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Part 1 - Graphological, Phonological and Morphological Aspects
Part 2 - The Language of Jokes: Analysing verbal humour.
Part 3 - On the Nature of Linguistic Humour
Part 4 - Humor as a pedagogical tool in foreign language and translation courses.
Part 5 - Psychological Context of Joke-telling
Part 6 Pragmatic Approach
Part 7 The Recipient’s Competence

Humour is a widely attested and intuitively grasped aspect of human social communication.
Since the point of language is initially to communicate successfully with other speakers, it is
evident that the ability to appreciate and to engage in humour is part and parcel of human
language behaviour.
Before we consider the nature of verbal humour we do well to outline the relationship which
holds between the social processes and social formations and verbal humour or homour in
The use of humour is a complex and intriguing aspect of human behaviour.
Humour is present throught social conventions and cultural artefacts, and the use of humour is
highly valued in interactions beetween people.
Studies on humor or what makes people laugh are countless. Over the centuries, writers of
diverse interests have attempted to define it.
As anyone in foreign language teaching well knows the appropriate introduction of a joke or
anecdote in the course of a lesson can not only revive a a students flagging interest, but can
contribut to his understanding and retention of the subject matter as well.
An additional aim of the present work was to provide an outline of the linguistic foundations of
As an aesthetic category, humor is subtle, evasive, and extremely difficult to describe.
Descriptions of humour are liable to vary considerably from analyst to analyst. However,
humour, like music, must surely have some underlying fundamental principles.
Man is the only creature endowed with sense of homour. Like other features, this sense of
humour must have developed during the long course of human evolution.
Humour, in particular liguistic humour, presupposes a highly developed intellect and can only
exist within the framework of specific sociolinguistic conditions, the most importatnt among
these being a love for the mother tounge and the aesthetic pleasure derived from its use.
In general, two types of humour may be distinnguished: situational humour and linguistic
humour. Situations capable of elicting a humorous response are innumerable.
Across history from Aristotle to Freud, and across all the intellectual disciplines of the
humanities and human sciences, thoughtful people have sought a satisfactory understanding of
the problem of humor. Humor includes an apparent paradox, as we will see; it is emotionally
compelling; and it pervades human life. Thus it is inherently both mysterious and interesting.
Indeed, the serious study of humor is ``part of the field'' (if only marginally) in a great many
academic disciplines, including at least anthropology, classics, communications, education,
linguistics, literature, medicine, philosophy, psychology, religious studies, and sociology.

Theories of humor do not tend to respect disciplinary boundaries, though writers often address
themselves to the concerns of disciplinarily-restricted audiences. Further, no particular theory or
disciplinary perspective so far appears to have fully succeeded, and in fact many consider that a
single, simple theory of humor is impossible. It would seem that with so many theories and
approaches, all with their own useful perspectives, none monopolizes the truth, and always
another wrinkle on the elephant of humor awaits discovery. This is a wise view, which has held
true through long experience and scholarship.

The theory is given in the form of three necessary and (jointly) sufficient conditions for humor
perception. The claimed properties of necessity and of sufficiency give the theory the strongest
possible force: it specifies both what is funny and what is not funny. The conditions themselves
are shown here to explain and predict a wide variety of facts. The theory makes strong, testable
empirical predictions, and provides useful and integrated insight into previously mysterious and
unrelated phenomena. This research has encountered no case of either perceived humor or lack
of perceived humor which the theory does not explain. The theory leads one to think in ways that
repeatedly seem to generate insight and satisfying explanations. It can be used to gain insight
into other people's thoughts and feelings on the basis of their humor perceptions -- even on the
spot, as humor understanding and misunderstanding occurs between people in everyday
situations. While aspects of the theory may be improved upon, I believe it presently forms the
most useful available framework for understanding humor and the minds and feelings of
laughing people. After defining humor, the theory, the terms used in the theory, and the logical
consequences of it, this paper describes and uses the theory to explain the widest possible variety
of properties of humor and humor-related phenomena.
This paper presents a theory of humor, that certain psychological state which tends to produce
laughter. The theory states that humor is fully characterized by three conditions, each of which,
separately, is necessary for humor to occur, and all of which, jointly, are sufficient for humor to
occur. The conditions of this theory describe a subjective state of apparent emotional absurdity,
where the perceived situation is seen as normal, and where, simultaneously, some affective
commitment of the perceiver to the way something in the situation ought to be is violated. This
theory is explained in detail and its logical properties and empirical consequences are explored.
Recognized properties of humor are explained (incongruity, surprise, aggression, emotional
transformation, apparent comprehension difficulty, etc.). A wide variety of biological,
social/communicational, and other classes of humor-related phenomena are characterized and
explained in terms of the theory. Practical applications are suggested, including ways to diagnose
humor-related misunderstandings in everyday life.
I’d like in this paper present the brief study of English jokes from the interdisciplinary
perspectives concerning the psychological basis for sharing a joke, the techniques of jokes, a
tentative analysis of some jokes from a pragmatic approach and requirements for the recipients
to enjoy jokes. To begin with, we must make clear why people go all out to exchange jokes.
Actually I regard psychological factors as an indispensable element of the context of joking,
which is much more intangible than semantic or social context. The psychological context plays
such a subtle but essential role that it sometimes even ruins the whole efforts of joking if not
properly considered. I list the techniques usually exploited in joking and forms of jokes. We may
see some kind of overlapping between techniques and forms of jokes.Then I try to give a
pragmatic explanation of some jokes and how characters in a joke play, which involves the
maxims of the cooperative principle and speech act theory.

