Etymology One Oh One: Humour

Posted in Uncategorized by Vikram on August 8, 2013

No one has ever formed a word out of a vacuum, even the first words were probably derivations of grunts and gestures.  That’s why the study of the etymology is pretty  fascinating: we can trace words’ lineage, mutations, interpretations, misinterpretations and most importantly, constant undercurrents of meaning continuing throughout bygone eras.  Consequently, I’d like to start a bit on my blog about etymology – nothing too studious or didactic -but more just an examination of the genesis of  particular words, and how that genesis is tied to their current meaning.

Today I’d like to discuss a word that embodies a love of my life other than communication: humour.

In Hellenic Europe, and later, Medieval Europe, humours were the four bodily fluids that had to exist within the body in equal balance in order to ensure good health, any disease was a result of an imbalance of these fluids.  They were known  as  blood, yellow bile, phlegm, and black bile.  Our ancestors pictured our innards beautifully, didn’t they?

In efforts to form all encompassing theories, as academics still do today, these 4 liquids were attached to other tetrads, such as the four seasons, the four elements, and even the four gospels.

However, through the famous Greek physician Hippocrates, humours were also used to describe  temperaments of individuals.  He, and other Greek academics, believed that an over or under abundance of these humours caused certain personalities: Melancholic, Choleric, Sanguine and Phlegmatic.  Too much blood and you were Sanguine:courageous and amorous, too much yellow bile and you were Choleric: bad tempered and angry, and so forth.  We still use choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine to describe personality traits, although not very much outside the more verbose texts.

This belief in humours extended through medieval Europe and medieval Islam, yet during the renaissance the word began to take on new meaning.  Humour began to be associated with whim and caprice, and from there, indulgence, and finally, funniness.

Of all the personality traits, one wonders how humour got attached to “finding something comical”.

I’d suggest that it was related to people who were considered insane, they were viewed as having a case of the “bad humours”.  These people may have understood, or been overwhelmed by, the absurdity, hypocrisy or simple meaninglessness in the world in which they lived.  In doing so, they were branded as creatures whose mental affliction (humour) found comedy in scenarios widely regarded as serious.  A penchant for understanding situations for their utter absurdity may have contributed to the current meaning of humour.

It is interesting to examine humour as a sort of meta-perspective, one that stands above all other perspectives and views the how each individual frames the world, because, in essence, this is what humor is.  It is the understanding of expectation and playing to, if not always the opposite, the unexpected, and to do this, an understanding of frames of reference is required.

As one of my favourite subjects, I’ll certainly tackle humour again, but I think the etymology of the word is an excellent place to start.


3 Responses

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  1. canon review said, on June 8, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    thanks for all the information….

    nice to visit your blog…

    see you……..

  2. Pilcher said, on July 2, 2010 at 6:52 am

    This is a nice blog message, I will keep this idea in my mind. If you add more video and pictures because it helps understanding 🙂

  3. vikpostedhere said, on July 13, 2010 at 9:43 am

    Hey thanks for the support, you two. I’ll be sure to add more pictures, even though I like words better 😉

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