The aim of this opening chapter is tomake a succinct reviewof the basic concepts involved in humor studies, highlighting those which are useful for a linguistic approach.This avowedly interdisciplinary venture feeds on awealth of academic contributions to humor research, the variety of which it is also important to reveal. After pondering the essential question “What is humor?” I shall review the lexicological history of the term and the different terminological groups into which it has been divided. I will then discuss the polemical distinction between humor, laughter, wit and irony, and elaborate on the various theoretical approaches to the humorous phenomenon, namely the so-called disparagement, release and incongruity theories. Afterwards, I will consider the philogenetics and ontogenetics of humor and, last but not least, its crucial dimension as a communicative act.
A disclaimer should be added at the outset of this endeavour: although other books on humor often start with similar reflections, my purpose is not to repeat or recycle those reflections. Rather, it is to look at them from a linguistic perspective, to examine the bibliographical sources at their root (instead of resorting to laconic name-dropping), and to establish a conceptual basis for my work to follow.
1. Matter and Manner
Trying to define humor is one of the definitions of
humor. (S. Steinberg)
Humor has many facets and many academic constructions, as well as many terminological shades,which a tradition of interdisciplinary distance has tended to overlook and confuse. This may explain why researchers tend to disagree when struggling to answer a seemingly simple question: what is humor? Being regarded as an intangible object of analysis, humor has faced a general ‘agnostic’ tendency on the part of many scholars. Back in 1900, for instance, Bergson’s advice is: “One should not lock up the comic spirit in a definition; instead, one should regard it as a living being.” Similarly, in 1903 Croce states, “Humor is indefinable like all psychological states,” and three years later Cazamian entitles his article ‘Why one cannot define humor’ and complains: “The theory of humor suffers from a general handicap of insufficiency, which also affects aesthetic analysis.” Eastman (1921: 134) also sides with this line of thought by stating: “There is no other subject, as we reflect upon it, besides God and laughter, toward which the scientific mind has ever advocated so explicit and particular a humility.”
This “humility” has continued to haunt the academic discourse on humor to this day, despite many attempts at defining the phenomenon. Apte (1988), for instance, compares the importance of defining humor – the object of what he coins as “humorology” – with such notions as language in linguistics or culture in anthropology, but he refrains from producing the definition himse lf on the grounds of its elusiveness. Likewise, Evrard (1996: 4) refers to the remarkable “semantic flexibility” of humor and its “enigmatic character,” and states: “Its range of degrees, procedures, themes, its subtle and diffused character make it a difficult phenomenon to spot and define.” The reluctance to define humor bears on the extreme diversity of formswhich the phenomenon assumes. Humor can be either verbal or non-verbal; it can be a subjective experience or serve communicative purposes; it can draw upon common everyday reality or consist of fiction and imagination; it can charm or attack, be created spontaneously or be used as a well-prepared technique of personal and professional interaction; it can be a simple joke told among friends or amount to the sophistication of Shakespeare’s plays. . . Nowadays, there are also many humor media – which go beyond the classic forms of theatrical comedy, literary farce and limerick, or such types as satirical leaflets and clown pantomimes – andwhich range fromTVsitcoms to comicmovies, cartoons in the daily and weekly press, and Internet gags. Besides, humor also varies according to age, gender, social group, situation, epoch, culture and civilization, covering a virtually infinite variety of objects. The truth is there does not seem to be a specific ‘humorous theme’: everything, in principle, can become an object for humorous use. It is a fact that one laughs at the frivolous and the sacred alike, just as one laughs at both happiness and pain; one laughs at one’s illusions, deceptions, dreams, but one can, and does, also laugh at death and many other fears. As ´Emelina (1996: 17) says, “absolutely nothing escapes from laughter; it is not a question of matter, but of manner, context and perspective.”
Therefore, it is not surprising that a wide variety of humor manifestations equals a correspondingly wide variety of approaches, analyses and interpretations. Hence another obstacle to the definition of humor: the fact that it is studied in such diverse areas as philosophy, psychology, anthropology, sociology, medical
sciences, information sciences, pedagogy, literary theory and linguistics. In fact, the danger of generalizing and unduly interfering upon parallel research fields seems to be so inhibiting that it is common to avoid the essentialist question “What is humor?” (i.e., “What characteristics are necessary and sufficient for humor to occur?”). Instead, one tends to consider circumstantial questions, such as “When, how and where does humor take place?”, “Who produces and receives humor?”,“What objectives does it have?” and “What functions – social, interpersonal, ideological, political – does it serve?” Be that as it may, it is the coexistence of contradictory terminologies – academic and informal alike – which renders the issue more complex. As we shall see next, to know what the humorous phenomenon is implies, for a start, acknowledging the taxonomic conventions which underlie the word ‘humor’.
2. Taxonomic Systems
The absence of a terminological consensus within the vast range of humor studies is problematic not only for neophytes but also formore experienced researchers. Nowadays, as Ruch (1998: 6) explains, two taxonomic systems coexist side by side and, contrary to what happens in other disciplines, they do not meet with a normative usage.