Last but not least, I explain why some jokes are amusing while others can not elicit laughter.
Besides the common psychological basis between the sender and the recipient, better
appreciation of a joke also relies on the recipient’s competence—linguistic and non-linguistic
competence.In conclusion I alludes to the application of joking in fields such as teaching, foreign
business negotiation, comprehension of culture of English-speaking countries and the study of
English language.On the other hand, linguistically oriented research provides us with a workable
model of the internal organizational and meaning structure of jokes. And work on narrative had
begun to elucidate the performance aspects of joke and anecdote telling. At the same time, recent
developments in discourse analysis and linguistic pragmatics have contributed much to our
understanding of how speakers fit jokes and puns into their talk, and how recipients react to

The work sets out to describe, localize and explain language mechanisms and different
lexicogrammatical levels – phonetic-phonological, morphological, syntactic, lexico-semantic,
pragmatic and contextual. Allusive humorous devices as used in joke-cycles, catchphrases and
witty-head-lines are to be discussed and illustrated by means of numerous examples taken from
domains of British and American comedy and humour.

Therefore, the time seems ripe to combine these various strands into a coherent view as to what
major factors are influencing us on better enjoyment of jokes.
Graphological, Phonological and Morphological Aspects

Language is criterially impicated in verval humour; there are specisic language ‘devices’ which
enable humorous effects to be achieved. In what follows we shall consider and illustrate some of
the mechanisms whose contribution to texts in English is deemed to be ‘funny’.
In this chapter we consider the linguistic devices on the graphological, phonological and
morphological levels. We use the ‘levels’ as a convinient analytical procedure and entry-point
for the categorizing and exposition of what are sometimes dissimiliar mechanisms. Often,
moreover, no one single level is implicated.

The graphological level

Altough it may be thought a far cry from orthography to verbal humour, there areone or two
ways in which aspects of the written medium can be showen to be implicated in verbal humour.

Delberate play on graphological features

Take, first of all, typographical layout. Perhaps the best known example of typography being
employed to create ‘visual’ pun is “The Mouse’s Tale” in Alice in Wonderland. This poem is an
example of ‘emblemetic verse’- “poems printed in such a way that they resemble something
related to their subject matter” The staring point for the typographic ‘gag’ is a pun centring on
the homophone ‘tale’ and ‘tail’; as we know, Alice mistook the former for the latter.
A contemporary example from a different domain of style would be the famous poster or
postcard (in the form of an optican’s chart), which is self-explanatory:

Too Much Sex makes you shortsighted

The contemporary writer John Updike employes an equally obvious and related technique in his
poem “Mirror”:

(1) When you look kool uoy nehW

into a mirror rorrim a otni
it is not ton si ti
yourself you see, ,ees ouy flesruoy
but a kind dnik a tub
of apish error rorre hsipa fo
posed in fearful lufraef ni desop
symmetry. .yrtemmys
In poetry we find further examples in which poets deliberately employ the lineation of a poem to
create ambiguity and witty effect.
A poem by William Carlos Williams:
(2) Why bother where I went?
for I went spinning on the
four wheels of my car
along the wet road until
I saw a girl with one leg
over the railof a balcony

The grammatical construction –“a girl with one leg” – (apparently suggested by where the line
ends) is only disambiguated because it carries over to the final line. An example of deliberate
punning which turns on orthographic similarity is:

Marx for Marks

This ia an article title “Working-class Germans are flocking to West Berlin’s shops, but
Protestants values deter the middle classes.”
Homonymy – the situation in which two words have the same form – is sometimes in its
orthographical sense (homographs) as a source of humour. As this verse, dating from the
seventeenth century , documents, it has long history in the English language:
(3) I had a love, and she was chaste.
Alack the more’s the pity,
But wot you how my love was chatse
She was chaste right through the city.

Children’s riddles implicating the graphological level abound in English speaking societies, such
(4) What makes man mean?
The letter a.
(5) What is the longest word in the English Language?
Smiles. Because there is a mile between the first and last letter.
(6) Which word is always spelt wrongly?
These fall into the category of ‘catch questions’, of course.
Unintentional graphologiacl howlers, misprints
By far the greatest category of graphological induced verbal humour is that of howlers or
misprints, these are, of course, unintentional and correspond to spoonerisms in the spoken
medium. Their great popularity is attested by the large number of collections of howlers
published in the English-speaking world. The following are a random selection of the type of
mischief the printe’s gremlin can get up to.
Сonsider the following examples involving omission a letter:
(7) The route taken by the Queen was lined by clapping, cheering crows.
(Correction: ‘clapping, cheering crows’ = ‘clapping, cheering crowds’.)
(8) A police description described a man as aged between 30 and 35, heavy build with dark hair
and comlpexion, possibly with a bear.
(‘Possibly with a bear’ = ‘possibly with a beard’.)

