Humour and its relatives

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
Sardonic Self-relief Adversity Pessimism The self

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…

  1. H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition. Oxford University Press, 2009. []

4 comments on “Humour and its relatives

  1. Mark Day

    Tim, I laughed at this and wondered if you agreed that it was an instance of Pauline humour.

    In Galatians 5:12 he says he wishes “those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” In a long discourse against people who insist on circumcision, it seems that Paul is suggesting that if they’re forcing people to chop off a little, they should turn on themselves and take the whole thing!

    What do you reckon?

  2. tim b

    Yes, David Urban in the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible claims it’s irony, and that Paul’s irony often has humorous intent. But I don’t really want to branch out into the NT before I’ve “done” the OT ;)

  3. Mark Simpson

    I what I would call humour in Proverbs 30:25-26 and the use of Hebrew
    ‘am -עַ֣ם = people

    As in the more word-for-word English translations like the American Standard Version
    “25 The ants are a people not strong, Yet they provide their food in the summer; 26 The conies are but a feeble folk, Yet make they their houses in the rocks;”~ Prov 30:25-26
    and the English Standard Version, “25 ..the ants are a people not strong, yet they provide their food in the summer; 26 the rock badgers are a people not mighty, yet they make their homes in the cliffs;” . I have found that humour somewhat lost as translations approach the more word-for-thought to thought-for-thought choice of words such as in the Today’s New International Version where the ‘people’ is rendered ‘creatures’ “..25 Ants are creatures of little strength, yet they store up their food in the summer; 26 hyraxes are creatures of little power, yet they make their home in the crags;” ~ Prov 30:25-26 TNIV and even twinked in the likes of the Good News Translation ” 25 Ants: they are weak, but they store up their food in the summer. 26 Rock badgers: they are not strong either, but they make their homes among the rocks.”!

    1. tim

      Yes, I suspect that both in general: humour is less easy to spot for oneself (i.e. if the translator does not spot it for us) in less “literal” translations, and in particular: this verse may well intend to be humorous. However, this is where it gets difficult. By what criteria do we say this is intended to be funny. That it tickles OUR funny bones is at best weak evidence, since humour in different cultures can be very different, especially subtle humour that aims at smiles not belly laughs. The most usual signs (see my post are contextual, but proverbs are texts that tend to work in isolation, even though we get them in collections in Prov 10ff.. One line of evidence in this case would be the use of ‘am “a people” elsewhere of animals (in Hebrew and similar uses in other cognate languages). I may need to do more research and write a post on the presence or absence of humour in this verse…