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One meaning (I am personally not very familiar with) of the adjective hysterical is:

  • causing unrestrained laughter; very funny: Oh, that joke is hysterical! (Dictionary.com)
  • No other European language, as far as I know, uses "hysterical" with the meaning of "very funny", and the term has definitely a negative connotation.

According to Etymonline this connotation of hysterical is from the late '30s:

  • Meaning "very funny" (by 1939) is from the notion of uncontrollable fits of laughter.

The following extract comments on the origin of the meaning "very funny" but suggests that this connotation is debatable and should be avoided:

  • It's true that hysterical "funny" is not especially ancient. The OED didn't add a listing for the sense until 1993, with the earliest example from Mario Pei in 1969: "To describe something as really funny, a woman will use 'hysterical'." As, indeed, Elizabeth Janeway did in her 1943 novel, “The Walsh Girls”:
    • She had never seen anything so funny in the world as Alice's face when Connie called her a bitch. It was the funniest thing that could have happened. It was hysterical.

Its connotation appears to derive from the earlier expression: hysterically funny:

Hysterically funny, the long form of our "hilarious" hysterical, shows up quite a bit earlier. This example from an 1886 short story may be transitional – the narrator is both trying to amuse a young woman and being driven slightly crazy:

  • My behaviour was often fatuously absurd. Anon I became hysterically funny. Altogether I compared very unfavourably with the bright and facile Stephen.

but its usage should be avoided:

  • Don’t use it to mean "funny," she (Mignon Fogarty),advised in "The Grammar Devotional" (2009). "Hysterical means 'excited.'" And she made hilarious/hysterical one of the confusable word pairs in her 2011 book, "Grammar Girl's 101 Misused Words You'll Never Confuse Again." "People will say 'hysterical' when they think something is funny," she told Neal Conan in an NPR broadcast.

    • But hysterical actually means excited in a negative way … when you're saying someone is hysterical, it's like, you know, hysterical laughter after a bank robbery when everyone is freaking out.

Questions:

  • How common is the usage of the term hysterical meaning “funny” in BrE and AmE?

  • Does hysterical actually carry a negative connotation as suggested in the above extract, or does it only convey a neutral meaning?

  • Is its usage currently on the downtrend?

  • 1
    In my experience of AmE, the use of hysterical to mean hilarious is more often sarcastic than not, so that it winds up meaning that the thing in question is not really funny at all. And of course the roots of the term (from Greek ὑστέρα, womb) are mired in the old fallacy that the female sex is anatomically predisposed to irrationality. – Brian Donovan May 15 '16 at 19:57
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    In my experience, hysterical for "really funny" is very common in the US, from at least the 90s onward. The reason the authorities recommend against it is not because it's "negative", per SE, but "dirty", or pornographic in the sense that at least from the 1890s (probably earlier), "hysterics" was a euphemism for a woman's orgasm (which was much more taboo, historically, than it is today, particularly in Victorian England and its wake). – Dan Bron May 15 '16 at 20:03
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    I disagree with @DanBron that "the reason for authorities recommending against the new use" is the orgasm issue. That hasn't applied for like 100 years. In the Mignon Fogarty (2009) example, they are simply recommending against it because it's a mental illness term. (Rather like you occasionally get parents saying, don't use 'nuts' or 'crazy'.) – Fattie May 15 '16 at 22:43
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    "Hysterical" has been used in the US to mean "very funny" for as long as I can remember -- certainly since the 70s, very easily going back to the 50s, as I never recall a time when the usage seemed "new" or "strange". (I'll add that the most common use of the term, by far, in my experience is the simple expression "That hysterical", meaning "incredibly funny".) – Hot Licks May 16 '16 at 0:16
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    I have heard the word "hysterical" used to mean funny all of my life (I'm 51), and it was my mom who most often used it in that sense. So, needless to say, this discussion is enlightening. I can, at least, say that if she had been aware of the "pornographic" connotations of the word, she would never have used it. OTOH, painfully accurate and sourced commentary on English usage was not a commonplace activity in my childhood home, so it's usage outside that context is opaque to me. – Derrell Durrett May 18 '16 at 21:14
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Despite your tags, you asked how common the funny meaning in British English.

Hysterical would normally mean very funny in the more common uses in British English, although it does depend on the context. In common speech, I doubt most people would understand it to mean anything else, despite its history.