The next items contain additional letters:

(9) Aunts in the house are a serious nuisance and are not easily expelles once they have
established a kingdom. Perhaps a chemist in your town could help you.
(‘Aunts in the house’ = ‘Ants in the house’.)
(10) I felt my hair being yanked cruelly as i tumbled on the ground, Audrey’s hate-crazed face
hoovered over me.
(‘Hoovered over me’ = ‘hovered over me’.)

While a transposition of letters provedes the problem here:

(11) Said Christine, a librarian: “They were quite polite about it all. The leader of the gang saw
that I was sacred”
(‘I was sacred’ = ‘I was scared’.)
(12) It is not considered polite to tear bits off your beard and put them in your soup.
(‘bits of your beard’ = ‘bits your bread’.)

A large category manifests subsituation of letters:

(13) For a birthday he gave her a lunch of tulips and daffodils.
(‘A lunch of tulips and daffodils’ = ‘A bunch of tulips and adffodils’.)
(14) WANTED. A domesticated lady to live with elderly lady to hell with the cooking and
(‘To hell with the cooking’ = ‘to help with the cooking’. )
The standard response in some newspapers is to print a correction, such as this:
(15) A spokesman for the Stewardship Committee said this week that the two million lapel
badges which were distributed bearing the message “God love a fiver” should have read “God
love a giver”. The badges can be amended with felt pens.

The final instance hinges around wrongly spaced letters:

(15) The Manx Government plans to relax regulations on boarding houses to make beds
available for tourist sin late August and September.
(‘For tourist sin late August’ = ‘For tourists in late August’.)

Headlines – with their redundant features already severly pruned – are particulary open to abuse,
as this example demonstrates:

Then there is the really sophisticated joke that plays on the convention itself, such as this
offering by Kurt Vonnegut:
(17) Customer: Waiter, there’s a niddle in my soup.
Waiter: Sorry, madam, that’s a typographcal error – that sould have been a noodle.

And finally ther is the concious satirical play highlighting the misprints reputed to bespatter the
pages of The Guardian:
(18) You can trust the Guardian to call a spade a spode.
The phonological or phonetic level
This level of language provides the mechanisms for a large category of puns in English – those
that depend on homonymic or homophonic clash. As we all know a homophone is not only a
word with a gay ring to it.
English abounds homophones – identically or similarly sounding words. The multitude of
homonyms has often remarked upon and compared with other languages by some linguists. It is
said to sterm for specific typological features, such as analytical structure and minimal
morphology. If Jesperson is to be belived, this results in ther being “anout four times as many
monosyllabic as polysyllabic homophones in English.
Hence, it is arguably the structure of theEnglish language whic predisposes its speakers to
engage in specific types of wordplay. While this point may be debatable, homophonses are the
source of by far the most widespread puns in English. They spawn innumerable lexical
ambiguits. Writers and normal speakers of the language readily bend their minds to creating puns
based on phonologically induced ambiguity.
They have been in use for centuries. Indeed the plays of Shakespear abound with such
homophonic puns.
But Shakespeare was not averse to black humour involving homophonic puns, as these two
examples confirm. First Lady Macbeth:
(19) .....If he do Bleed,
I’ll gild the faces of the grooms withal,
For it must seem their guilt. (Macbeth Act II, i.)
Then after being mortally wounded we hear Mercuito tragically ‘punning’:
(20) Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man. (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, i.)

Innumerable children’s humorous riddles revolve around phonological ambiguity.

(21) What do you do if your nose is on strike?
Pick it!
(22) Question: Why did the cookie cry?
Answer: Because its mother had been a wafer so long.

Further example of ‘homophonic clash’ come in the following ‘waiter-customer’ jokes:

(23) Customer: Waiter! What’s in this stuff?
Waiter: It’s bean soup.
Customer: I asked for its recipe, not its history.
(24) Customer: Waiter! This coffee tastes like earth.
Waiter: I’m not surprised, sir. It wa sonly ground this morning.

Play on similarity of pronunciation

While homophonic clash depends for its effect on identity of pronunciation, a considerable
number of word plays are technically speaking not puns.
“Approximate rather than absolute homonymy” is often employed in children’s stories:
(25) “It Was After Lights Out At the Green Grocer’s...”
“We have always BEAN BERRY GRAPE friends,” siad BASIL.
“I think you’re a perfect PEACH!”
“I’ll always BEETROOT to you,” replied ROSEMRY.
“Then LETTUCE gte married,” urged BASIL. “I’ll buy you a 22-CARROT gold ring.”

Play on sililarity of pronounciation ia also used to make literary and cultural allusions as in these
one-liners from a New Statesman copmetition that asked for definitions of sports and games:
(26) Weight-lifting: careless rupture
Rugby: the art of the passable.
Karate: chops with everything.
Weight-lifting: the lunge, the snort and the fall.
Stock car racing: bangers and smash.

Spoonerisms are slips of the tounge which entail metathesis (mainly the switching of initial
consonants in cnsecutive words.)
(27) When I see before me these rows and rows of beery wenches (Instead of ‘weary benches’;
reputedly said at a temperance meeting)
(28) “Sir, I must goe dye a beggar”. (Instead of “I must goe buy a dagger”.)

