Below is a series of humour definitions consisting of standard dictionary definitions and various academic definitions. Following these humour definitions is a short explanation of how humour is defined and conceptualised in different ways.
We all know what humour is; we’ve experienced it; produced it; appreciated it; and shared it.
However, much like love, joy, fear and anger, if you were asked to precisely define humour you will likely struggle to do so.
This is mostly due to humour having many forms, types, styles, purposes, intents, outcomes, etc. It is therefore hard to define humour using a single context or example as its meaning can change in relation to these.
It must be said at the outset, and which should be obvious from the varying definitions provided above, that no fully satisfactory, comprehensive definition of humour exists.
However, scholars typically agree that humour involves the communication of multiple, incongruous meanings that are amusing in some manner (Banas, Dunbar, Rodriguez and Liu, 2011; Martin, 2007).
The word ‘humour’ originated from its reference to “bodily fluids” (humores).
There was a play called, “Comedy of Humours” (1600 and 1927) by Ben Johnson which references this interpretation.
The term humour is believed to have been used in the way it is commonly used today by Morris (1744) who used humour to describe, “the ability to perceive and depict the comic.”
The first full theory of humour, provided by Pal (1804/1990), presents the concepts of, “humour becoming a matter of aesthetics.”
Freud (1905, 1960, 1927, 1961) established a psychological perspective of humour and labelled humour as the “most frugal of the types of the comic.”
Authors from different disciplines have attempted to define humour in a way that is specific to that discipline.
Types of definitions include:
communicative definitions (e.g. Martineau, 1972).
Positive emotional reactions in the perceiver (e.g. Romero and Cruthirds, 2006).
Individual trait-like sense of humour (e.g. Martin, 1998).
Cheerfulness in personality psychology research (e.g. Ruch, Kohler and van Thriel, 1996).
However, due to humour being a multi-disciplinary concept such definitions are too narrow to offer a general definition of humour.
Humour’s multidimensional characteristics are summarised by Martin (2007):
Martin therefore describes humour as a characteristic of a person rather than as a statement or thing.
Humour includes the ability to produce, recognise and appreciate humour (Thorson and Powell, 1993).
Characteristics of humour vary, e.g. surprise, incongruity, comprehension and funniness (Aillaud and Piolat, 2012).
Martin (2007) proposes that humour may be viewed as a habitual pattern, an ability, a temperament, an aesthetic response, an attitude, a world-view, a coping strategy or a defence mechanism.
Martin (2007) identified four components of the humour process:
Incongruity is a cognitive-perceptual process in which conflicting ideas or events are combined (Scheel, 2017).
Due to the multi-dimensional and interdisciplinary nature of humour, an agreed and comprehensive definition for humour does not exist within the literature.
Various authors have attempted to define humour in relation to their own research disciplines, but these attempts are limited in scope and do not provide a general definition of humour.
Martin (2007) highlights the difficulty in defining humour, as humour can be viewed as, “a habitual pattern, an ability, a temperament, an aesthetic response, an attitude, a world-view, a coping strategy or a defence mechanism.”
Humour can also be considered in relation to its production, recognition and appreciation (Thorson and Powell, 1993).
However, prominent scholars typically agree that humour involves the communication of multiple, incongruous meanings that are amusing in some manner (Banas et al., 2011; Martin, 2007).
A review of humour definitions is provided by Scheel and Gockel (2017) who propose that Gervais and Wilson’s (2005) definition of humour, which views humour as, “non-serious social incongruity,” is most appropriate as it considers humour’s cognitive and communicational facets and is not limited by its reference to the producer or receiver of humour.