Affected by or deriving from wildly uncontrolled emotion

informal Extremely funny

That context is everything, however. If there's any hint of humour, then it's clearly one meaning; if there's the whiff of madness, it's another. Consider:

"I went to see the new Ben Stiller film - it was hysterical"

(with apologies, as this is clearly a ridiculous scenario, as anyone who's ever seen a Ben Stiller film would attest).

vs

"I saw Ben Stiller being restrained - he was hysterical"

vs

"I went to see Ben Stiller - he was hysterical"

The first of these would universally be understood to mean "it was very funny"; the second is clearly suggesting that he was emotionally out of control; the third is ambiguous, as it could mean either. You'd need to decide from the rest of the conversation.

There are historical, sexist connotations - the "women are hysterical" view (as per the womb comment and here) which may change understanding, dependent on the listener. Consider:

"My wife was hysterical"

vs

"My husband is hysterical"

Depending on their prejudices, people could be more likely to understand the former as "emotionally over the top" and the latter as "very funny". Welcome to the modern world.


EDIT

You're still concerned about this topic, so I'll address your questions very specifically - at least, from a UK perspective.

> How common is the usage of the term hysterical meaning “funny” in BrE and AmE?

Very. Most British people would understand hysterical to mean funny as a primary definition, despite what dictionaries say. US preference is hilarious for that use, although that sounds slightly sarcastic to UK ears.

> Does hysterical actually carry a negative connotation as suggested in the above extract, or does it only convey a neutral meaning?

Nothing negative about it (again, BrE). As per the sarcasm comment, it's perhaps even less negative than some other options.

> Is its usage currently on the downtrend?

I see no downtrend in common usage in the UK. Ngram suggests a slight decline in overall use of the word (i.e. whatever the meaning) in both BrE and AmE, but not significantly. Specific to the "funny" use, though, that's certainly not something that's born out in everyday speech in my experience.

Ngram UK

Ngram US

... with a slightly higher incidence in all-English fiction usage.

  • 1
    You may have misread the question. OP completely understands that hysterical means "uncontrolled", but nowadays means "very funny". What the OP is asking is how common is the latter usage in BrE and secondly in AmE. – Fattie May 15 '16 at 22:37
  • I'm sorry, I missed your first sentence where you assert it is common in BrE – Fattie May 15 '16 at 22:45
  • I wholly concur that "Hysterical would normally mean very funny in the more common uses in British English." - I had to think hard about what the other meaning is! – TrevorD May 15 '16 at 23:48
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    @Josh61 After I had made my previous comment, it occurred to me that we would commonly describe jokes or a situation as hysterical, but I'm not so sure that we would commonly describe a person as hysterical to mean 'very funny' (except perhaps in the context given by ProffYaffle in the comment above). – TrevorD May 16 '16 at 13:07
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    I am not concerned, I think the questions deserve properly documented answers. As for your Ngram posts, the usages shown are not specific to the "funny" connotation, so I don't think they are a good and reliable indicator in this specific case. – user66974 May 18 '16 at 9:04
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How common is the usage of the term hysterical meaning “funny” in BrE and AmE?

It's fairly common in American English, less common than it used to be.

Does hysterical actually carry a negative connotation as suggested in the above extract, or does it only convey a neutral meaning?

Hysterical has never contained a negative connotation from my familiarity of its usage. It would seem logical that its usage comes from "Hysteria" -that is laughing so much like you were in a state of hysteria.

Is its usage currently on the downtrend?

In the US, this type of terminology is being replaced largely by Facebook and Twitter memes.

3
+100

The Corpus for NOW

Data that may help in discovering the answer to your question were recently released at corpus.byu.edu. Among other corpora, the NOW Corpus (News on the Web), with data from 2010-2016, can be used to analyze use of 'hysterical' in the sense of "funny" in the overall middling-formal English commonly found in online newspapers and journals.

The newspapers supplying text for the NOW corpus come from a variety of countries.

  1. How common is the use of the term hysterical, meaning “funny”, in BrE and AmE?

To narrow the scope of this question, I looked at the context of instances of 'hysterical' in the NOW corpus with an eye to the relative frequency of occurrence of 'hysterical' used in the sense of "funny" compared to instances of 'hysterical' used in other senses. Because 'hysterical' occurred 5419 times (compare that number to the 158 occurrences of 'hysterically funny') in the corpus, I was compelled to sample the occurrences, rather than treat them exhaustively.