The wide-spread nature of such ‘lapses’ is testified to by the large number of examples
(including metathesis of words as well) taken from everyday speech. Such lapses give a glimpse
of the neurolingustic processing that the speaker engages in. Whole chunks of speech are pre-
planned and it is in the realization pr production process that the serial ordering of the
phonological elements of a word may become ‘scrambled’. Such utterance are by no means as
Moving beyond the purely phonological to the morphological level the likelihood of puns seems
to increase; consider the following examples”
(29)“a floor full of holes” becomes “a hole full of floors”
(30) “I cooked a roast” becomes “I roasted a cook”
Before concluding this sub-section we must note that the conscious manipulation of metathesis is
utilized to humorous ends.

Up to now we have been looking at segmental phonology. But clearly suprasegmental aspects of
phonology may be also involved in verbal humour.Many puns depend for theirs effect on the
conscious shifting of word boudaries.
(31) What did Little John say Robin Hood at him? Phew! That was an arrow sescape.
The following example ‘commercial break’ performed by a cross-talk act provides an example:
(32) Straight man: Folks! Are you rundown, are you out of sorts? Then try Tinks pep tonic. It’s
wonderful! It’s marvellous!
Funny man: It’s Tinks.
Punning on (or across) word juncture can reach sophisticated lengths, as the two examples
included in this compound riddle joke:
(33) How is a lazy dog like a sheet of writing paper?
A lazy dog is a slow pup; a slope up is an inclined plane; and an inklined plane is a sheet of

Rhythm and rhyme

The rhythmic beat of a word and its combination with other words makes up, in verse, the
phenomenon of metre. An attribute of much nonsense verse, particularly beloved by children,
consists in the obvious repetitions of the same rhythmic patterns. As these examples of
children’s nonsense verse make plain, the regular ‘falling rhythm’ of the feet (for the most part
trochees- a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one) is so prominent that rhyme can even
be ignored sometimes:
(34) The sausage is a cunning bird,
With feathers long and wavy,
It swims about the flying pan
And makes its nest in gravy.
The limerick is of course the perfect demonstration of how intrinsic to comic verse the interplay
is between rhyme scheme and metrical pattern. A fine example of a limerick which expoits the
metre to the full is the following:
(35) There was an old man of Calcutta,
Who had an unfortunate stutter;
At tea time he said:
“Give me b-b-b-bread,
And some b-b-b-b-b-b-butter.”
Here, as in most spontaneously panned or copmosed limericks, a proper name-usually a place
name-sets the opening rhyme. The scheme is: a, a, b, b, a. Part of the fun or appreciation of such
verses comes from the predictable neatness with which the rhyme terminates the line.
(36) There was an Old Man of Hong Kong,
Who never did anything wrong;
He lay on his back,
With his head in a sack,
That innocuous Old Man of Hong Kong.
It would be wrong to imagine that writers of comic verse count on being in tune with their
readers’ expectations every time.
(37) Even is come; and from the dark Park, hark
The signal of the setting sun – one gun!
But a pithy and pregnant selection of simple metre and spare rhythm is likewise guarantees to
raise a smile, albeit a sardonic one, as in the case of H.N. Ewer’s famous epigram:
(38) How odd
Of God
To Choose
The Jews.

Alliteration and assonance

Alliteration, despite its misleading etymology, is undeniably a phonological feature, for poetry is
meant to be declaimed. The repetition of the same initial consonant or consonantal cluster is a
technique often employed by poets. Assonance – therepetition in successive words of the same
or similar vowel sounds – is likewise widespread. One thinks of poems like Thomas Hood’s
“Ode to St Swithin”, which contains lines such as:
...squashing, sloshing, galloshing feet ...
The phonological figures come together in tongue-twisters, long favourits with children. Here
are examples of fairly common ones:
(39) A tutor who tooted the flute
Tried to tutor two tooters to toot.
Said the two to the tutor;
Is it harder to toot, or
To tutor two tooters to toot?
(40) How much wood could a woodchuck chunk
If a woodchuk could chuck wood?
As much wood as woodchuck would chuck
If a woodchuck could chuck wood.
But such effects are not limited to verse. We may anticipate et this poin the use of alliteration
and assonance in headlines in The Economist. One can find examples such as:
(41) Reagen, rule or regin?
(42) Silicon shrinks; sex still sells
(43) You, too, Uruguay

