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A laughing etymologist in a humorless crowd

I have noticed that many of my acquaintances misuse the phrases a dry sense of humor and a quiet sense of humor. Some people can tell a joke with a straight face, but, as a rule, they do it intentionally; their performance is studied and has little to do with “dryness.” A quiet sense of humor is an even murkier concept. What is it: an ability to chuckle to oneself? Smiling complacently when everybody else is roaring with laughter? Being funny but inoffensive? Sometimes readers detect humor where it probably does not exist.

For example, in the Scandinavian myth of the final catastrophe, the great medieval scholar Snorri Sturluson noted that the lower jaw of the wolf, the creature destined to swallow the whole world, touched the ground, while the upper jaw reached to the sky. If the wolf, he added, could open its mouth wider, it would have done so. For at least two hundred years scholars have been admiring Snorri’s dry sense of humor, though there is no certainly that Snorri had any sense of humor at all. What we read in his text is an accurate statement of fact, a description of a monster with a mouth open to its full extent.

Fenrisulfr tied up, a river flows from his mouth. From the 17th century Icelandic manuscript AM 738 4to, now in the care of the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Fenrisulfr tied up, a river flows from his mouth. From the 17th century Icelandic manuscript AM 738 4to, now in the care of the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In Europe, if we disregard the situation known form Ancient Greece and Rome, the modern sense of humor, which, first and foremost, presupposes laughter at verbal rather than at practical jokes, hardly existed before the Renaissance. (Practical jokes seldom thrill us.) The likes of Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde would not have had an appreciative audience in the Middle Ages. A look at the words pertaining to laughter may not be out of place here. The verb laugh has nothing to do with amusement. Its most ancient form sounded as khlakhkhyan (kh, which, as the above transcription shows, was long, stands for ch in Scots loch and in the family name MacLauchlan). If this word had currency before the formation of the system of Germanic consonants, its root was klak, which belongs with cluck, clack, click, clock, and other similar sound-imitative formations. The most primitive word for “laugh” seems to have designated a “guttural gesture,” akin to coughing or clearing one’s throat. Chuckle, a frequentative form of chuck, is a cousin of cackle. Giggle, another onomatopoeic verb, is a next-door neighbor of chuckle. The origin of Latin ridere (“to laugh”: compare ridiculous, deride, and risible) is unknown.

Nowadays, few words turn up in our speech more often than fun. Fun is the greatest attraction of everything. On campus, after the most timid souls get out of the math anxiety course, they are assured that math will be fun. A popular instructor is called a fun professor; students wish one another a fun class. Fun is the backbone of our education, and yet the word fun surfaced in texts only in the seventeenth century, and, like many nouns and verbs belonging to this semantic sphere, was probably a borrowing by the Standard from slang. Its etymology is disputable; perhaps fun is related to fond, and fond meant “stupid.” Joke, contemporaneous with fun, despite its source in Latin, also arose as slang.

We seldom think of the inner form of the word witty. Yet it is an obvious derivative of wit. One could expect witty to mean “wise, sagacious,” the opposite of witless (compare also unwitting), and before Shakespeare it did mean “clever, ingenious.” In German, the situation is similar. Geistreich (Geist + reich) suggests “rich in spirit (mind)” but corresponds to Engl. “witty.” Likewise, jest had little to do with amusement. Latin gesta (plural) meant “doings, deeds” and is familiar from the titles of innumerable Latin books (for example, Gesta danorum “The Deeds of the Danes”). Apparently, in the absence of the concept we associate with wit speakers had to endow the existing material with a meaning that suddenly gained in importance or surfaced for the first time. “The street,” where slang flourished, reveled in low entertainment and supplied names for it. Sometimes the learned also felt a need for what we call fun but were “lost for words” and used Latin nouns in contexts alien to them.

Jest is by far not the only example of this process. Hoax, which originally meant “to poke fun at,” is an eighteenth-century verb (at first only a verb) derived from Latin hocus, as in hocuspocus. By an incredible coincidence, Old English had hux “mockery,” a metathesized variant of husc, a word with a solid etymology, but in the remote past it may have meant “noise.” When the history of the verbs for “laugh” comes to light, it often yields the sense “noise.” Such is Swedish skratta (with near identical cognates in Norwegian and Danish). People, as rituals and books inform us, laughed on various occasions: to promote fertility (a subject I cannot discuss here), to express their triumph over a vanquished enemy, or to show that they were happy. Noise sometimes constituted part of their reaction. None of that had anything to do with our sense of humor.