The 5419 instances of 'hysterical' in "about three billion words of data from web-based newspapers from 2010 to the present time" were predominantly used with other senses than 'funny'. A semantic breakdown of the results is not (yet) automated, so I scanned and evaluated samples of the use in context. In the 130 instances (some of them duplicates) of 'hysterical' found May 1-19 of 2016, for example, I observed only 10 uses that I could positively identify as meaning "funny". Extrapolating from that to the total, approximately 400 out of 5419 occurrences of 'hysterical' in the corpus are used in the sense of "funny". I see no reason to suppose that exhaustive examination of the 5419 instances from 2010-2016 would find an overall greater or lesser proportion of 'hysterical' in the sense of "funny", but considering that I only examined a very small sample (130 out of 5419), it is certainly possible that 'hysterical' in the sense of "funny" is more or less common than my finding suggests.

  1. Does 'hysterical' actually carry a negative connotation as suggested in the above extract, or does it only convey a neutral meaning?

Connotations are, of course, completely context-dependent. My observations of the use of 'hysterical' in the sense of "funny" in context for the 130 instances I examined were that 'hysterical' was primarily used postively, that is, to laud whatever was called 'hysterical' in the sense of "funny". Other senses than "funny", however, were predominantly negative, but were sometimes neutral. I did not observe a use of 'hysterical', in a sense other than "funny", that was positive in context.

  1. Is its usage currently on the downtrend?

This is much more difficult to determine, and the determination more difficult to support authoritatively: the analysis requires comparisons of samples, in context, month-to-month, year-to-year.

A rapid scan of the last 100 occurrences in April turned up approximately the same proportion of use in the sense of "funny" as I found in the 130 instances May 1-19. In accordance with that rather scanty and unsure correspondence, I ran a frequency distribution analysis:

hysterical

[Discrepancy in data: The total freqency for all periods in this chart is 5823, rather than the 5419 presented as the frequency for a simple list. Subtracting the suspect duplicate of 449 in periods 2012-B and 2013-A gives an overall frequency of 5374, which also does not match 5419. I have no ready explanation for the discrepancy.]

As can be seen from the "PER MIL" chart column, a downward trend for use of 'hysterical' in all senses is evident year-over-year in this corpus. If my conjecture based on small, recent sample sizes is accurate over the timespan of the data, that downward trend would be reflected in a corresponding proportional downward trend in the use of 'hysterical' in the sense of "funny".

Notes

However fond the men and women of the press are of seeing themselves as vox populi, that description is not true to what is now the intrinsic purpose of their endeavors, selling or at least circulating 'news'. They use what can only be called a dialect of English, and the topics entertained by their work are restricted by considerations not foremost in the minds of many, nay, most speakers: that is, the motivating force for commercial 'news' is commercial gain, along with satisfying the whims as well as the social, political, and other predilections of the owners of the mass media.

This being the case, however, leaves the question of what more accurate collection of the uses of language by ordinary people is available as data for our consideration. Some researchers have resorted to sending correspondents abroad to record and transcribe the speech of what it is hoped will be a representative sample of the speech of various populations, and the results of those collections have been made available. The extremely small sample size, however, leaves any question with respect to a particular word, such as 'hysterical', in doubt.

Other Corpora

Another useful corpus from the same source (corpus.byu.edu) may be the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWbE) (pronounced 'globe'). This has drawbacks:

  • It is a snapshot corpus compiled in 2012, so it doesn't include the four years of language and web development after that time.
  • GloWbe has, of necessity, more 'noise' in the data. The 'noise' may consist, for example, of more duplicated text, or of simply random text. The researchers who compiled the corpus made a decent effort to remove duplicated text in the form of boilerplate material, for example, but the automated techniques necessary to find and remove such materials are...less than perfect.
  • Expectably, GloWbe instances cannot be dated accurately.