Voice quality
There is a final feature which may be treated in this section, although it is more properly
speaking a ‘phonetic’ one.
There are many professional mimics on stage, radio and television who are able to give
convincing imitations of their fellow actors and of public figures, imitations in which the
performer’s own voice quality characteristics are effectively submerged. Performers are able to
modify their vocal tract in such a manner that the voice quality of another person can be closely
approximated to. Subtle modulations of voice, rhythm and intonation can be achieved. As in the
case with ‘normal’ people’s limited ability to imitate regional accents (and not infrequently
‘goreign’ accents, too) – a further and ever-present source of humour of both a malevlent and
benevolent variety – such modulation of voice quality proceeds, for the most part, intuitively: it
has yet to be demonstarated that a knowledge of academic phonetics is a necessary prequisite for
impresionations. Or for that matter for the related ability of ventriloquism, which also is
employed to comic and humorous effects in the media.
It is of course possible for a language user to assume at least partially and temporarily, the
lingustic ahbits of another indvidual, or time, or, place, or social class for reasons of parody, art,
humour, etc., or indeed to assume them unconsciously as a result of linguistic accommodation.
The imitation of (certain) regional or social accents is not by itself intrinsically ‘humorous’ or
‘funny’, of course.
A number of examples could be cited at this point of jokes which pivot around the connection
(imagined or real) between phonetic features and social (or regional) dialect and accent variation.
The first involves Scottish pronunciation:
(44) First Scottish lady: Will you have a chocolate cake or a meringue?
Second Scottish lady: No you’re not. I’ll take the choclolate cake.
Not that “a meringue”, spoken with scottish accent sounds like “Am I wrong?” Whereas this is
an example of the kind of joke which also pivots around a comparable feature, in this case h-
drop-ping (told in mock-Cockney accent):
(45) “Mary”, said the lady of the house to her kitchen-maid, “where’s that chicken I told you
heat up?”
“Well, madam”, Mary replied, “you told me to heat it up and I’ve heaten it up.”
Dialect variation implicating juncture may also contribute to jokes. In this case the dialect
involved is that of Nottinghamshire:
(46) A Radford man took his mazgy (moggy or cat, to otheres) to a vet, who asked, “Is it a
room?” “No” he answered, “I brought it wi’ me. It’s here.”
The morphological level
This level of language does not appear to give rise to quite as much as verbal humour as the
foregoing. Morphology in English is only slightly implicated in humour.
Punning on morphemes
Playing on the morphological properties of words is found in the following examples which
manifest what one might term ‘morpheme parallelism’:
(47) (Flirtation is)
All attention
But no intention
(48) (Genious is)
1% inspiration and
99% perspiration
This epigrammatic remark of Benjamin Franklin’s can be similarly be placed in this category:
(49) “Some are weatherwise, some are otherwise.”
A further epigram contains play on the morphological properties of words:
(50) Love is a conflict between reflexes and reflexion.
As does this one - liner:
(51) Processed cheese represents the triumph of science over conscience.
Nash speaks of “pseudomorphs”, which are examples of puns pivoting on morphological
(52) Distressed: dis-tressed
(53) Exposition: ex-position
(54) Wombat: play one.
Actually these examples are suspiciously reminiscent of the ‘hard word punning’ that proceeds
around ‘learned’-sounding words.

Portmanteau words
Word formation, especially the forming of neologisms, can have a numerous side to it. Lear was
one of the first writers to employ self-coined words fro reasons of pure fanatasy and for no
satirical purpose, as far as one can tell. George Orwell comments upon “the recurrence of certain
made-up words such as ‘runcible’” (as in “Runcible Cat with crimson whiskers”).
Indeed this word is now firmly established in the lexicon of English. Lewis Carroll’s coinages, in
which the elements of two extant words were blended to form ‘portmanteau’ words, ahve
likewise been absorbed into the English language. Such as: (brillig, slithy, tove, gyre, gimble,
wabe, mimsy, outgrabe, etc.) All these words are it shoud be noted, formed according to the
phonotactic rules of English word structure. The bizarre neologisms of James Joyce in
Finnegans Wake, some of which Leech discusses – museyroom, wholeborrow, Gracebopper –
take the established convention of made-up ‘nonsense words’ a subtle, literary step further.
Although certain comic- writers – Lewis Carroll, for example, and many recent comic writers
and performers – engage in their own nonce word-formation, the use of portmanteau
phraseology is by no means restricted to a literary elite.

Affixation – prefixation
Affixation entails mostly prefixation in this context.
(55) Contemporary art means just what it says: it’s temporary and it’s a con.
Prefixation can prove a stumbling block for the unway:
(56) He may not have been actually disgrunted, but he was certainly far from gruntled.

(57) ambling off pigwards.
The two halves of this silly riddle are partly held together by the morphological echoes alongside
the semantic elements:
(58) Which King of France wore the largest shoes?
The one with the biggest feet.

This is an example which could equally be assigned to the phonological level as homophonic
clash, but which also hinges on word-foramtion anaysis:
(59) Tell me, does the matchbox?
No, but the tincan.
Here is an example involving morphological reversal which is unfunny but punningly allusive
and has frequently been heard in recent years.
(60) Farewell to welfare state
and a further variant:
(70) The welfare state has become the farewell state.

Punning acronyms
These are so very much part of Anglo-Saxon culture that they are hardly noticed nowdays.
Indeed they are to be found creeping into German usage too. Although when you are founding a
new organization you tend to take care in choosing a name to make sure the abbreviation based
on the intials is witty or punning one. For example this one:
(71) S.C.U.M. – Society for Cutting Up Men
In addition to the consciously formed ‘portmanteau words’, discussd above, blends resulting
from the combination of two words with shared semantic features occur naturally, that is to say
(72) I swindged (switch/changed)
(73) athler (player/athlete)
A speaker has in mind some meaning he wishes to convey. In selecting words, it appears that he
is matching semantic features. Where there are a number of alternative possibilities, rahther than
making an immediate selection, he brings them both into a buffer storage compartment, with
their phonological specifications. Either a selection occurs at this point, or the words are blended,
resulting in the above kind of errors.
The Language of Jokes: Analysing verbal humour.