On the one hand, there is a historical terminology that derives from the field of philosophical ethics, according to which the comic – defined as the faculty of causing laughter or amusement – is distinguished from other aesthetic qualities, such as beauty, harmony or the tragic. Humor is here conceived of merely as one of the elements of the comic, together with such concepts as wit, nonsense, sarcasm, satire, or irony, basically meaning a conciliatory and cheerful attitude towards life and its imperfections. In this restricted sense, humor is seen as the product of a well-meaning and tolerant heart, which obviously differs from the haughty stance that is believed to underlie wit, or the aggressive malice of sarcasm. Therefore, this terminological system does not consider any joke as an instance of ‘aggressive humor’, since humor is, by definition, benevolent, and jokes are not a form of humor but of wit.
A second terminological system, largely subscribed by today’s Anglo-American tradition – and used in daily language –, takes humor as an umbrellaterm covering all the phenomena in this field. In this way, ‘humor’ replaces ‘the comic’ and is regarded as a neutral term, which admits both positive and negative meanings. Hence the possibility of conceiving aggressive humor and facing the joke as a humor-specific field of study. Having been promoted to the status of a superordinate term, humor has come to preside over numberless sub categories, sometimes indiscriminately substituting names of literary genres such as parody, comedy, satire or farce. Given the comprehensiveness which the term has lately acquired, it is frequent to see it being used together with a qualifier, such as ‘verbal humor’ (instead of wit), ‘hostile humor’ (instead of sarcasm) and ‘coping humor’ (to name what previously was ‘humor’ tout court).
3. Lexicological Evolution
The difficulty in defining and circumscribing the humorous phenomenon is also due to the fact that the entry of the word ‘humor’ into the lexicological field of the comic was rather late. However, its lexicological roots can be traced back to Antiquity. As Evrard (1996: 9) points out, the term originates in the medical theory of Hippocrates, who defined the human moods according to the predominance of blood, lymph, yellow or black bile (which came to be known as ‘black humor’). From this division sprang the different temperamental types, namely, sanguineous, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholic.
The French language is claimed to be responsible for exporting the term to Middle English, albeit in a physio-pathological dimension. Still, according to Escarpit (1960: 10), it was only towards the end of the 18th century that the French came to devise the dichotomy humeur/humor, which distinguishes between medical or temperamental humor and humor as a “rationalmechanism.” Curiously enough, both the English and the Portuguese languages lack this subtle philological distinction, having only one term descending from the Latin root umor to name the two semantic facets of the concept.
But it was in the 17th century that, a bit around all Europe, humor slowly began to enter the lexical field of the comic. The term gradually expanded so as to cover a sort of behavior which, owing to an imbalance of the physiological fluids, escaped the social norms and was connoted with an eccentricity that caused laughter. Later on, this involuntary object of laughter came to be called a humorist and the man of humor came to be the one that comically exposed the peculiarities of the humorist. Thus humor progressively started to be regarded as a talent to make others become aware of the ridiculous.
The next turning point, asRuch (1998: 8) remarks, is the positive connotation which the previously neutral term acquired. The attitude of scorn and mockery before the temperamental particularities of others was by then condemned as ‘bad humor’. Instead of hostile laughter, moralists advised benevolent smiling, and the term ‘good humor’ – which later on became ‘humor’ alone – came to mean the humane and tolerant forms of laughter, which could be targeted at pretension, vanity and oddity, but never at the involuntary flaws of others.
In the 19th century, this positive meaning received philosophical support. Coleridge (1836), for instance, claimed that “the humorous consists in a certain reference to the general and the universal” and that humor appears “whenever the finite is contemplated in comparison with the infinite.” Likewise, Schopenhauer (1966 : 101) defended the sublime character of humor, which is often “artistic and poetic,” and should not be confused with indiscriminately comic situations. He also slated the tendency felt in Germany in the first quarter of the 19th century to use the term ‘humor’ as a synonym for ‘comic’.
Itwas also in the 19th century that humor – or sense of humor – acquired the status of a cardinal English virtue, together with others such as common sense, tolerance and compromise, thus becoming an integral part of the English life style.With the political predominance of the British Empire, the positive connotation of the term‘sense of humor’became definitively rooted overseas, still surviving nowadays. Indeed, although the term‘humor’, taken alone, has somehow lost an exclusively positive signification, the phrase ‘sense of humor’has kept its constructive tradition. In daily language, ‘sense of humor’ is, today as in the past, a socially desirable asset,whereas ‘humor’came to acquiremultiple applications and to be used rather comprehensively, even within the academic world.
The lexicological evolution of theword ‘humor’, indebted to various legacies, explains the fact that many authors have sought to define the phenomenon along the scale of the comic. Many attempts at defining humor are, in fact, linked to distinctive taxonomies which suggest limits and differences. Fruitless though these attempts may have been in the long run, they deserve a closer look, since they indicate a few key issues involved in the history of humor studies.