A post on True Paradigm titled Humour, wit, satire,… drew my attention to this fine quote from Fowler’s classic A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. (My citation is from the 2009 edition by David Crystal that reproduces the 1926 first edition.)1
humour, n., makes humorous, but hunmourist; see -OUR- & -OR-. Humour is still often or usually pronounced without the h sound ; the derivatives now being rarely without it, hum0ur- itself will probably follow suit. The spelling -our is better than -or; but see -OUR & -OH.
humour. wit. satire, sarcasm, invective, irony, cynicism, the sardonic. So much has been written upon the nature of some of these words, & upon the distinctions between pairs or trios among them (wit & humour, sarcasm & irony & satire), that it would be both presumptuous & unnecessary to attempt a further disquisition. But a sort of tabular statement may be of service against some popular misconceptions. No deﬁnition of the words is offered, but for each its motive or aim, its province, its method or means, & its proper audience, are speciﬁed. The constant confusion between sarcasm, satire, & irony, as well as that now less common between wit & humour, seems to justify this mechanical device of parallel classiﬁcation; but it will be of use only to those who wish for help in determining which is the word that they really want.
|Device||Motive or aim||Province||Method or means||Audience|
|Humour||Discovery||Human nature||Observation||The sympathetic|
|Wit||Throwing light||Words and ideas||Surprise||The intelligent|
|Satire||Amendment||Morals and manners||Accentuation||The self-satisfied|
|Sarcasm||Inflicting pain||Faults and foibles||Inversion||Victim and bystander|
|Invective||Discredit||Misconduct||Direct statement||The public|
|Irony||Exclusiveness||Statement of facts||Mystification||An inner circle|
|Cynicism||Self-justification||Morals||Exposure of nakedness||The respectable|
If I were to adopt Fowler’s classification for my humour in every book of the Hebrew Bible project (and the idea is tempting) I should need to add a prior meaning of “humour” before Fowler’s to include all (or at least most?) of his categories insofar as their goal is laughter or smiles.
I wonder too by what criteria one might (when studying ancient written texts) distinguish some of these pairs, e.g. “cynicism” from the “sardonic” in the prophets…
- H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition. Oxford University Press, 2009. [↩]