’Tis the Season to be Funny
July is festival season in Antidote’s birthplace, the world city of Montreal, and one of the annual summer events on tap is the biggest international comedy festival in the world: Just For Laughs (French Juste Pour Rire). As a tip of the hat to this hometown hoedown, our Word Stories instalment for the month shines a spotlight on words related to fun and good humour.
English has a healthy variety of words related to laughter and mirth, and some of them have arrived from unexpected places or through surprising routes. Let’s take a look at a few of these light-hearted linguistic inheritances.
It may seem odd at first glance, but the words humour and humid share the same root. The classical Latin verb hūmēre meant “to be moist”, and the derivative noun hūmor accordingly meant “moisture” or “fluid”. When Old French borrowed the word as humeur, it accordingly meant “fluid”, “water” or “moisture”, but it also quickly became associated with the pre-scientific theory of “the four humours” responsible for human personality (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile).
When English began using the word as humor/humour in the 14th century, both of the Old French senses survived for a while. Humours could be the mysterious substances responsible for our moods and attitudes, or they could just be fluids in general. The latter usage can still be glimpsed in rare cases like the scientific habit of calling the liquid contents of the eye the humours of the eye, but in general the metaphorical sense has crowded the physical sense out. When people talk today about good humour or bad humour, they’re talking about feelings and attitudes. The word is especially connected to feelings of amusement. This association of humour with laughter and amusement took a few centuries to emerge (its first appearance in print can be found in T. Jordan, Tricks of Youth, 1663), and it’s not clear how it happened, but it’s clearly the meaning that dominates today. Since the 18th century, a person’s sense of humour has referred exclusively to the things that might make them laugh.
The English adjectives hysteric and hysterical were borrowed from the late Latin hystericus (“related to the uterus”), and thereby an ancient Greek adjective with the same meaning (husterikos). At first, English followed Greek and Latin by using hysteric and hysterical to describe women seen as suffering psychologically from mysterious uterine problems (E. Jorden, Briefe Discourse, 1603). Over time, though, both derivative adjectives came to be used in a more general way, to describe men or women getting emotionally out of control. By the 18th century, hysteric behaviour could be any kind of frantic and uncontrolled behaviour (T. Smollett, Peregrine Pickle, 1751), and by the 19th century, the word hysterical could be used the same way (T. Carlyle, Friedrich II of Prussia, 1862).
In the 20th century, new psychiatric ideas about anxiety and depression made hysteric and hysterical obsolete as medical terms. Their connotations of out-of-control emotional reaction gave rise to new uses, though: people began to use the word hysterical to mean “wildly funny”, and in modern English people laughing uncontrollably are sometimes said to be in hysterics.
The English word carnival seems to be related to the Italian carnevale. In Italian, the word is a corruption of the earlier carnelevare, a compound of carne (“meat”) and levare (“to take away”). The word thereby originally described the practice of fasting for Lent. Over time, though it came to refer more to the festive and food-friendly period right before Lent, called Shrovetide. The English loan-word’s first appearance in print is fittingly found in The Historie of Italie by W. Thomas (1549), in a reference to “theyr Carnouale time (whiche we call shroftide)”. By extension, the word soon evolved again to describe feasting and festivity in general, as seen for example in Bishop J. Taylor’s warning against the moral dangers of “revellings, carnivals and balls” (The Great Exemplar, 1649).
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