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One of the most charades-prone and elaborate hand gesture-filled explanations of my early ESL/EFL teaching life was the difference between fun and funny.

Fun, I would explain, is when you have a good time, like going on a roller coaster (roller coaster haters aside). Funny was something that makes you laugh, like ferrets in little costumes. Except I may have used another animal other than ferret in this example, since, like the time I talked about eating snakes and a Muslim student chopped at the air with her hands saying “haram, haram, haram,” this was likely to cause some students more disgust than understanding. So okay, dogs in costumes.

And then they would ask, but what if you laugh while you’re on a roller coaster? Fun or funny? Okay, I would agree, you might laugh when you’re having a good time, but the primary thing is that you’re having a good time, not that you’re laughing. This is where the hand gestures came in, because that explanation is not terribly clear, and didn’t see to help my students. For what it’s worth, neither did the charades.

I came to understand that in my (Spanish-speaking) students’ mind, fun and funny described a venn diagram of emotion, a large figure-8ish item of two overlapping circles. In my world they were separate, fun is here, and funny is there. But not to them, and to my ear, they often chose the wrong word to describe the experience.

This makes more sense to me now that I speak more Spanish, since in Chile we describe fun as divertido and funny as chistoso, but a funny situation or story can easily be described as “que divertido!” And then, just the other day, my mother asked me to drive around the fun, fun suburbs (to Trader Joe’s and Home Depot), and the ridiculousness of me driving my mother around, plus the nerves of the fact that I pretty much never drive and the fact that it was so easy kind of made me laugh.

And when I got home and went to the bathroom and was washing my hands, looking at myself in the mirror, I thought to myself “That was funny. Or fun. Or both.”

And my circles moved closer and I realized that I wasn’t sure any more where funny stopped and where fun ended. Except for the ferrets. That’s just hilarious. Oh, and at least I’m having a good time.