The language of jokes may not appear an obvious candidate for inclusion with the interface
between language and literary studies. Jokes are certainly not part of a anonical tradition of
literature with capital L, nor are they normally considered to be contexts of language use which
may have ‘literary’ applications.

The term word play conjures up an array of conceits ranging from puns and spoonerisms to
wisecracks and funny stories. Word play is, in fact, inseparably linked to humour which in turn is
linked to laughter; so in this section which sets out to explore such a subject, it is hard to resist
not to begin by pointing out the obvious analogy which exists between language and laughter,
the fact that both are human universals.
In all its many-splendoured varities, humour can be simply definded as a type of stimulation that
tends to elicit tha laughter reflex. Spontaneous laughter is a motor reflex produced by the
coordinated contraction on 15 facial muscles in a stereotyped pattern and accompanied by altered
The physiological processes involved in the production of laughter described above are identical
in men and women the world over. Equally complex physiological processes underline the
formation of speech sounds. In fact, from New York to Bombay the formation of speech sounds
is simply variations of identical physical procedures involving the various speech organs; in
other words, as far as laughing and speaking are concerned, we all do it in the same way.
However, the comparison between laughter and language cannot be developed any further, for, if
it were, then, just as different languages are simply manifestations triggered off by the universal
blueprint of a single grammatical matrix, it should follow that all laughter has a single stimulus.
Situation comedies involve someone getting into some kind of mess. From the intricate farces of
Plautus, through to the court jester and then the clown, from boss-eyed Ben Turpin to John
Cleese’s “Silly Walks”, from the ill-treated guests at Fawlty Towers to the painfully
ambarrassing situations created by Candid Camera, it would appear that people’s misfortunes
have always been a laughing matter.
As far back as Philebus we find Plato claiming that:
when we laugh at the ridiculous qualities of our friends, we mix pleasure with pain.
while Aristotle declares that:
Comedy a representaion of interior people, not indeed in the full sense of the world bad, but
the laughable is a species of the base or ugly. It consists in some blunder or ugliness that does
not cause pain or disaster, an obvious example being the comic mask which is ugly and distorted
but not painful.

Common denominations in verbal humour.

If now turn to the field of verbal humour, we will find that the intrusion of language will restrict
the stimulus to a smaller audience. Nevertheless, the topics of jokes tend to be universal.
Degradation for example, is the subject of entire category of jokes. Physical handicaps which are
the topic of ‘sick’ jokes may appeal to feelings of repressed sadism, while most western socites
possess a dimwitted underdog who is the butt of a whole subcategory of derogatory jokes which
possibly allow their recipients to give vent to equally repressed feelings of superiority. The
Irishman inEngland is transformed into a Belgian in France, a Poruguese in Brazil and a Pole in
the United States. All of them are victims of jokes in which they clearly become ‘inferior people’
in unlikely situations in which they display pure stupidity. The Polish capitan in the following
joke can be substituted by a capitan of ‘inferior’ group of one’s choice in order to adapt it to a
non-American audience:

(1) A polish Airline passanger plane lands with difficulty on a modern runway just stopping
short of disaster. The Polish captain wipes his brow after successfully braking the plane.
“Whew!” he says, ‘that’s the shortest runway I’ve ever seen’
‘Yes’, says his copilot, looking wonderingly to his left and then to his right, ‘but it sure is wide.’

Why is that any minority ethnic group can find itself becoming the subject of a derogatory joke
( and consequently laughed at by its recipients) may not, however, necessarily sepend upon the
invetor’s hidden feelings of superiority. Over the years, practically every ethnic group in the
United States has taken its turn at being the underdog. Recent literature on the subject suggests
that it would be equally feasible to suggest that Blacks, Jews, Italians and Puerto Ricans may
have presented both an economic and phallic threat to the white middle-class American, thus
suggesting that such jokes conceal repressed feelings of fear and anxiety rather than superiority.
Minority groups do not however necessarily have to be of the ethnic variety in order to qualify as
joke material. In Italy, the carabinieri, one of the contry’s three police forces, replace the ethnic
stooge, while in Poland the role is played by the secret police. Other types of derogatory jokes
involve crpples, the mentally sick, homosexuals, wives, mothers-in-law and women in general.
Only recently, after the advent of feminism, have we becun to hear jokes which men are the butt
of derogatory humour:
(2) Q. Why are women bad at parking?
A. Because they’re used to men telling them this much (joker indicates an inch with thumb
and forefinger) is ten inches.
This joke of course combines the put-down joke with anoter western joke universal: sex.
Generally speaking, in ‘civilized’ societies dirty jokes are considered amusing espacially if the
concern newly-weds or sexual initation. However , such jokes undergo variations from culture to
Many people would agree with Charles Lamb when he claims that: ‘Anything awful makes me
laugh’, and Freuds idea of the child born free but who is forced into a state of repression within
months of birth certainly rings true if we consider that by playground age a child is ready to
giggle guiltily at a scurrilous remark. Latre on in life we see that an importanat aspect of male
camaraderie lies deeply ingrained in traditions in which the dirty joke reigns supreme – the rugby
song and the banter and repartee of the working man’s club and the stg night are just tow
examples. J2 upsets a rather male-centric tradition of dirty jokes poking a fun at the male. As for
laughing at the underdog, who in this example is the male, surely here we laugh the self-satisfied
laugh of he or she who knos better?
Alongside the topics of sex and underdogs, another common denominator which is universally
present in jokes is what we shall term the ‘absurd’or ‘out of this world’ element. Jokes
containing such elements can be easily compared to fairy tales as both may be inhabited by
humamized objects and talking animals. Throughout the duration of these jokes, the recipient’s
disbelief must be suspended in the same way as it is suspended in order to watch an animated
cartoon in which famous cats like Tom and Sylvester get flattened by steamrollers, hit over the
head by gigantic hammers and pushes of mountains, yet, nevertheless, always manage to survive
and return for another episode.

