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OPINION | BRENDA LOOPER: Comfort in words

by Brenda Looper | September 22, 2021 at 3:35 a.m.
Brenda Looper

I've been a mite cranky lately; I'd be the first to admit that.

Between some people insisting that their rights supersede everyone else's, people acting like jerks, and a couple of medical issues, I've not been the most fun person to be around. It's a good thing that I'm still rarely around people in general, because, Lord, if I were ...

To soothe myself, I've spent time among my fellow nerds this past week. Hopefully you'll be amused and intrigued by what I found.

From my Words Words Words/Puns and Wordplay group, a joke just perfect for today from Joel Irby: "Opportunity knocks once. Equinox twice." Wrote Irby: "This is my best seasonal pun, provided a couple of days early so you can prepare to make your friends fall down laughing."

The puns never stop with some people.

The autumnal equinox starts this afternoon, and like the vernal (spring) equinox, we'll get roughly the same amount of daylight as night. According to Merriam-Webster, "Equinox descends from aequus, the Latin word for 'equal,' and nox, the Latin word for 'night'--a fitting history for a word that describes days of the year when the daytime and nighttime are equal in length." The word has been around in the current sense since the 14th century.

Solstice, on the other hand, is what we get in winter and summer, when the Earth's axis is tilted more closely toward the sun, reports National Geographic. The hemisphere that is tilted toward the sun has its longest day of the year (summer solstice), while the hemisphere tilted away has its shortest day (winter solstice). Etymology Online traces "solstice" to the mid-13th century Old French "solstice," which came from the Latin "solstitium," meaning the "point at which the sun seems to stand still."

In Arkansas, standing still is sometimes the only way to make it through summer. I'm still sweaty.

In 2009, on my birthday, I shattered my right humerus while walking to my car after work; uneven ground, an armful of presents from friends, an SUV parked where it shouldn't have been and my natural clumsiness meant that I was probably destined to lose my balance at some point. The fact that it was my birthday meant that the ER doctor who saw me had to ask if I'd been celebrating early (the answer was no).

Even more than that, it meant that virtually every humerus/funny bone joke has made its way to me, including this one, also found on the Puns and Wordplay group: "If you boil a funny bone, it becomes a laughingstock ..." with the note, "That's humerus."

Yep. OK, slightly.

"Humerus," tracked to the 15th century, means the long bone of the upper arm from the shoulder to the elbow, and comes from the Latin "umerus," meaning upper arm or shoulder. My break was a proximal break, meaning near the shoulder (it actually separated from the shoulder, fun); had it been close to the elbow, it would have been a distal break.

But why "funny bone"? Is it just because "humerus" and "humorous" are homophones? Well, yeah, but "funny bone" doesn't even really refer to the humerus, but rather the ulnar nerve that rests between the point of your elbow and the humerus' medial epicondyle. Hitting that nerve is a painful experience for most people.

Breaking your humerus isn't much fun either.

Michael Vagg, clinical senior lecturer at Deakin University School of Medicine in Australia, wrote on The Conversation: "The funny bone is one of my favorite bits of medical slang because whoever came up with it had a savage sense of irony. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of the term occurred in a dreadful doggerel poem published in 1842 called 'Bloudie Jacke of Shrewsberrie'."

For such a painful pun, the source had to be pretty dreadful. Bloody Jack was a 12th century serial killer who, when caught, was drawn and quartered (till his funny bones cracked, according to the poem), and his head put on a spike.


I know I'm the Word Nerd, but even I need help now and again.

"Pronoun Challenged" sent me a note: "I have a teenage relative who has decided that she is now gender-fluid and (in addition to a name change) wants to be called they/them instead of she/her. I am supportive of whatever this young person is going through, but I have a hard time using these pronouns, since to me these words have always been plural. I'm sure there is a history behind the choosing of these words, but can you please tell me that there are alternatives? I think some new words should be invented or appropriated (as appropriate)."

Some "gender-neutral" pronouns have been introduced (as English doesn't have a gender-neutral or third gender pronoun), but I haven't heard any of them in use. While I could spout off The Associated Press rules on "they" and other pronouns, and I have friends who are often unintentionally misgendered, I would like some input from readers.

Let me know how you broach the subject of pronouns, and how you deal either with misgendering someone or being misgendered yourself. Send me an email to the address below, or contact me on Facebook or my blog.

And send me more puns while you're at it. I'm still cranky.

Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Read her blog at Email her at

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