Crazy bone

« previous post | next post »

One of the students in my class — all from China — hit her elbow on the edge of her desk and grimaced.  I asked her, "Did you hit your crazy bone?"

She didn't know what I meant, and none of the other students in the class knew either.  I explained what "hit my crazy bone" signifies (see below for a physiological note), and the entire class thought it was funny.  Lots of giggling and laughing.

I inquired of the whole class how they would say it in Chinese.  A student from Beijing volunteered:

"kē dào májīn 磕到麻筋". Like when I hit my elbow and my face became distorted, my mother would jokingly ask "kē dào májīnr le ba? 磕到麻筋儿了吧?". Anyway, that's the way it's said in our family.

VHM: jīn 筋 literally means "tendon", so májīn 麻筋 would mean "numb tendon", but here it clearly implies "numb nerve".

I asked the student who had originally hit her elbow if that's how she would say it.  She, who is from South China, replied that she had never heard of that Beijing expression.  The other students — I think they're all from northern parts — averred that they had heard it.

So I said to the student from the south, "Well, how would you say it?"  She answered, "We don't have a special expression for it.  I would just say 'má 麻' ('numb')."


Physiological note

What Is the Funny Bone?

AASH | American Society for Surgery of the Hand (April 12, 2022), by John M. Erickson,

The funny bone is neither funny nor a bone. The source of pain when someone “hits their funny bone” is actually related to a nerve on the inside of the elbow. This nerve is called the ulnar nerve. The ulnar nerve is one of the three important nerves that control the hand. It supplies feeling to the pinky and ring finger. It also controls many of the fine motor skill muscles in the hand. When the ulnar nerve is not working properly, the pinky and ring finger go numb and tingly, and the hand can become weak and uncoordinated. Pins and needles, electric pain, and hand numbness are all very common. This is what happens when the ulnar nerve, or “funny bone,” is hit too hard at the elbow.

Judging from this and from other evidence on the internet, my Stark County, Ohio "crazy bone" is a minority usage in America.

Incidentally, "funny bone" also has the figurative meaning of "sense of humor", e.g., "tickle someone's funny bone".  However, if you really do hit your funny bone, it's not funny at all.  It usually hurts like the dickens, and the pain / numbness can last for quite some time, 5-10 minutes or more.


Selected readings

…referring to bumping your funny bone as "enkelstöt" (easy knock) instead of "änkestöt" (widow's knock).

The reasoning behind "enkelstöt" just seems to be that it is an accident that can easily happen, whereas "änkestöt" is a reference to the somewhat morbid expression "änkesorg och armbågsstöt går fort över” (the widow's grief and the pain from elbow knocks pass quickly).

[Thanks to Ruowen Li and all the other students in my Literary Sinitic class]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    April 19, 2024 @ 8:42 am

    From a Swedish friend:

    Never, ever heard of those Swedish words! Archaic? Regional dialect?

  2. Bill said,

    April 19, 2024 @ 9:32 am

    I've always assumed it was called "hitting the funny bone" because the humerus bone attached at the elbow.

  3. Gunnar H said,

    April 19, 2024 @ 10:09 am

    I have heard "änkestöt," and Svensk ordbok lists it without any usage notes in an entry dated 2021, so I don't think it's either archaic or regional.

  4. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    April 19, 2024 @ 11:05 am

    "Judging from this and from other evidence on the internet, my Stark County, Ohio "crazy bone" is a minority usage in America."

    In Warren County, Ohio (where I grew up), we said "funny bone."

    I'm trying to think what was said in Cuyahoga County (where I lived in my 20s), but I think it was also "funny bone." That said, I wouldn't find "crazy bone" odd or confusing, so I may have heard that a few times, too, but can't be sure.

  5. Neil Dolinger said,

    April 19, 2024 @ 11:18 am

    The “Crazy bone” usage might be a bit more regional than Stark County. In the’90’s there was a hip hop group based in Cleveland named Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. The members all took nommes de rap with “bone” in the name: Bizzy Bone, Wish Bone, Layzie Bone, Krayzie Bone, and Flesh-n-Bone. Not sure if Krayzie Bone took his name from the elbow phenomenon, but your post got me thinking.

    N.b. The group is still active.

  6. Rodger C said,

    April 19, 2024 @ 11:46 am

    It's also "crazy bone" in WV and E KY.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    April 19, 2024 @ 12:09 pm

    "Funny bone" also in my topolect (), and, like a previous commentator, I too have always assumed that there must be a close association with the humerous (bone).

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    April 19, 2024 @ 12:16 pm

    … Where "()" should have read (<Br.E>).

  9. Orin Ed DeNiro said,

    April 19, 2024 @ 12:21 pm

    In Mahoning County in the 60s, we said "Funny bone."

  10. Y said,

    April 19, 2024 @ 12:43 pm

    The funny bone is, of course, the humerus.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    April 19, 2024 @ 1:46 pm

    The French expression "se cogner le petit juif" is an ethnic slur.

    See the explanation here:

    where you can also find equivalent expressions in other European languages, some of them quite bizarre / droll.

  12. Peter B. Golden said,

    April 19, 2024 @ 3:19 pm

    Russian has смешная кость, lit. "funny bone" but it has the feel of being borrowed.

  13. Steve Morrison said,

    April 19, 2024 @ 8:48 pm

    We called it the “funny bone” in Hamilton County, Ohio.

  14. Chas Belov said,

    April 19, 2024 @ 10:49 pm

    We called it "funny bone" in Pittsburgh, Pa., when I was growing up there.

  15. Tom said,

    April 20, 2024 @ 12:52 am

    It's also "funny bone" where I grew up in Ohio: Geauga and Cuyahoga counties, just north of you.

  16. Mark L. Levinson said,

    April 20, 2024 @ 5:07 am

    From a childhood in Greater Boston in the 1950s, I recall "funny bone" as the common term but "crazy bone" as a not unfamiliar alternative.

  17. David Marjanović said,

    April 20, 2024 @ 7:55 am

    where you can also find equivalent expressions in other European languages

    Some of them probably very regional. I not only don't know the German one, I don't have one at all.

  18. Lars said,

    April 20, 2024 @ 4:29 pm

    As a non-native, I only knew the metaphorical use. I didn't know there was an actual funny bone. I did know about the ulnar nerve, though.

  19. Chris said,

    April 21, 2024 @ 3:36 am

    In our household (South Germany) we called it "Musikantenknochen".

  20. Pamela said,

    April 21, 2024 @ 8:09 pm

    Extreme western Ohio hgere, we also said funny bone. Never heard of "crazy bone," but it's good. Anything is better than "funny"…

  21. Terry Hunt said,

    April 22, 2024 @ 11:39 am

    Though using "funny bone" since earliest childhood (in the UK), and knowing about the relevance of the humerus for nearly as long, I always assumed that "funny" was here meant in the sense of "peculiar", because the resultant sensation is unlike any other and thus unusual.

    Tangentially, I used to have a copy of a 1965 compilations by Denys Parsons of short newpaper items, titled Funny Ha-ha and Funny Peculiar.

  22. Monscampus said,

    April 22, 2024 @ 6:41 pm

    I second Musikantenknochen from Northern Germany. Why, I asked as a child. Because when you feel the pain, you can imagine hearing the angels sing in heaven.

RSS feed for comments on this post