(3) Jeremy Cauliflower is involved in a very nad car accisent; sprigs are scattered all over the
road and he is immediately rushed to hospital where a team of surgeons quickly carry out a
major operation. Meanwhile, his parents, Mr and Mrs Cauliflower sit outside the operating
theatre anxiously waiting for the outcome of the operation. After five hours one of the surgeons
comes out of the theatre and approaches Jeremy’s parents.
‘Well,’ asks Mr Cauliflower, ‘will Jeremy live?’
‘It’s been a long and different operation ’, replies the surgeon, ‘and Jeremy’s going to survive.
however I’m afraid there’s something you ought to know.’
‘What ?’ ask the Cauliflowers.
‘I’m sorry,’ replies the surgeon, ‘we’ve done our best but...but I’m afraid you son is going to
remain a vegetable for the rest of his life.’

The recipient of J3 does not question the fact that vegetables are refered to by name, are involved
in car accidents and undergo major surgery. Being game to a world in which anything goes but
which would be totally out of the question in realty be even the wildest stretches of the
imagination, appears to be a tacit rule between joker and recipient.

The concept of shared knowledge

We have already seen that when a comic situation is too cluture-specific it will not be seen aa
amusing outside the culture of origin. It therefore follows that if a joke contains a situation which
is heavily culturally oriented, it too will not travel well. Let us consider two translated jokes to
demonstrate the importance of shared knowledge between senfer and recipient in oreder for a
joke to be undersood.
The first joke, J4, is translated from Italian:

(4) At a party in a luxurious villa, the host says to jis playboy guest: ‘See the women in this
room? Except for my mother and my sister, I’ve been to bed with all of them.’
The imitated playboy retorts: ‘Well then, that means that, between the pair of us, we’ve been to
bed with them all!’

The joke is not straightforward put-down as the playboy’s answer might suggest to the non-
Italian. At first the answer may appear to be a simple attempt at unmerical one-upmanship but
this interpretation ignores the underlying Italian sociocultural implications of sisters’ and
moters’ sexuality. In order to ‘get’ the joke completely, the recipient must be aware of the fact
that, until quite recently, to some Italian men the purity of their mothers and sisters was
unquestionable, and they could thus be cuckolded through their sexuality as well as through their
wives’ infidelity. Naturally, nowadays such a menatlity is no longer widespread; in fact, it is
highly unlikely to exist at all outside a few remote rural areas, yet it is still recognized as an
Italian ‘semi-myth’ alomgside those of the Latin lover and exclusive diet of spaghetti. Wheter it
is funny or not, in Italy, the joke is certainly recognized as an attempt at being so. The following
joke, which has been translated from Spanish, is equally restricted to a Spanish audience:

(5) During the Second World War, Hitler, Mussolini and Franco were travelling on the same
plane. They were discussing the people they governed andeach of them claimed that his subjects
were the most fervid patrots in the world. As the discussion got more and more heated they
decided to reslove the question and see which people were, in fact, the most patriotic. The plane
would fly over Berlin, Rome and Madrid, a feather would be dropped on each city and whoever
it would fall on was to commit suicide, thus proving theitr total commitment to their country.
First, the plane flew over Berlin. A feather was dropped and and after a few minutes a shot was
‘There you are!’ said Hitler. ‘The Germans are the most patriotic race in theworld!’
Next, the plane flew over Rome. A feather was dropped and after a few minutes the shot was
‘There you are!’ said Mussolini. ‘The Italians are the most patriotic people in the world!’
Finally. the plane flew over Madrid. A feather was dropped. However, no shot was heard. The
plane swooped down towards the city to see what had happened. Thousands of Spaniards were
busy blowing the feather as far away from themselves as possible.

