of whatever it's supposed to mean". –  FumbleFingers Feb 5 '12 at 18:29
    
Certainly the straightforward MORE is MORE strategy doesn't work well here; but it often does, and it's never discarded, once discovered. People use whatever interpretive strategies they can figure out, and some of them work. Some of the time. With some people. That's enough to reinforce a habit pretty strongly. –  John Lawler Feb 5 '12 at 18:33

You characterise something as comic when you want to say that it is funny. A comic monologue, for example, is meant to make the audience laugh. This word is used especially to talk about writing and drama or things that are funny in a deliberate and theatrical way. It is not used to describe people (except for comic writers).

Comical, on the other hand, is again something funny, but in a ludicrous or absurd way. A series of comical misunderstandings, for example, make you laugh because they don't look like they could really be happening, yet they are.

share|improve this answer
    
I disagree that comic isn't normally used of "people". In fact, comic person occurs slightly more often than comical person in NGrams. –  FumbleFingers Feb 5 '12 at 17:52
    
@FumbleFingers: Taking a brief look at your link, comic person appears in reference to literature characters or in contrast with tragic, pertaining again to drama and literature. I'd use comic figure too, referring to a character in a play or film, but I wouldn't use it to characterise real people who are funny, unless they are theatrically so, which is the essence of my definition of comic. –  Irene Feb 5 '12 at 18:11
    
I don't understand your distinction. It seems to me comic has always had a broader range of meaning, specifically including "pertaining to comedy", whereas comical is more restricted to specific things/events/people being amusing to others. Your point about "not usually used of people" simply reflects the fact that people who are consistently and deliberately amusing to others are likely to be called comics in the noun sense. –  FumbleFingers Feb 5 '12 at 18:52

Comic is connected with comedy and refers to "a characteristics". Comical usually have a sense of "fun" as a result of "strange" and/or "unusual" happenings or situations.

share|improve this answer

There's no inherent difference between the two words themselves, but it's important to note the two broad shades of meaning - relating to humour and funny (ha-ha).

In terms of actual usage, comic is far more common in general parlance today for both senses, but some people may think the longer form comical is somehow more "emphatic" for very amusing.

Also note that there are certain "stock terms" such as comic writer/comic actor which imply the first meaning above. It's always possible that if you met someone thus described, they wouldn't say or do anything particularly funny (when they're not "at work"). If you ever did hear of someone described as a comical actor, you'd probably expect him to be more consistently funny.

share|improve this answer
    
You're not supposed to see anything comical on TV, for instance. What a strange system... –  John Lawler Feb 5 '12 at 17:41
    
@John Lawler: Well, I see it's true there are hardly any references to comical programs on TV. But there aren't many comic programs either - presumably because we've done the standard "adjectivisation of noun" trick, so they're mostly comedy programs anyway. –  FumbleFingers Feb 5 '12 at 17:47
    
Yeah. When the going gets funny, the words change fast. Everything is timing, as they tell me. –  John Lawler Feb 5 '12 at 17:51
    
@John Lawler: Nah. Word order matters too - see Everything is timing,Timing is everything. Personally, I prefer Timing is all, but it looks like I'm behind the times on that one! –  FumbleFingers Feb 5 '12 at 18:09
    
Remind me to tell you the joke about the greatest Drog comedian in the world. –  John Lawler Feb 5 '12 at 18:24

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.