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Monthly etymology gleanings for December 2014, Part 1

Laughter from the historical perspective

My post on laughing attracted two comments: an alleged counterexample from an Icelandic saga and a veritable flood of vituperation. The second writer was so disgusted that he could not even make himself finish reading the essay. In principle, abuse does not deserve attention, but I’ll offer an explanation to both of my critics, so that those interested in the subject could come away with a better understanding of the matter. Let me note that I have been studying the history of laughter and the sense of humor for decades, read countless articles and books on this subject, and published a major essay on it. I am not saying this to promote my scholarship but only to point out that I am less ignorant and adventuresome than my opponents might believe.

People have been laughing since the beginning of creation, but they did not do so because something struck them as funny, and when they did do or say something funny from our point of view they did not laugh. In an Old Icelandic poem (from the Edda), to avenge his father, the hero disguises himself as a woman. The person named Blind notices the disguise. Very clever, but, apparently, not funny, and no one laughed. Among other things, sexual laughter played a great role (it may or may not be the reason we still laugh at obscene jokes, however stupid and stale, but Risus Paschalis certainly goes back to a most ancient custom). Laughter as a life-giving force has also been recorded (think of Sarah’s laughter at being told that she has conceived). Laughter of triumph, laughter caused by someone’s stupidity (trusting an enemy, for example) or bad manners (a guest belched in company, and everybody laughed), and laughter as a sign of a woman’s courtly breeding are commonplace. Our ancestors were quick to notice incongruity and produce puns, none of which had anything to do with what we call the sense of humor.

Laughter and merriment do not necessarily go together.
Laughter and merriment do not necessarily go together.

Now the alleged counterexamples. The sagas are full of “famous last words,” usually meant to show the character’s contempt of death (laughter at a funeral is also a very ancient topos, possibly connected with laughter as a life-giving force). A man is sent to reconnoiter whether the person being attacked (Gunnar at Hlidarendi, to use an Anglicized spelling) is still in the house. In his attempt to assess the situation he is pierced with a sword. “Is Gunnar there?” The answer: “I don’t know. But his sword is”; having uttered these words, he falls dead. A warrior removes an arrow from his breast, examines it, notices some fat around the arrowhead, and comments: “The king fed us well” (and dies). Those are among the most anthologized cases known from Old Norse literature, but their number can be multiplied ad libitum. No one laughed; no one found such statements funny, and that’s the whole point. Compare the evidence from Icelandic with (among a host of others) St. Lawrence’s turn me over, I am well done, while he is being tortured on a gridiron, and Ralph Percy’s words (at least such is the tradition) addressed to Henry VI at the battle of Hadgeley Moor (1462): “I have saved the bird in my bosom.” He may have meant that his oath of loyalty and the wound will stay forever in his breast. This is all “literature,” rhetoric based on classical models. We have no idea what people really said in the throes of death. As regards the sagas, let us not forget that they were recorded by educated people versed in Latin. And many skaldic verses were indebted for their content to the tradition of heroic (eddic) poetry.

An even less appropriate counterexample concerns Tristan and Isolde (such are their German names). The two are clandestine lovers and make desperate efforts to conceal their meetings. At one stage only an ordeal can save Isolde, and she thinks of a scheme. Tristan, disguised as a pilgrim, carries her ashore; “inadvertently” he drops his load and falls on Isolde, whereupon she swears that she has never lain in anyone’s arms except those of her husband King Mark and that pilgrim. Hot iron does not burn her, and she is cleared of guilt. Here we have an example of another topos, an ambiguous oath. We are not told whether King Mark’s retainers laughed at Isolde’s pronouncement (I assume they did not), but they would, most probably, have laughed at a clown in a modern circus. The civilized Greeks laughed at the sight of crippled veterans (someone with only one arm or leg or without both: isn’t it screamingly funny?). From this point of view they were not a bit better, perhaps worse, than the crusaders of the High Middle Ages. The jokes recoded even in Boccaccio, let alone those in old popular culture (for instance, the stories of Til(l) Eulenspiegel) are either grossly obscene (sexual humor) or scatological.

