2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Everyday life; Health and medicine

Humour or humor (see spelling differences) is the tendency of particular images, stories or situations to provoke laughter and provide amusement. Many theories exist about what humour is and what social function it serves. Yet, people of all ages and cultures respond to humour and most people share a common sense of humour.

The term derives from the humoral medicine of the ancient Greeks, which stated that a mix of fluids known as humours ( Greek: χυμός, chymos, literally: juice or sap, metaphorically: flavour) controlled human health and emotion.

A sense of humour is the ability to experience humour, although the extent to which an individual will find something humorous depends on a host of variables, including geographical location, culture, maturity, level of education, intelligence, and context. For example, young children may possibly favour slapstick, such as Punch and Judy puppet shows or cartoons (e.g. Tom and Jerry). Satire may rely more on understanding the target of the humour, and thus tends to appeal to more mature audiences. Non-satirical humour can be specifically termed "recreational drollery".

Smiling often reflects a sense of humour and amusement, shown in a painting by Eduard von Grützner.
Smiling often reflects a sense of humour and amusement, shown in a painting by Eduard von Grützner.

Understanding humour

Humor occurs when

  • An alternative or surprising shift in perception or answer is given, that still shows relevance and can explain a situation.
  • We laugh at something that points out another's errors, lack of intelligence or unfortunate circumstances, granting a sense of superiority.
  • Sudden relief occurs from a tense situation "humourific" as formerly applied in comedy referred to the interpretation of the sublime and the ridiculous. In this context, humour is often a subjective experience as it depends on a special mood or perspective from its audience to be effective.
  • Two ideas or things are juxtaposed that are very distant in meaning emotionally or conceptually, that is, having a significant incongruity.

Arthur Schopenhauer lamented the misuse of the term (the German loanword from English) to mean any type of comedy. However, both terms are often used when theorizing about the subject. The connotation of "humor" is more that of response, while "comic" refers more to stimulus. "Humor" also originally had a connotation of a combined ridiculousness and wit in one individual; the paradigm case being Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff. The French were slow to adopt the term "humour," and in French "humeur" and "humour" are still two different words, the former still referring only to the archaic concept of humors.

Western humor theory begins with Plato who attributed to Socrates (as a semi-historical dialogue character), in the Philebus (p. 49b), the view that the essence of the ridiculous is an ignorance in the weak who are thus unable to retaliate when ridiculed. Later in Greek philosophy, Aristotle in the Poetics (1449a p 34-35) suggested that an ugliness that does not disgust is fundamental to humor.

The Incongruity Theory originated mostly with Kant who claimed that the comic is an expectation that comes to nothing. Henri Bergson attempted to perfect incongruity, by reducing it to the 'living' and 'mechanical'.

An incongruity like Bergson's, in things juxtaposed simultaneously, is still in vogue. This is often debated against theories of the shifts in perspectives in humor. Hence the debate in the series Humor Research between John Morreall and Robert Latta. Morreall presented mostly simultaneous juxtapositions,, with Latta countering that it requires a "cognitive shift," created by a discovery or solution to a puzzle or problem. Latta is criticized for having reduced jokes' essence to their own puzzling aspect.

Humour frequently contains an unexpected, often sudden, shift in perspective, which gets assimilated by the Incongruity Theory. This view has been defended by Latta (1998) and by Brian Boyd (2004). Boyd views the shift as from seriousness to play. Nearly anything can be the object of this perspective twist. It is, however is in the areas of human creativity (science and art being the other two) that the shift results from ‘structure mapping’ (termed " bisociation" by Koestler) to create novel meanings. Koestler argues that humour results when two different frames of reference are set up and a collision is engineered between them.

Tony Veal, who is taking a more formalised computational approach than Koestler did, has written on the role of metaphor and metonymy in humour, using inspiration from Koestler as well as from Dedre Gentner´s theory of structure-mapping, George Lakoff´s and Mark Johnson´s theory of conceptual metaphor and Mark Turner´s and Gilles Fauconnier´s theory of conceptual blending.

Some claim that humour cannot or should not be explained. Author E. B. White once said that "Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind."

Evolution of humour

As with any form of art, the same goes for humour, acceptance depends on social demographics and varies from person to person. Throughout history comedy has been used as a form of entertainment all over the world, whether in the courts of the Western kings or the villages of the far east. Both a social etiquette and a certain intelligence can be displayed through forms of wit and sarcasm. 18th-century German author Georg Lichtenberg said that "the more you know humour, the more you become demanding in fineness."

Humour formulae

Root components:

  • some surprise/ misdirection, contradiction, ambiguity or paradox.
  • appealing to feelings or to emotions.
  • similar to reality, but not real


  • metaphor
  • hyperbole
  • reframing
  • timing
  • reductio ad absurdum or farce

Rowan Atkinson explains in his lecture in the documentary " Funny Business", that an object or a person can become funny in three different ways. They are:

  • By being in an unusual place
  • By behaving in an unusual way
  • By being the wrong size

Most sight gags fit into one or more of these categories.

Humour is also sometimes described as an ingredient in spiritual life. Humour is also the act of being funny. Some synonyms of funny or humour are hilarious, knee-slapping, spiritual, wise-minded, outgoing, and amusing. Some Masters have added it to their teachings in various forms. A famous figure in spiritual humour is the laughing Buddha, who would answer all questions with a laugh.

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