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On Humour

Josiane Boutonnet, Senior Lecturer in English Language, Faculty of Arts


It is a truth widely acknowledged that humour, in its varieties of forms and modalities, occur in all human cultures. There is recorded evidence to support the view that its value is intrinsic to human social activities, with early references dating back to Classical Antiquity. Some would say that nothing is laughable in itself, that it is people who find things funny (Amy Carrell’s work on audience-based theory of verbal humour). Others view this slightly differently and argue that absolutely everything can be turned into a joke (Christie Davies’s work on Ethnic Humour). 

The study of humour has been accepted as a valid area of inquiry comparatively recently, and to date is not a distinct academic discipline, despite some attempts at promoting the science of humour or Humorology (Apte, 1988). This proves difficult due to the fact that humour research is essentially multi-disciplinary, and only occasionally inter-disciplinary.

All researchers come to studying humour via the medium of their own discipline. There are therefore, a number of attempts at defining and theorising humour, and many different approaches to the study of the phenomenon. It is a very productive area of research as the yearly organised conferences and summer schools show. This year, the International Summer School and Symposium on Humour and Laughter  will be held at the University of Wolverhampton in July 2018

I was asked not so recently if it was possible to train anyone to be funny (Saturday Guardian 21 June 2014, Do Something Supplement). I was tempted to refer them to some of my naturally gifted colleagues, whose entertaining repartee, witty contributions and bons mots provide a source of abundant joy, and who may have the answer to that elusive question. Clearly, some believe it is feasible, judging by the various programmes available for training stand-up comedians ( We can learn to become neurotic extraverts.

Humour is big business nowadays. One of the most encouraging outcomes of humour research is certainly in terms of its applications, whether it is in promoting health and wellbeing, enhancing learning or encouraging good work relations. How about that for impact?


Everyone is capable of creating humour and of understanding humour. This is not to say we all find the same things funny, that humorous material will survive the test of time, or that we have a natural predisposition for being funny.


One thing is certain, whether we are gelotophiles, katagelasticists, or gelotophobes (that’s a mouthful, and nothing to do with icecream by the way) humour is part of our life.


(see Ruch & Proyer, Humor - International Journal of Humor Research, 2009, Vol. 22 Issue 1/2, pages 182-212).





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