Chapter 1 What is Humour?

Chapter 1: What is Humour?

(A theoretical approach)

Theories about Humour[1]


At the beginning of the 19th century humour, attracted the interest of many philosophers, and scholars. However psychology in the 20th Century was the one, which opened new horizons for humour as a powerful means of communication. The table below indicates the various types found as an expression of humour and a chronological review of the theories regarding humour follows.



Humour Foolishness/Silliness
Irony to ourselves Teratology/ mythmaking
Paradox Peculiarity
Comedy Taunt
Witticism Sneer
Irony Deride
Satire Scoff
Sarcasm Gibe
Cynism Jesting
Insult Joking
Sardonic Bantering
Exaggeration Facetious
Farce Remark
Misfortune Pleasantry
Ridicule Irrational
Parody Fun
Non Verbal Humour Temperament
Verbal Humour Pun etc…


in Filibos 48 bd Socrates mentioned that ridicule is the opposite of self-awareness. Thus people who do not have self-awareness might consider themselves as either richer, taller, more handsome or more virtuous than what they really are. He said that not all of those people who do not have self-awareness are ridiculous, but only those who cannot take other people’s mockeries on them.


Alexander the Rhetorician and Sophist

defines four main types of humour: funny-paradox (αστείο), scoffing (μυκτιρισμός), sarcasm (σαρκασμός), and derision (χλευασμός).



defines comical as something disfigured or flawed but that is painless and harmless nonetheless.

Cicerone (55BC)

in his work De Oratore, defined two different types of humour: the verbal and the non verbal. The first one is based on words, and the second one is based on facts.

T. Hobbes (1651)

at Leviathan (1651) argued that the passion of laughter  is the sudden realisation of a perception of superiority compared to other peoples inability or to the inability that we had before.

R. Descartes (1650)

described laughter as the expression of happiness mixed with the feeling of surprise or hate or in some cases with both.


Schopenhauer (1819),

said that comical is a result of the paradox, or the discrepancy of the infinitive and definitive.

C. Baudelaire (1856)

in his work “Curiosités esthétiques” distinguishes comical from humour. He argues that comical does not include thought and symbolism, while humour does.


H. Bergson (1899)

theorized that laughter is a social function. In his work “Le rire” he said that if a member of society does not follow certain rules, then by laughing people force them to change and adapt to their particular social codes.


S. Freud (1905) & Psychoanalytic Theory

Freud, and his followers distinguish among a joke, something comical and humorous. A joke is related to a combination of “humorous” words. Something comical is related to situations or objects, whereas, humour describes a persons state of mind when dealing with something less than pleasant but nonetheless doing so with jollity- (high spirit).


He argued that in the case of a joke, a person releases his/her sexual and aggressive instincts during a word or mind game, and laughs at the joke being told because they can transfer their feelings of guilt that it may create, to the person telling the joke.

 D.E. Berlyne (1960) & The theory of Inter -stimulation

Berlyne, argued that humour is related to other psychological phenomena, like curiosity, discovery, play, and art.  More particularly, he said that all humoristic situations, has as common the incompatibility of two ideas or facts, the surprise, the pioneer, and the paradox. Those cause at the receiver initially a sense of confusion, or even annoyance, which are eventually replaced, by clarity, and relief at the time that the receiver understands the joke. The relief is expressed with laughter.

The Gestalt Theory

W.R. F. Maier (1932) ,G. Bateson (1953) and W. Fry (1963), developed their research based on the Gestalt theory. According to this, each joke is related through the perception with a shape in ones imagination. The sudden way that one understands the joke is related with the sudden changes of the imaginary shapes when they are reformulated, or when problems are solved through the perception.

A Koestler (1964) & the Cognitive Theory

in his book “ The Act of Creation” (1964) and the “Ghost in the Machine” (1967), Koestler founds that creation consists of humour, scientific discovery and art.   These three elements have in common the “conjunction”. Where conjunction is the matching of the two irrelevant cognitive mould, in a certain way so a new level in the hierarchy to be added, which consists of the two structures that were different and irrelevant before.


Regarding the mechanism of humour, the following figure represents the integration of most of the above-mentioned theories.



  The Mechanism of Humour

Paradox                                                           Solution

(Conflict)                                                    (End of conflict)

Emotional neutrality

Latent Information

Confusion                                                           Pleasure



Figure 1-1 an integrated model of theories of humour Source: Tzaferopoulou (1995)

W. Lauer (1974),


defines nine categories in Comical, which are humour, the irony towards ourselves, paradox, comedy, witticism, irony, satire, sarcasm, and cynism. He introduced the Pyramid, as in figure 1-2 whereas humour is in the basis, and is characterized with low sense of self dynamism, and maximum self-involvement, in contrast with the cynism at the top of the pyramid.
















