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By going hack a step further in history, to the late fourteenth century, we met Chaucer's physician who knew "the cause of everye maladye, and where engendered and of what humour" and find that Chaucer is not speaking of a mental state at all, but is referring to those physiological humours of which, according to Hippocrates, the human body contained four: blood, phlegm, bile, and black bile, and by which the disposition was determined.

We find, too, that at one time a "humour" meant any animal or plant fluid, and again any kind of moisture.

Which might give rise to some thoughts on the paradoxical subject of dry humor. Now in part this development is easily traced.


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Humor, meaning moisture of any kind, came to have a biological significance and was applied only to plant and animal life. It was restricted later within purely physiological boundaries and was applied only to those "humours" of the human body that controlled temperament. From these fluids, determining mental states, the word took on a psychological coloring, but—by what process of evolution did humor reach its present status!


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After all, the scientific method has its weaknesses! We can, if we wish, define humor in terms of what it is not. We can draw lines around it and distinguish it from its next of kin, wit. This indeed has been a favorite pastime with the jugglers of words in all ages. And many have been the attempts to define humor, to define wit, to describe and differentiate them, to build high fences to keep them apart. While yet another points out that "Humor is feeling—feelings can always bear repetition, while wit, being intellectual, suffers by repetition.

Yet it is quite possible that humor ought not to be defined. It may be one of those intangible substances, like love and beauty, that are indefinable. It is quite probable that humor should not be explained. It would be distressing, as some one pointed out, to discover that American humor is based on American dyspepsia. Yet the philosophers themselves have endeavored to explain it.

Hazlitt held that to understand the ludicrous, we must first know what the serious is. And to apprehend the serious, what better course could be followed than to contemplate the serious—yes and ludicrous—findings of the philosophers in their attempts to define humor and to explain laughter. Consider Hobbes: "The passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from the sudden conception of eminency in ourselves by comparison with the inferiority of others, or with our own formerly. The laughter that invariably greets this "funny" maneuver would seem to have philosophical sanction.

Bergson, too, the philosopher of creative evolution, has considered laughter to the extent of an entire volume. A reading of it leaves one a little disturbed. Laughter, so we learn, is not the merry-hearted, jovial companion we had thought him. Laughter is a stern mentor, characterized by "an absence of feeling. Bergson, "is above all a corrective, it must make a painful impression on the person against whom it is directed.

By laughter society avenges itself for the liberties taken with it. It would fail in its object if it bore the stamp of sympathy or kindness. But, after all, since it is true that "one touch of humor makes the whole world grin," what difference does it make what that humor is; what difference why or wherefore we laugh, since somehow or other, in a sorry world, we do laugh? Of the test for a sense of humor, it has already been said that it is the ability to see a joke. And, as for a joke, the dictionary, again a present help in time of trouble, tells us at once that it is, "something said or done for the purpose of exciting a laugh.

Suppose it does not excite the laugh expected? What of the joke that misses fire? Shall a joke be judged by its intent or by its consequences? Is a joke that does not produce a laugh a joke at all? Pragmatically considered it is not. Agnes Repplier, writing on Humor, speaks of "those beloved writers whom we hold to be humorists because they have made us laugh. Is it possible that the laugh is not the test of the joke?

Here is a question over which the philosophers may wrangle. Is there an Absolute in the realm of humor, or must our jokes be judged solely by the pragmatic test? Congreve once told Colly Gibber that there were many witty speeches in one of Colly's plays, and many that looked witty, yet were not really what they seemed at first sight! So a joke is not to be recognized even by its appearance or by the company it keeps. Perhaps there might be established a test of good usage. A joke would be that at which the best people laugh. Somebody—was it Mark Twain?

Miss Repplier, however, gives to modern times the credit for some inventiveness. Christianity, she says, must be thanked for such contributions as the missionary and cannibal joke, and for the interminable variations of St. Peter at the gate. A like examination of American newspapers would perhaps result in a slightly different list. We have, of course, our purely local jokes. Boston will always be a joke to Chicago, the east to the west. The city girl in the country offers a perennial source of amusement, as does the country man in the city.

