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Word Wisdom: Zany

The latest inspirational column from Rev. Dr. John Kreutzwieser
Word Wisdom

Our two-year-old granddaughter likes to do zany things to show off. “Look at me, look at me,” as she turns around and wiggles her butt. Preschoolers like to act the buffoon to amuse others.

Zany is an adjective meaning very eccentric or absurd, often in an amusing way. Zany has its origins in Italian comedy, commedia dell’arte. This type of comedic production started in Italy and spread through Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. A ‘zanni’ was a typical servant character with a love of practical jokes. The word comes from a nickname for Giovanni, the Italian for John. By the late 1500s zany was used in English to describe such a persona in European theatre circles. The ‘zanni’ inspired acting roles like Pedrolino and Harlequin.

Pedrolino performed in the commedia as an unsuccessful lover and a victim of the pranks of his fellow comedians. His costume consisted of a white jacket with a neck ruff and large buttons down the front, loose trousers, and a hat with a wide, floppy brim. Unlike most of the other stock characters, he played without a mask, his face whitened with powder. Pierrot became the French theatre equivalent of the Italian Pedrolino character.

Harlequin was a ‘zanni,’ who was cowardly, superstitious, and plagued by a continual lack of money and food. By the early 17th century, Harlequin had become a faithful valet. His amorous personality often led him into difficulties from which he managed to extricate himself with cleverness and irrepressible high spirits. He was amoral without being vicious, and, unlike his fellow commedia servants, he did not hold a grudge or seek revenge against those who tricked or cheated him. Harlequin’s costume was originally a peasant’s shirt and long trousers, both covered with many coloured patches. It later developed into a tight-fitting costume decorated with triangles and diamond shapes, and it included a slapstick. His black half mask had tiny eyeholes and quizzically arched eyebrows that were accentuated by a wrinkled forehead. The black mask and originally ragged costume are sometimes attributed to earlier depictions of African slaves. Popular in the commedia from the 16th century, Harlequin survived the commedia dell’arte to take a place in later theatrical productions. In mid-18th-century England, John Rich incorporated the zany role into dance pantomimes based on the combination of a commedia plot and a classical fable. Harlequin was also the principal character of the slapstick pantomime form known as a harlequinade in England.

Eventually a zany was any clown or performer who mimicked the tricks of the principal actor. The adjective zany developed over time to describe any who gave a clever taunting remark, made a witty or funny observation or response, or acted in an odd or eccentric manner.

Synonyms for zany include crazy, daffy, harebrained, kooky, nutty, and wacky.

Crazy describes someone distracted with desire or excitement. The fans went crazy when their team came back to win the game in the last minute.

Daffy describes a person who is silly or strange in a way that is often funny. Daffy characters that lend a lot of humour make appearances throughout the movie.

A harebrained person is foolish and ridiculous. He had the harebrained idea to prove his courage by sticking his tongue to the metal pole.

Kooky describes an offbeat, eccentric personality. The kooky teacher showed up each day for school in the silliest outfits to try to gain the attention of the students.

Nutty describes a person who is strangely peculiar. I remember watching comedian Jerry Lewis in the 1963 version of the movie The Nutty Professor.

Wacky describes someone who is amusingly irrational. My wacky friend tries the Polar Dip every New Year’s Day no matter what the outside temperature.

Who knows, maybe my granddaughter thinks some of the things I do can be attributed to a zany Opa.

John would like to know if anyone has a sincere interest in a relevant word that he could possibly research for an upcoming column. If so, please send your requests to Words will be selected according to relevance and research criteria. We cannot confirm that all words will be used.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication. 



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