Merriam-Webster Word of the Day: Zany


The Merriam-Webster Word of the Day is zany. Read on for what it means, how it’s used, and more.

What It Means

zany is a person who acts like a buffoon to amuse others, or one who is generally foolish or eccentric. Zany also has a more specific sense that refers to a type of clown or acrobat in old comedies.

// My brother’s friends are an unpredictable bunch of zanies.

// The production was bolstered by a talented crew of zanies.

ZANY in Context

“‘Twelfth Night,’ one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, is about twins, Viola and Sebastian, who are separated by a shipwreck off the coast of the island of Illyria. Each believes the other has perished. Mistaken identities predictably ensue, along with some hilarious chaos created by a group of zanies led by Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Countess Olivia’s fool Feste and serving woman Maria, all who scheme to torment Olivia’s pompous manservant Malvolio.” — Jeff McKinnon, Noozhawk (Santa Barbara County, California), 19 Mar. 2022

Did You Know?

The oddballs among us are likely familiar with zany as an adjective, meaning “eccentric.” But did you know the word originated as a noun—one that has withstood the test of time? Zanies have been theatrical buffoons since the heyday of the Italian commedia dell’arte, in which a “zanni” was a stock servant character, often an intelligent and proud valet with abundant common sense and a love of practical jokes. Zanni comes from a dialect nickname for Giovanni, the Italian form of John. The character quickly spread throughout European theater circles, inspiring such familiar characters as Pierrot and Harlequin, and by the late 1500s an anglicized version of the noun zany was introduced to English. The adjective appeared within decades, and eventually both adopted more general meanings to refer to or describe those of us who are quipsters and weirdos.

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