And the foreigner we have always with us, to mix his Y's and J's, distort his H's, and play havoc with the Anglo-Saxon Th. Indeed our great American sense of humor has been explained as an outgrowth from the vast field of incongruities offered by a developing civilization. It may be that this vaunted national sense has been over-estimated—exaggeration is a characteristic of that humor, anyway—but at least it has one of the Christian virtues—it suffereth long and is kind. Miss Repplier says that it is because we are a "humorous rather than a witty people that we laugh for the most part with, and not at our fellow creatures.

I listened once to a distinguished Frenchman as he addressed the students in a western university chapel. He was evidently astounded and embarrassed by the outbursts of laughter that greeted his mildly humorous remarks. He even stopped to apologize for the deficiencies of his English, deeming them the cause, and was further mystified by the little ripple of laughter that met his explanation—a ripple that came from the hearts of the good-natured students, who meant only to be appreciative and kind. Foreigners, too, unacquainted with American slang often find themselves precipitating a laugh for which they are unprepared.

For a bit of current slang, however and whenever used, is always humorous. The American is not only a humorous person, he is a practical person.

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So it is only natural that the American humor should be put to practical uses. It was once said that the difference between a man with tact and a man without was that the man with tact, in trying to put a bit in a horse's mouth, would first tell him a funny story, while the man without tact would get an axe. This use of the funny story is the American way of adapting it to practical ends. A collection of funny stories used to be an important part of a drummer's stock in trade. It is by means of the "good story" that the politician makes his way into office; the business man paves the way for a big deal; the after-dinner speaker gets a hearing; the hostess saves her guests from boredom.

Project Gutenberg ebook: TOASTER'S HANDBOOK.

Such a large place does the "story" hold in our national life that we have invented a social pastime that might be termed a "joke match. Our hearers are reminded of another, good or bad, which again reminds us—and so on. A sense of humor, as was intimated before, is the chiefest of the virtues. It is more than this—it is one of the essentials to success. For, as has also been pointed out, we, being a practical people, put our humor to practical uses. It is held up as one of the prerequisites for entrance to any profession.

Bertie, the Bookworm and the Bully Boys : Book III of the Fabled Forest Series

For, before all else, a teacher must possess a sense of humor! If it be true, then, that the sense of humor is so important in determining the choice of a profession, how wise are those writers who hold it an essential for entrance into that most exacting of professions—matrimony! But there must always be exceptions if the spice of life is to be preserved, and I recall one couple of my acquaintance, devoted and loyal in spite of this very incompatibility. A man with a highly whimsical sense of humor had married a woman with none.

Yet he told his best stories with an eye to their effect on her, and when her response came, peaceful and placid and non-comprehending, he would look about the table with delight, as much as to say, "Isn't she a wonder? Do you know her equal? Humor may be the greatest of the virtues, yet it is the one of whose possession we may boast with impunity. Or, "You know my sense of humor was always my strong point. And so is its lack the one vice of which one may not permit himself to be a trifle proud. But did any one ever openly make the confession, "I know I am lacking in a sense of humor!

I like to recall that ancient usage: "The skie hangs full of humour, and I think we shall haue raine. Before making any specific suggestions to the prospective toaster or toastmaster, let us advise that he consider well the nature and spirit of the occasion which calls for speeches. The toast, after-dinner talk, or address is always given under conditions that require abounding good humor, and the desire to make everybody pleased and comfortable as well as to furnish entertainment should be uppermost. Perhaps a consideration of the ancient custom that gave rise to the modern toast will help us to understand the spirit in which a toast should be given.

It originated with the pagan custom of drinking to gods and the dead, which in Christian nations was modified, with the accompanying idea of a wish for health and happiness added.

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In England during the sixteenth century it was customary to put a "toast" in the drink, which was usually served hot. This toast was the ordinary piece of bread scorched on both sides. It was in this way that the act of drinking or of proposing a health, or the mere act of expressing good wishes or fellowship at table came to be known as toasting.