High Self Dynamism                  Low Self Involvement











Irony towards ourselves




Low Self Dynamism                                      High Self Involvement




Fig. 1-2 The types of Comical by W. Lauer (Source focus on Psychology, 1998,  p.43)



K.H. Kappas (1967),


defined the following categories of humour: exaggeration, farce, misfortunes, ridicule, satire, violence, witticism, pun, sarcasm.


The main Techniques in Humour[2]


There are several techniques used by a humorist or a comedian in the construction of the paradox – solution of the paradox technique. A. Kostler (1964, 82-86) identifies three main types:


  • The pioneer, which is achieved through the surprise of the unexpected
  • The emphasis, which is caused through the indication of the suggestive by using the appropriate signs of simplification or exaggeration, and the
  • The economy in the words used to express oneself, providing limited information and the message receiver needs to fill in the blanks, following logical sequence. Therefore the energy saved is transferred into laughter.


All the above are considered as the most important theories from the classical period to nowadays.  Few of them are used in Advertising techniques with great success. According to a survey held in 1998 by E&A Communication Consultants, it was found, that paradox is the type of humour, which attracts more audience attention. According to the same survey, an advertisement, which include humour (the word humour in any of the above mentioned types, and as defined up to that point) is more likely to stand in people’s long-term memory, and to be re-circulated by word of mouth, for many years after. However humours perception varies, by one person to another, mainly dew to factors like, experience, educational level, moral frame, sex, social status and others.



At this stage, it is useful to search the etymology of the word humour in order to get a better understanding of it:




The world humour or humour comes from the Greek word Gr: χυμός or χυμόρ (humour)  (in Doric Dialect of Ancient Greek) meaning fluid moisture from the verb Gr: χέω- χύνω meaning pour, flow, etc. Lat: humour, It: umore, Fr:  humeur, Eng: humour or humour, Germ: humour, Span: humour Eustathiou (1995) p.267



According to The Oxford Universal Dictionary, (1968),


Humour or humour is one of the four chief fluids (cardinal humours) of the body (blood, phlegm, choler, and melancholy or black choler), by the relative proportions of which a person’s physical and mental qualities and disposition were formerly held to be determined. (p933)


Additionally, the same Dictionary explains that the world temperament:


1… in the natural philosophy of the middle Ages is the condition of supposed qualities (hot or cold, moist or dry) in a certain proportion, determining the nature of a plant or other body…


4… in mediaeval physiology: the combination of the four cardinal humours of the body, by the relative proportion of which the physical and mental constitution were held to be determined;
















The Nature of Humours

Humours and Biology



In the 5th century BC Hippocrates (Ιπποκράτης) in his work “About Human Nature” theorized that the body contained four main fluids or humours – These are: yellow bile or choler, black bile or black choler, blood, and phlegm.  He believed that when the four humours are in the proper order the body is in good condition (health) otherwise if the four humours are not in the proper order then this is a cause of most illnesses and diseases. Some of the main reasons of humours disordering are malnutrition, the distortions caused by working or living conditions, the climate, wholesome water, the rapid changes in the environmental temperatures, heredity and others. He believed that nature is the dominant power adjusting the body functions, and the proper order of the humours’ mixture.

Also Hippocrates developed further his theory, referring to the relation among the four types of humours, with the four elements earth, air, water and fire, the four qualities heat cold, dryness and humidity and the four seasons: spring, summer, winter and autumn as in the table below.



Table 1-1 The relation between the four humours, elements, qualities and seasons by

Hippocrates & his followers



He found out, that the body react naturally, by increasing one of the four humours according to the environmental changes, in order to retain a balanced condition.


As an example, he said that during the winter, the body, in order to be in balance with the cold environment produces more phlegm, (which is the coldest among the four humours by its nature). However the person in order to remain balanced, need to eat more dry food and to drink less comparing to summer habits.


Hippocrates said that as the body changes the humour’s order throughout the four seasons of the year, it does the same throughout the different times of the day (obviously in this case the variation is lower than the one of the seasonal change). Starting with the early hours in which the body produces more blood, followed by the mind-day, during which more yellow bile is produced etc.


Additionally a relation between the age and the four humours were mentioned. Starting with the adolescences, they are related with blood, because at this age stage, blood is in excess, the adults with yellow bile, the middle aged with black bile and finally the elderly with phlegm.






In the 180 AD an other famous Greek physician, Galen (Γαληνός), allocated temperaments to the four humours to show how physical conditions in the form of internal abnormalities could affect patterns of behaviour, as in table 1.-2. . Source: Eugene MacCenna (1998) p. 27, the Apanta of Hippocrates, and the Apanta of Galen.  He said that when blood is in excess people are in a good mood, more active, cheerful etc.

