16th century the Italian theatre developed the commedia dell’arte, where comedies developed from ordinary life.
One of these characters in the commedia dell’arte was a clown who mimicked the actions of his principal.
The stock name for such a character
was Zanni, which developed from the Italian name Giovanni, which in English was a name for John.
I wasn’t able to find an illustration before the time of Shakespeare.
Writing in Love’s Labour Lost, Shakespeare wrote: “Some carry-tale, some pleaseman, some slight Zanie, that knows the trick to make my lady laugh”.
By the early 17th century an anybody who made a laughing stock of himself to amuse others was called a zany.
From, that developed the meaning of slightly crazy.
Over the years the emphasis has been slightly less crazy, but
Zany began life as a corruption of the Italian word for Giovanni, but he was also known as Merry Andrew.
But his name was spelt as zanni.
Commedia dell'arte (which translates
as “theatre of the professional”) began in Italy in the early 16th century and quickly spread throughout Europe, creating a lasting influence on Shakespeare, Molière, opera, vaudeville, contemporary musical theatre, sitcoms, and comedy.
dell'arte is a form of theatre characterised by masked "types" which began in Italy in the
16th century and was responsible for the advent of the actresses and improvised performances based on sketches or scenarios.
The name zany was broadened out to
buffoon in the 17th century, but the name zany does not seem to have established itself as an adjective until the 19th century.
But the name seems to have adopted a slightly softer image, very softly.
clown adopted a slightly awkward, even ludicrously awkward, method.
Nevertheless, a crowd of people conducting themselves like fools at a party could be considered as acting
in a zany fashion. And I have seen many of them, so I expect have you.
In the commedia dell’arte a clowning servant was zanni and his role was to make fun of his master or those
By the time the word entered the English language, it meant any foolish person.
My 1811 Dictionary
of the Vulgar Tongue said zany meant “the jester, jack pudding, or merry andrew, to a mountebank”. (A mountebank was a person who deceived others, or behaved as a charlatan”.)
Ambrose Bierce in his 1881 dictionary said a zany was a popular character in Italian plays who imitated with ludicrous incompetence the buffoon, or clown
was therefore the ape of an ape, for the clown himself imitated the serious characters olf the play”. He goes on to say: “Another excellent specimen of the modern zany is the curate, who apes the rector, who apes the bishop, who apes the archbishop,
who apes the devil.” Remember, this was written in 1881.
The Collins dictionary says someone who is zany “is strange or eccentric in a comical way”.
Webster says a zany is a “silly person or simpleton”.
The Macquarie says zany represents “an apish buffoon”.
Words similar to
zany might include comical, eccentric, kooky, loony, clownish, hair-brained, nutty.
Other words include combine, harlequin, pantalone which became pantaloon, even slapstick.
Maybe you would be better off if you steered clear of zany, unless you know the person really well. Maybe not even then.