By Dr Oliver Tearle
The word ridiculous needs little introduction, perhaps. The facts are these: it stems, ultimately, from the Latin verb rīdēre meaning ‘to laugh’, a word which also gives is risible (of which more below). So a quick definition of ‘ridiculous’ would be ‘inviting, arousing, or deserving of ridicule or mockery’.
But we use ridiculous in a number of related, but subtly different, ways. We might say that a terrible situation was ridiculous but also praise a footballer, saying that goal was just ridiculous, because it was so unbelievably good.
Someone’s behaviour might be ridiculous because it’s out of proportion, immature, or a huge overreaction; a plan might be ridiculous because it will never work; a story might be ridiculous either because we don’t believe it happened, or because we acknowledge it did but think it sounds too preposterous to be true.
Clearly, we need to think about how we might utilise some close synonyms for ridiculous: words which mean much the same, but work in these different contexts. So, let’s take a look at some of the best ‘ridiculous’ synonyms …
ABSURD is probably one of the two most common synonyms for ridiculous. It’s from the classical Latin absurdus, meaning ‘out-of-tune, discordant, awkward, uncouth, uncivilized, preposterous, ridiculous, inappropriate’ (OED).
To act absurdly is to act ridiculously, in a way that is out of keeping with the situation. So wearing a bikini to the North Pole is absurd whereas wearing one to the beach is not (although it perhaps depends on who you are).
The other leading synonym for ridiculous is LUDICROUS, which is from the Latin ludus, meaning ‘play’: the same root that also gave us allusion, interlude, and the game Ludo, from the Latin for ‘I play’.
In the seventeenth century, when the word first turned up in English writing, ludicrous meant ‘pertaining to play or sport’, and, by extension, playful or jocular. But because some jests can be a joke too far, it also meant laughable or ridiculous – and it is this sense which has survived and become the most familiar one.
The OED cites the novelist and playwright Frances Burney as the earliest instance of ludicrous being employed in this sense: her 1782 novel Cecilia contains the line: ‘The ludicrous mixture of groupes, kept her attention unwearied.’
If something is unlikely to happen and therefore ridiculous, it can be described as FAR-FETCHED, a term used for an idea, analogy, or explanation which is so strained or incredible as to be ridiculous. It started out with a literal meaning, referring to something brought across great distances, from afar. When Samuel Johnson (1709-84) grudgingly acknowledged the effects of some of the elaborate conceits used by the metaphysical poets, he alluded to the term’s origins:
Yet great labour, directed by great abilities, is never wholly lost: if they frequently threw away their wit upon false conceits, they likewise sometimes struck out unexpected truth: if their conceits were far-fetched, they were often worth the carriage.
We began this article by pointing out the etymological link between ridicule and risible, and there’s a whole suite of adjectives which pertain to the idea of something being so ridiculous as to be LAUGHABLE: others, aside from this and RISIBLE, include HILARIOUS, FARCICAL, FUNNY, DROLL, FACETIOUS, and HUMOROUS.
Farcical, of course, derives from farce, from the Latin farcīre meaning ‘to stuff’: the word originally referred to something called ‘forcemeat’, i.e., meat used as a stuffing in other foods. The word was used in reference to chants and phrases which were inserted into religious songs or hymns in order to pad them out, i.e., to act as stuffing, if you will. Then the word was applied to ridiculous comic plays containing an implausible string of events.
A plan or idea that is ridiculous might invite ridicule because it strikes the reader or hearer as FOOLISH, STUPID, MINDLESS, FATUOUS, INANE, ASININE, SILLY, or, indeed, DERISORY – this last word meaning from deride, which is from the same root as ridiculous.
But there are also a few words which emphasise the INCREDIBLE or UNBELIEVABLE nature of the ridiculous thing being proposed or done. As well as these two just mentioned, we might also list SHOCKING, OUTRAGEOUS, and PREPOSTEROUS among the synonyms for ridiculous in this sense of the word. FANTASTIC, WILD, and EXTRAVAGANT also fit the bill.
Preposterous is worth stopping to consider for a moment because of its interesting etymology. Pre- means ‘before’, but the posterous bit means ‘behind’ (this is why you can describe your behind, or buttocks, as your ‘posterior’). If something is preposterous it’s back-to-front or the wrong way round, with the behind part facing forwards, or that which should last is first, and vice versa.
If something is so wild that it doesn’t really make sense, it is SENSELESS, or NONSENSICAL.
It might also defy reason, and a number of ridiculous synonyms emphasise the UNREASONABLE, IRRATIONAL, ILLOGICAL, or INCONGRUOUS nature of something which invites or deserves ridicule, as does the phrase, WITHOUT RHYME OR REASON.
Finally, we might describe something that’s FUTILE or POINTLESS as ridiculous, as in Why do you even play the lottery? It’s ridiculous. You’re never going to become a millionaire!