On the contrary when the black bile (in Gr: μέλαν –χολή, where melan means black, and choly means bile) is in excess, then this cause melancholy (in Gr μελανχολία- melancholia.) as in the table below:

Table 1-2. : The four Houmors as described by Hippocrates and Galen. Source: Eugene

MacCenna (1998) p. 27, the Apanta of Hippocrates, and the Apanta of Galen.




“In Aristotle’s Physics the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water were said to be opposed in pairs. For more than two thousand years oppositional patterns based on these four elements were widely accepted as the fundamental structure underlying surface reality. The elements of such frameworks appeared in various combinations, their shifting forms driven in part by the tensions inherent within such schemes.

The theory of the elements continued to enjoy widespread influence until the time of scientists such as Robert Boyle (1627-91)”.  (Source: Semiotics by Daniel Chandler)





Humour Temperament Element Quality Body fluid Organ Season Cardinal point Zodiac signs Planet
Sanguine Active and enthusiastic air hot and moist Blood heart spring South Gemini, Libra, Aquarius Jupiter
choleric irritable and changeable fire hot and dry Yellow bile Liver summer East Aries, Leo, Sagittarius Mars
melancholic Sad and brooding earth cold and dry Black bile spleen autumn North Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn Saturn
phlegmatic apathetic and sluggish water cold and moist phlegm brain winter West Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces Venus



Table 1-3 Source Semiotics by Daniel Chandler







Humours and Personality

Several modern analysts, among them Leigh, (1985) & H.J. Eysenck (1953) based their theories for personality on the Hippocrates four Humours:


Leigh, 1985

According to Eugene McKenna (1998) an American Consultant Leigh 1985, generalized on the basis of his experience of personality testing and came to the conclusion that personality types in business roughly correspond with the classical temperaments as follows:


“A people Catalyst (Choleric) type thrives on involvement with those around him, and sees service to mankind as a life goal.


A hard Charger (Melancholic) is the executive who believes in tradition, follows rules, and sees a prescribed way of doing things.


The Fast Track (Sanguine) executive sees risk in terms of challenge. When he engages in special projects everything else is excluded. He is particularly good at pulling things and people together.


The power Broker (Phlegmatic) executive is innovative and resourceful, and is especially good at motivating others.” Eugene McKenna (1998) p.26

H.J. Eysenck 1953


Also according to Eugene McKenna (1998) p.28, a prominent type theorist is Eysenck (1953). He believed that an individual inherits a particular type of nervous system that predisposes him or her to develop in a particular way. However, the final form personality takes will be determined by the biological basis of personality as well as by the various socializing influences the individual encounters in everyday life Eysenck (1967).  He related to his own research to the ancient typology of Hippocrates and Galen and found a fairly good relationship with the original Theory as in Figure 1.3











Fig 1-3 Eysenck;s typology of personality. Source Eysenck, H.J (1947) Eugene McKenna (1998) p.30






The following figure present the Four Humours Model, which includes the theories of Hippocrates, and his followers.







Analysis of the Hippocrates Model

In his work “ About Human Nature” Hippocrates describes the effects that the Environmental changes have on the state of the four humours. More analytically:


During the winter, phlegm is in excess. The human body becomes cold and moist. People under these circumstances, prefer to eat more and drink less, and prefer to be close to a fire place for warmth, than for example in a swimming pool. Additionally, according to Galen they become more apathetic and sluggish.


During the Spring, blood, or sanguine is in excess. People move from the winter state to the summer state. Their body is related with the hot and moist but they prefer eventually to eat less and drink more. They prefer cold and dry foods, and they feel more active and enthusiastic.


During the Summer, yellow bile is in excess. People on the contrary to their winter preferences to eat cold and moist food, they drink more and they eat less. They like water, (drink water, swim in the sea, etc) and they feel more irritable and changeable.


Finally During the Autumn: Black bile is in excess. The body eventually leaves the summer habits and tend to adapt to winter circumstances. On the contrary to spring, people start eating more and drinking less, prefer hot and moist foods, and feel sad and brooding.


Additionally to the above, is the analogue variation of the four humours order throughout the day, starting with the early morning hours, where blood is in its higher proportion among the rest of the day, following with the yellow bile, at midday, the black bile in the afternoon, and the phlegm at night.


A further relation is the age comparing to humours, where the adolescences are related with the sanguine, adults with the yellow bile, middle aged with the black bile, and the elderly with the phlegm.


[1] Source: Tzaferopoulou (1995), Focus med. 5th Edition, Eug. MacKenna (1998)

[2] Source: Source: Tzaferopoulou (1995), Focus med. 5th Edition, Eug. MacKenna (1998)