17 Humour Definitions
(Academic and Dictionary)

Humour Definitions (Academic and Dictionary)

Humour Definitions

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.

Humour: 4 Dictionary Definitions

Below are some commonly found dictionary definitions of humour.

"The ability to find things funny, the way in which people see that some things are funny, or the quality of being funny."

Cambridge Dictionary

"A funny or amusing quality." (or) "The ability to be funny or to be amused by things that are funny."

Britannica Dictionary

"The quality that makes a situation or entertainment funny."

Macmillan Dictionary

"The quality of being funny."


Humour: 13 Academic Definitions

Below are some commonly referenced academic definitions of humour.

“Anything done or said, purposely or inadvertently, that is found to be comical or amusing.”

Long and Graesser (1988)

“Any communication that is perceived as humorous.”

Martineau (1972)

“The positive cognitive or affective reactions of listeners when witnessing someone else’s verbal or nonverbal humorous behaviour.”

Crawford (1994)

“Amusing communications that create a positive cognitive and emotional reaction in a person or a group.”

Romero and Cruthirds (2006)

"Humour is an international form of social communication."

Robert and Yan (2007)

“A verbal and non-verbal message that evokes amusement and positive feelings by the receiver.”

Hurren (2006)

“A cognitive state of mirth.”

Mayer (2000)

“A distinct, pleasurable affect that often is accompanied by laughter.”

Weisfeld (1993)

“Laughter caused by humour is associated with a pleasant emotional state connected with cheerfulness and exhilaration.”

Weisfeld (1993)

“Non-serious social incongruity.”

Gervais and Wilson (2005)

“A social phenomenon that is reflected in playful interaction and mirthful communication.”

Michalos (2014)

“Any event shared by an agent with another individual that is intended to be amusing to the target and that the target perceives as an intentional act.”

Cooper (2005)

“Non-serious incongruity shared in work settings aimed at the intentional amusement of individuals, groups or organisations.”

Dikkers, Doosje and de Lange (2012)

Humour Definitions Discussed

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.

Multi-Dimensional Characteristics of Humour

Humour’s multidimensional characteristics are summarised by Martin (2007):

  1. The ability to understand jokes and other humorous stimuli
  2. An expression of humour and cheerfulness
  3. The ability to make humorous comments or have humorous perceptions
  4. The appreciation of diverse types of jokes, cartoons, and other humorous materials
  5. The active seeking of sources that elicit laughter (e.g. comedies)
  6. The memorising of jokes and funny anecdotes in life
  7. The tendency to use humour as a coping mechanism.

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.

Four Components of the Humour Process

Martin (2007) identified four components of the humour process:

  1. A social context
  2. A cognitive-perceptual process
  3. An emotional response
  4. The vocal-behavioural expression of laughter.

Incongruity is a cognitive-perceptual process in which conflicting ideas or events are combined (Scheel, 2017).

Summary of Humour Definitions

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.

Author: Jonathan Sandling