Nonetheless, I made a brief sortie at the dataset, which "is composed of 1.9 billion words in 1.8 million web pages from 20 different English-speaking countries. The web pages were collected in December 2012". See the description of the method used to create the corpus for more information.

hysterical2

The occurrence of 'hysterical' 5649 times in two-thirds the number of words as comprise the NOW corpus may suggest that in a broader range of less formal English, 'hysterical' is used more often. As with the NOW corpus, I analyzed approximately two hundred occurrences in context (60 US, 60 GB, 40 CA, 40 IE) to see what proportion of the uses were in the sense of "funny".

Of the 60 US, 11 were used in the sense of "funny"; of the 60 GB, 11; of the 40 CA, 9; of the 40 IE, 5. US = US English; GB = British English; CA = Canadian English; IE = Irish English.

Proportionally, then, the frequency of use of 'hysterical' in the sense of "funny" is higher, 36 out of 200, in this corpus than in NOW. The predominant use, however, remains with other senses than "funny".


More or less just because it was there, I also checked in the Corpus of American Soap Operas (SOAP). This corpus "contains 100 million words of data from 22,000 transcripts from American soap operas from the early 2000s, and it serves as a great resource to look at very informal language."

'Hysterical' occurred in the SOAP corpus 474 times overall, 4.74 times per million words, a higher frequency than any section of the NOW corpus. Of the 100 occurrences in context that I checked, 19 of them were in the sense of "funny", and 5 of those were sarcastic uses in that sense.

These observations suggest that in "very informal" English, both the overall frequency of use of 'hysterical' and the proportional frequency of use in the sense of "funny" are higher. However, both the overall greater frequency and the greater frequency of particular use may be artifacts resulting from the different time periods documented: NOW is compiled from data gathered 2010-present; SOAP was compiled from data extant in "the early 2000s", 2001-2012 (see chart for frequency per million per year); GloWbe was a snapshot of data in 2012.

hystericalSOAP

In addition to the frequency differences, sarcastic use of 'hysterical' in the sense of "funny" was conspicuous in this corpus, but rare to the point of vanishing in NOW and GloWbe.

Also of interest in the SOAP corpus is that 'funny' is one of the top ten collocates, the tenth most common:

enter image description here

A quick look at those collocations in snippets of context shows that all are uses of 'hysterical' in the sense of "funny", although whether or not the use is sarcastic remains opaque without seeing more context:

enter image description here

Nonetheless, personal experience (also known as anecdotal evidence) aside, the use of 'hysterical' in other senses than "funny" was predominant in this as well as in the other corpora examined.

0

The other answers are good, but I'll add some additional notes for American English.

How common is the usage of the term hysterical meaning “funny” in BrE and AmE?

In American English, very common, in fact it is likely to be considered the primary definition by most listeners.

This is really the only reasonable interpretation when you're describing a thing (a book, a show, a joke, a movie). A "hysterical" movie clearly means a hilarious comedy, the other possible definitions of the word don't even make sense.

A couple of the other answers discussed whether this is primarily used sarcastically: by itself, no, you'd have to rely on other cues (droll tone, obviously not-funny subject) to determine this.

Does hysterical actually carry a negative connotation as suggested in the above extract, or does it only convey a neutral meaning?

When truly describing, say, a hilarious film, no, it doesn't have a negative connotation.

The main reason to be careful with the term is when describing a person as "hysterical", or perhaps when describing laughter as hysterical, since those are much more ambiguous.

Hopefully the context should help clarify:

  • I saw Jerry Seinfeld the other day, he was hysterical.
  • The customer became hysterical when denied a refund.
  • The audience was in hysterics by the end of the play.
  • The audience was in hysterics after the fire broke out.
  • Jane's hysterical laughter startled everyone at the movie.
  • Jane's hysterical laughter startled everyone at the funeral.
-1

Hysterical comes from the medical Latin word hystericus, which described a female neurotic condition, thought to be caused by a dysfunction of the uterus.

Hysterical is still used today by psychiatrists, though in a broader way, to describe someone suffering from a psychological stress condition. Hysterical can also mean "extremely funny," even more so than hilarious.

Now coming to your questions-

  • To answer your first and third question, I am attaching a graph showing usage trend of this word over time- enter image description here

  • Does hysterical actually carry a negative connotation as suggested in the above extract, or does it only convey a neutral meaning?

Hysterical has synonyms like agitated, psychedelic, etc denoting some kind of physical or emotional trouble leading to the condition. So yes, the tone of the word is inclined towards negative side.

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