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“Man,” says Hazlitt, “is the only animal that laughs and weeps, for he
is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what
things are and what they ought to be.” The sources, then, of laughter
and tears come very close together. At the difference between things as
they are and as they ought to be we laugh, or we weep; it would depend,
it seems, on the point of view, or the temperament. And if, as Horace
Walpole once said, “Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to
those who feel,” it is the thinking half of humanity that, at the sight
of life’s incongruities, is moved to laughter, the feeling half to
tears. A sense of humor, then, is the possession of the thinking half,
and the humorists must be classified at once with the thinkers.

If one were asked to go further than this and to give offhand a
definition of humor, or of that elusive quality, a sense of humor, he
might find himself confronted with a difficulty. Yet certain things
about it would be patent at the outset: Women haven’t it; Englishmen
haven’t it; it is the chiefest of the virtues, for tho a man speak with
the tongues of men and of angels, if he have not humor we will have none
of him. Women may continue to laugh over those innocent and innocuous
incidents which they find amusing; may continue to write the most
delightful of stories and essays–consider Jane Austen and our own Miss
Repplier–over which appreciative readers may continue to chuckle;
Englishmen may continue, as in the past to produce the most exquisite of
the world’s humorous literature–think of Charles Lamb–yet the
fundamental faith of mankind will remain unshaken: women have no sense
of humor, and an Englishman cannot see a joke! And the ability to “see a
joke” is the infallible American test of the sense of humor.

But taking the matter seriously, how would one define humor? When in
doubt, consult the dictionary, is, as always, an excellent motto, and,
following it, we find that our trustworthy friend, Noah Webster, does
not fail us. Here is his definition of humor, ready to hand: humor is
“the mental faculty of discovering, expressing, or appreciating
ludicrous or absurdly incongruous elements in ideas, situations,
happenings, or acts,” with the added information that it is
distinguished from wit as “less purely intellectual and having more
kindly sympathy with human nature, and as often blended with pathos.” A
friendly rival in lexicography defines the same prized human attribute
more lightly as “a facetious turn of thought,” or more specifically in
literature, as “a sportive exercise of the imagination that is apparent
in the choice and treatment of an idea or theme.” Isn’t there something
about that word “sportive,” on the lips of so learned an authority,
that tickles the fancy–appeals to the sense of humor?

Yet if we peruse the dictionary further, especially if we approach that
monument to English scholarship, the great Murray, we shall find that
the problem of defining humor is not so simple as it might seem; for the
word that we use so glibly, with so sure a confidence in its stability,
has had a long and varied history and has answered to many aliases. When
Shakespeare called a man “humorous” he meant that he was changeable and
capricious, not that he was given to a facetious turn of thought or to a
“sportive” exercise of the imagination. When he talks in “The Taming of
the Shrew” of “her mad and head-strong humor” he doesn’t mean to imply
that Kate is a practical joker. It is interesting to note in passing
that the old meaning of the word still lingers in the verb “to humor.” A
woman still humors her spoiled child and her cantankerous husband when
she yields to their capriciousness. 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. “The skie hangs full of humour, and I think we
shall haue raine,” ran an ancient weather prophet’s prediction. Which
might give rise to some thoughts on the paradoxical subject of _dry_

Now in part this development is easily traced. 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! 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

“Wit is abrupt, darting, scornful; it tosses its analogies in your face;
humor is slow and shy, insinuating its fun into your heart,” says E. P.
Whipple. “Wit is intellectual, humor is emotional; wit is perception of
resemblance, humor of contrast–of contrast between ideal and fact,
theory and practice, promise and performance,” writes another authority.
While yet another points out that “Humor is feeling–feelings can always
bear repetition, while wit, being intellectual, suffers by repetition.”
The truth of this is evident when we remember that we repeat a witty
saying that we may enjoy the effect on others, while we retell a
humorous story largely for our own enjoyment of it.

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.” According to Professor
Bain, “Laughter results from the degradation of some person or interest
possessing dignity in circumstances that excite no other strong
emotion.” Even Kant, desisting for a time from his contemplation of Pure
Reason, gave his attention to the human phenomenon of laughter and
explained it away as “the result of an expectation which of a sudden
ends in nothing.” Some modern cynic has compiled a list of the
situations on the stage which are always “humorous.” One of them, I
recall, is the situation in which the clown-acrobat, having made mighty
preparations for jumping over a pile of chairs, suddenly changes his
mind and walks off without attempting it. 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.” “Laughter,” says M. 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.” If this be laughter, grant us
occasionally the saving grace of tears, which may be tears of sympathy,
and, therefore, kind!

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?

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