To repeat the conclusion of my post: The modern sense of humor does not antedate the Renaissance. This momentous breakthrough coincided with many others. People became the masters of perspective in painting and in narrative technique, began (however slowly) to show interest in what we would call psychology, developed a new view of authorship, introduced a mass of often awkward subordinating conjunctions (and in doing so, caught up with the Romans), and so forth. By roughly the middle of the fourteenth century and certainly by the fifteen hundreds they had learned to react not only to “signs” but also to “icons,” to use semiotic terms. We laugh at verbal jokes unaccompanied by and independent of the situation in which they are produced. Moreover, we don’t need a situational background. Medieval Europeans (if we can trust their literature) never behaved so unless they heard the jokes in Latin; but this was studied, rather than spontaneous, laughter: they knew where to laugh.

Here is a healthy, non-metathesized Sheltie. It too wishes our readers and correspondents good health and stability in the year to come.
Here is a healthy, non-metathesized Sheltie. It too wishes our readers and correspondents good health and stability in the year to come.

There are several ways to understand the problem. First and foremost, it is necessary to study the occurrences of the word laugh and its derivatives in older texts and correlate them with the environment that produced laughter (this task has been performed especially well by French scholars). Second, modern researchers should beware of what anthropologists call the identity hypothesis, that is, the assumption that people don’t change and that our reactions are the same as they were in antiquity and the Middle Ages. The greatest danger lies in the seemingly natural belief that what is “funny” today was funny long ago. Laughter and the sense of humor met relatively late in the history of the post-antiquity Europeans. That is why I wrote that neither Sheridan’s nor Oscar Wilde’s comedies, even if adapted to the circumstances of that time, would have had any success in the Middle Ages. Finally, one is advised to show restraint in polemic. I am sorry to finish my explanations on a didactic note, but offending, disparaging, and professing disdain for an opponent is a bad idea. I hope nobody can object to legitimate self-defense even on December 31, when the whole world is expected to be full of the condensed milk of human kindness, to quote Mark Twain rather than Shakespeare. (Isn’t the joke excellent?)

Why Sheltie?

To remind our readers that this is an etymological blog, I’ll answer one question about word origins. The rest will have to wait until next Wednesday, but possibly I have enough for two Wednesdays. The question was why the Shetland sheepdog is called Sheltie? What caused the metathesis (tl to lt)? Indeed, such a change looks most unusual, but I think the suggestion in the OED is the best one we can think of. There was no metathesis! In the Shetland dialect, the inhabitant of the islands is called Hjalti. It is this word (Hjalti) that seems to have yielded Sheltie (the change of initial hj- to sh- is no problem). The result is almost a pun, and it is a most efficient pun! Funny, isn’t it?

The Oxford Etymologist, full of verve (on which see a special post) but meek in spirit, wishes everybody a happy, healthy, and productive New Year and hopes to receive many questions and comments in 2015 and beyond.

Image credits: (1) Monkey before skeleton by Gabriel von Max, 1900. Public domain via WikiArt. (2) Shetland sheepdog. Photo by Karen Arnold. CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    Happy New Year! I merely note–without polemic–a use of a phrase that might predate that of Mark Twain (if his first was in American Claimant, 1892). Daily Eastern Argus, published as Eastern Argus; Date: 06-24-1863; Volume: XXXI; Issue: 148; Page: [2] col. 2; Location: Portland, Maine has a report from Chantilly [presumably VA], “Letter from the 25th Regiment” June 21, 1863, on a commander:beneath whose “ferocious countenance….flows the condensed milk of human kindness.” Condensed milk (e.g., Borden’s Eagle Brand) was a relatively new product at the time.

  2. Jules Levin

    If the issue is verbal humor in antiquity, the Hebrew bible has plenty of verbal humor. Much of the narrative content uses sarcasm and irony, as with Abimelech’s comment when he expels David who feigned madness: Don’t I have enough meshuganas in my kingdom?” Robert Alter’s commentary with his translation cites many puns in the Hebrew text.

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