Humor

humor, according to ancient theory, any of four bodily fluids that determined human health and temperament. Hippocrates postulated that an imbalance among the humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile) resulted in pain and disease, and that good health was achieved through a balance of the four humors; he suggested that the glands had a controlling effect on this balance. For many centuries this idea was held as the basis of medicine and was much elaborated. Galen introduced a new aspect, that of four basic temperaments related to the elements of which matter was thought to consist (fire, water, air, and earth) and reflecting the humors: the sanguine, buoyant type; the phlegmatic, sluggish type; the choleric, quick-tempered type; and the melancholic, dejected type. In time any personality aberration or eccentricity was referred to as a humor. The medical theory of humors was undermined in the centuries after the Renaissance and lost favor in the 19th cent. after the German Rudolf Virchow presented his cellular pathology.

In literature, a humor character was one in whom a single passion predominated; this interpretation was especially popular in Elizabethan and other Renaissance literature. One of the most comprehensive treatments of the subject was the Anatomy of Melancholy, by Robert Burton. The theory found its strongest advocates among the comedy writers, notably Ben Jonson and his followers, who used humor characters to illustrate various modes of irrational and immoral behavior.

See N. Arikha, Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours (2007).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

Humor: Selected full-text books and articles

Taking Humour Seriously By Jerry Palmer Routledge, 1994
The Language of Humour By Walter Nash Longman, 1985
National Styles of Humor By Avner Ziv Greenwood Press, 1988
Encyclopedia of 20th-Century American Humor By Alleen Pace Nilsen; Don L. F. Nilsen Oryx Press, 2000
Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters By Ted Cohen University of Chicago Press, 1999
The Psychology of Laughter: A Study in Social Adaptation By Ralph Piddington Gamut Press, 1963 (2nd edition)
The Linguistic Analysis of Jokes By Graeme Ritchie Routledge, 2003
FREE! Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic By Henri Bergson; Cloudesley Brereton; Fred Rothwell Macmillan, 1911
American Dark Comedy: Beyond Satire By Wes D. Gehring Greenwood Press, 1996
Only When I Laugh: Textual Dynamics of Ethnic Humor By Leveen, Lois MELUS, Vol. 21, No. 4, Winter 1996
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