Verbal Energy

Dry air, dry wit, and the fluid origins of humor

The Monitor’s language columnist considers the connections among our terms for that which calls forth laughter and delight.

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It’s that time of year when I find it’s a good idea to keep a bottle of hand lotion within easy reach.

I love the winter light, and the sunshine that pours into the room where I work. But the low humidity of heated interior spaces can lead to a general feeling of being all dried out.

A friend, a while back, asked me to consider the connections between humor and intelligence. Is the capacity to be funny a sign of intelligence? Well, of course. If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, comics are its unofficial supreme court.

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But as I anointed my knuckles for the thousandth time of the season the other day, another question came to thought: How does it happen that we denote funniness, that which makes us laugh, with a term that originally referred to moisture, indeed, to bodily fluids?

Humor originally referred to the fluids or juices of a plant or animal. The word comes from a Latin term meaning “to get wet.” Ancient physiologists believed that a person’s temperament was determined by the interaction of four humors – fluids – in his or her body: blood, phlegm, choler (yellow bile), and melancholy (black bile). Modern physiologists, of course, have very different ideas and point out that “melancholy” was completely imaginary.

If you think these ideas have died out completely, though, think again. They live on in our language when we speak of someone’s “sanguine temperament,” for instance – in which the blood was supposedly the predominant humor. The idea of “melancholy” may be the hardest of these dumb ideas to shake off completely. For one thing, melancholy is a rather attractive-sounding word.

But I digress. Once humor came to refer to the temperament, and not the fluid itself, it eventually shifted again. By the early 16th century, it referred not just to one’s temperament but to one’s mood. (Temperament is to mood as climate is to weather.) Over the next century and a half the meaning of humor shifted further, from a mood to a good mood to a mood to crack jokes. Humor used to mean “funniness” was first recorded in 1682, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. By 1705, humorous was being used in the modern sense of “funny.” Funny itself would appear 50 years later.

H.M. Fowler’s Modern English Usage (which, some would quibble, is “modern” in the same sense that the Pont Neuf in Paris is “new”) has a nifty little table of the types of humor. It’s worth a look.

It distinguishes among humor, wit, satire, sarcasm, invective, irony, cynicism, and “sardonic.” The last one offends my sense of parallelism. I want this thing to be a string of nouns, so what’s an adjective doing in the lineup? What’s the related noun – sardonicism? Well, actually, yes. Who knew?

I have more substantive doubts about “invective.” It just doesn’t seem like a type of humor, except in a Mort Sahl sense (“Is there any group I haven’t offended?”)

For each type of humor, Fowler’s table lists “motive/aim,” “province,” “method/means,” and “audience.” Thus “wit,” for instance, has as its motive “throwing light.” Its province is “words & ideas.” Its method is “surprise.” And its audience is “the intelligent.”

We may appreciate “dry wit,” but there’s an etymological reason for comics to be all wet. Meanwhile, please pass me the hand cream.

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