The Funny Bone: Why Do We Call it the Funny Bone When it’s Not… Never Mind

The funny bone. We’ve all hit it a number of times in our lives. It’s not a nice feeling, to say the least.

Before we dive in, I’m going to stop here for a second. This is your cue to make your jokes about why people call it the funny bone when hitting it isn’t funny. I’ll leave you a few seconds worth of space:

Alright, that’s enough.
Now that you got that out of your systems, let’s get started.

Your upper arm bone which runs from the shoulder to the elbow is called the humerus. At the elbow, it comes into contact, via a hinge joint, with the two bones of your forearm, called the ulna & radius. Yes, I know you’re all thinking, “We all learned this back in 6th grade.” Well, how many of you thought that the humerus is the funny bone? It’s not.

It’s not even a bone at all. It’s actually a big nerve in your arm called the ulnar nerve. It runs right through the joint in the elbow, & because there isn’t much more than skin & bone there, once it crosses the joint, it runs very close to the surface.

Nerves_of_the_left_upper_extremity[1]

Here’s a view of the arm, complete with the Ulnar Nerve, as originally seen in Gray’s Anatomy. (No, not the show. Stop it.)

When you hit your elbow just right, the nerve gets squashed inbetween whatever you bumped & your humerus. This causes the shooting pain & tingling.

Gray1236[1]

Check it out. The nerve runs right across the elbow.

There are two widely accepted reasons for calling the ulnar nerve the “funny bone”. The first is very straightforward; it’s a pun. Humerus, or umerus is Latin for shoulder. Humerus is a homophone of humorous, so someone decided to make a pun out of humerus & funny.

The second has to do with the old definition of funny versus the modern definition. We know that when we use it today, it means something that causes laughter, but back before the Twentieth Century, funny meant odd or strange. I’d say the tingling sensation  you get when you smack that nerve into a table makes feels more strange than hilarious.

There it is. The ulnar nerve, or funny bone actually is funny, if you go by the definition. This means the joke is wrong & we can stop making it. Right?

So for now, now you know. You’re welcome.

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Filed under Etymology, Nerdy Science Stuff

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