WORDS: Humorous

Share
Related Topics
CHRIS PATTEN'S responses to a gentle grilling by MEPs last week were described by a BBC reporter as "humorous but blunt". I hadn't heard his performance, and the reporter didn't say why he thought it was humorous, but I supposed there must have been some jokes in it. I must say I don't mind having missed them. This is not because of any dislike I may have for Mr Patten. It's just that humorous remarks, as I understand the word, are not always funny. If we had been told that Mr Patten had been witty, or entertaining, or amusing, it would have been a different matter.

It then occurred to me that Mr Patten really had been witty and amusing, and that the BBC man was using the wrong word about him. For there's something vaguely pompous about humorous. People who say "humorous" when all they mean is "funny" tend to be the sort who themselves lack a sense of humour. The only appropriate use of the word, it seems to me, is for describing something that is not funny. "Very humorous, I'm sure" one might say, in a facetious way, about someone who has been over-facetious themselves.

Humorous is first cousin to jocular, another iffy word. Tom McArthur's Oxford Companion to the English Language says that The Importance of Being Earnest is "humorous in its basic situations" and "witty in the comments made by the characters". I don't think Oscar would have been too happy with that.

But this is tricky terrain. Everyone knows that one man's witticism is another man's "feeble attempt at humour". The really intriguing thing about humorous is how it has managed to achieve an effortless 180-degree turn. To Shakespeare and his contemporaries it usually meant "grumpy". When Jaques, the philosophising courtier in As You Like It, says he is often "wrapped in a most humorous sadness" you can take it he's not joking.

One can see how it happened. Humor was the Latin for moisture, and according to medieval doctors a humour was one of four kinds of bodily fluid (blood, phlegm, choler and black melancholy) that determined your disposition, or mood, which might be happy or it might not. Humorous people were people whose juices were working overtime, and at first it was assumed that this made them what we call moody, then that it made them whimsical, quirky and fantastical, and so comic. Thus a "humorous" person changed from being someone in a bad mood to someone in a good one.

The change was gradual and the meanings depended on the contexts, but I don't think we have quite lost, even now, the old feeling that to be humorous is to be ever so slightly tiresome. Its noun has avoided this problem, and can be as neutral as you like; one can be in a good humour one moment, a bad one the next. And no one objects to a humorous smile. But spare me, please, from too many humorous jokes.

PS: I have since seen a couple of reports, and I can see that the BBC was indeed wrong about Mr Patten. The word should have been chirpy.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Network Engineer

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Setup, configure, troubleshoot,...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Consultant - Financial Services - OTE £65,000

£15000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Loan Underwriter

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Collections Agent

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: the SNP’s ‘fundamental problem’, says Corbyn, is that too many people support it

John Rentoul
An investor looks at an electronic board showing stock information at a brokerage house in Shanghai  

China has exposed the fatal flaws in our liberal economic order

Ann Pettifor
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future