The Senses of Humor: Self and Laughter in Modern America

The Senses of Humor: Self and Laughter in Modern America

The Senses of Humor: Self and Laughter in Modern America

The Senses of Humor: Self and Laughter in Modern America


Why do modern Americans believe in something called a sense of humor and how did they come to that belief? Daniel Wickberg traces the cultural history of the concept from its British origins as a way to explore new conceptions of the self and social order in modern America. More than simply the history of an idea, Wickberg's study provides new insights into a peculiarly modern cultural sensibility.

The expression "sense of humor" was first coined in the 1840s and the idea that such a sense was a personality trait to be valued developed only in the 1870s. What is the relationship between Medieval humoral medicine and this distinctively modern idea of the sense of humor? What has it meant in the past 125 years to declare that someone lacks a sense of humor? How is the joke, as a twentieth-century quasi-literary form, different from the traditional folktale?

Wickberg addresses these questions, among others, using the history of ideas to throw new light on the way contemporary Americans think andspeak. Specifically British meanings of humor and laughter from the sixteenth century forward provide the framework for understanding American cultural values in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


Everyday language and ordinary speech in twentieth-century America find a place for something called the "sense of humor." We routinely describe individuals as possessing this trait; we use it as a shorthand for recommending the personal quality of people; we look for it in our associates and friends as a sign of their good nature and compatibility. Anyone who has read letters of recommendation or glanced at the personal ads that fill the back pages of urban weekly newspapers knows that the term "sense of humor" recurs with amazing frequency. It is a simple description of a universally recognized personality trait. and yet its use and appearance in everyday speech, as with so many of the routine phrases we use, is rarely accompanied by critical inquiry into its meaning. This is as it should be; if we are to stop to analyze the meaning of every commonplace, we will soon find ourselves unable to speak. But the question remains: What do we mean when we describe someone as having a sense of humor?

This book is an extended answer to that question. the answer takes the form of a history of the term, but the question itself seems of a different order. It is at once anthropological and philosophical: anthropological in the sense of posing an exploration or unpacking of the meaning of a term and value within a particular culture, namely our own; philosophical in the sense of requiring an analysis of a human faculty in terms of its relevance to the constitution and identity of persons in the abstract. Indeed, I hope the present work will be accessible to those who . . .

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