German Scherz “joke” first denoted “a merry jump.” Its synonym Spaß reached German from Italian (spasso; in the seventeenth century, like so many words being discussed here), but German did not remain a debtor. It “lent” Scherz to Italian, which returned it to the European languages as Scherzo, a musical term. The origin of Dutch grap “joke” is uncertain (so probably slang). Almost the entire English vocabulary of laughter and mockery is late: either the words were coined about four hundred year ago, or new meanings of old words arose. It is as though a revolution in attitudes toward laughter (or at least one aspect of it) occurred during and soon after the Renaissance. People felt a need for new terms expressing what we take for eternal impulses and began to promote slang and borrow right and left.

Below I will list a few verbs with their dates and some indication of their origin. The roman numbers refer to the centuries.

  • Jeer (XVI; “fleer and leer have affinities for form and meaning”; so The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology),
  • fleer (XV, possibly from Scandinavian),
  • sneer (XVI; perhaps from Low German or Dutch),
  • flout (XVI, possibly from Dutch),
  • taunt (XVI, from French),
  • banter (XVII, of unknown origin).

Only scoff and scorn are considerably older, though both also came from abroad. To be sure, the picture presented above is too simple; it does not take into account the history of people. New words were borrowed, while old ones fell into desuetude. The formula “of unknown origin” does not mean that no suggestions about their etymology exist. They do, but none is fully convincing.

Our ancestors laughed as much as we do, but we have added a new dimension to this process: we can laugh at a witty saying (when they spoke their native languages, this was, apparently, a closed art to them). Strangely, the educated “barbarians” enjoyed Roman comedies, but laughing at Latin witticisms taught them nothing and did not become a transferable skill. The Europeans who descended from those “barbarians” needed a long time to catch up with their teachers. A study of laughter is not only a window to the development of European mentality. It also sheds light on popular culture. We observe how the slang of the past gained respectability and became part of the neutral style. Here etymologists can make themselves useful to everyone who is interested in how we have become what we are. Enjoy yourselves, friends, but don’t be always the last to laugh.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    I tend to agree about the Greeks and Romans, but I do think the old Norse understood verbal humor,a t least of the gallows variety. It may or may not be true that Ragnar Lodbrok’s final words were Gnyðja munu grísir ef galtar hag vissi‘If they knew how the old boar suffered, how the little pigs would grunt!’ But whoever made up that expression, whether Ragnar or a later poet, knew how to crack wise. You don’t refer to scary people like Ivar the Boneless and Sigur Snake-eye (which are pretty funny names all by themselves) as piglets unless you understand verbal humor.

  2. Eric

    Great article, but you didn’t even mention insects.

  3. Peter Reeve

    Liberman is wrong and his acquaintances correct in their use of the phrase a dry sense of humor. If that had been his only error in this post, it might still have been worth reading.

    His generalization about humor in European culture is, if I may say so, laughable. To try to make his point, he has to disregard Ancient Greece and Rome and have “modern” start with the Renaissance! Unfortunately, that still leaves Medieval Europe, where you’ll find plenty of verbal humor. One example that immediately came to mind was Iseult’s comment about the leper being the only man to have been between her legs. I suppose I can’t include countless examples from Boccaccio, because Liberman would count him as “modern”. As for “…the modern sense of humor…presupposes laughter at verbal rather than at practical jokes…” no it doesn’t. Most humor does not consist of jokes at all and a sense of humor can thrive quite happily in their absence.

    “Practical jokes seldom thrill us”, he goes on to say. Really? I’ll remember that, the next time I laugh hysterically at my Laurel & Hardy movie collection.

    I can’t comment on the rest of the post, as I was unable to force myself to read beyond that point. If he goes on to reveal that the whole post was a joke, I apologize.

  4. […] post on laughing attracted two comments: an alleged counterexample from an Icelandic saga and a veritable flood of […]

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