To the British recipient the joke is not mausing, as he or she not likely to be aware of the
Spanish habbit of poking fun at themselves and at their poor sense of patriotism through the joke
form. Furthermore, since British jokes in which the British are depicted as cowards are
practically unheard of (it is in fact the Italians who are the cowards in British jokes), the text
becomes quite meaningles through a lack of correspondence too.
If word play is to be successful, it has to play on knowledge which is shared between sender and
recipient.Translated jokes like 3 and 4 require an explanation for a non-Italian or non-Spaniard
to recognize them (in their entirety) as attempts to amuse, otherwise they will remain restricted
to those who are au fait with all the underlying implications. British humour frequently intrigues
non-native speakers of English and one of thne reasons for their not appreciating it to the full is
precisely due to a mismatch not only in language but also in shared sociocultural knowledge.
Therefore, the recipient of a joke must understand the code in which it is delivered and, although
recognition of language is, of course, the lowest common denominator required fro the
comprehension of a joke, this recognition appears to include a large amount of sociocultural
information which should also be in their possession.
So, any joke, whether it contains a pun or not, by the very nature of its verbalization, necessarily
plays on language. It may not be an ambigous item which acts a sits focal point; it could be its
delivery, the intonation or the accent in which it is delivered, or even non-verbal additions such a
gesture or mime.
At this point, it may be worth commenting on the concept of appreciation of word play. As we
have already mentioned, not everybody is amused by the same things and, what is more, over
and above shared knowledge of whatever type, finding something funny relies on a number of
subjective variables. What may appear amusing under the influence of a few drinks may not
appear quite so funny in the cold light of the morning.
Despite our good sense, when someone does not find something funny we often tend to make a
character judgment in negative trems. Accusing someone of not having a sense of humour.
On the Nature of Linguistic Humour

Is the analysis of humour generally feasible? It has been remarked that one should never attempt
to express the essence of music in words. The two things are just too diverse and incompatible.
Indeed, the aesthetic side of music, that which appeals to the human soul, can only be given an
inadequate and approximate verbal rendering. Apart from its aesthetic aspect, however, music
has a clearly definable structural nature, for example, the regularity of the musical scales, the
exactitude of pitch, and the systematic ways in which the physical units of music are combined.
These aspects are open to scientific analysis and description.
The same observations hold with respect to humour. As an aesthetic category, humour is subtle,
evasive, and extremely difficult to describe. Descriptions of humour are liable to vary
considerably from analyst to analyst. However, humour, like music, must surely have some
underlying fundamental principles. For the material falling within the scope of the present
volume, these, principles consist of specific linguistic phenomena and their patterns of usage as
elaborated during the course of centuries, if not millenia, of practice. Man is the only creature
endowed with a sense of humour. Like other features, this sense of humour must have developed
during the long course of human evolution.
Humour, in particular linguistic humour, presupposes a highly developed intellect and can only
exist within the framework of specific sociolinguistic conditions, the most important among
these being a love for the mother tongue and the aesthetic pleasure derived from its use.
In general, two types of humour may be distinguished: situational humour and linguistic humour.
Situations capable of eliciting a humorous response are innumerable. A monkey's awkward
imitation of man's actions, a child's babbling, the similarity of an inanimate object to a person or
vice versa these and a host of other situations can make one smile or laugh, outwardly or
Interestingly, a particular situation can have a completely opposite effect with different
individuals. Note the reaction of film audiences. At moments when sobs are repressed by many,
almost invariably there is someone, usually a boisterous lad, who interprets the situation on the
screen as funny and breaks into a laugh. The reverse is also possible. To use the above example,
a child's babbling for a third individual can be nothing but an unpleasant irritating noise.
Situational humour often appears to be grounded on the irrelation of an outward characteristic
of an object and the fundamental nature of that object, that is the non-correspondence or, to put
it more srongly, the discrepancy between the two.
This is one type of situational humour.
Another type of situational humour is the one based on situational ambiguity. Just as outward
manifestations of a particular feature belonging to an object can be diverse, particular
manifestations can themselves be a symbol of different features. Due to this type of ‘feature
manifestation’ relation, situations, just as linguistic items, can be ambiguous and allow for
different interpretations. Temporarily, the ambiguity remains unnoticed, and this leads to an
eventual wrong interpretation of the situation. The discrepancy between the two interpretations
and the effect of the unexpectedness, for the given situation, of the 'correct' interpretation, bring
about the humorous effect. For examlpe:
(1) A young soldier who came home on leave was telling his folks about his military life.
Suddenly he stopped to look with interest at four pretty girls coming down the street. His mother
gave a nudge to the father.
"Look how our little boy has grown," she gasped. "He was never interested in girls before the
Meanwhile their son watched the girls intently until they were out of sight, then turned back and
announced, "One of them is out of step."
(2) Noiselessly the officer of the guard approached and, shaking the dozing sentry roughly by the
shoulders, said, "Private Jones, you are under arrest for sleeping on duty!"
The soldier quickly replied, "A man can't even have a minute of prayer without someone coming
to spoil it."
Linguistic humour as displayed in jokes appears isomorphic with situational humour in that it
seems also to have "three scenic components". The third one is similar to that shown in
connection with situational humour. It is the receiver of the joke or anecdote, that is, the reader
or listener. The difference between the third components in situational and linguistic humour is
insignificant, being determined by the idiosyncracy of the channel of reception. In fact, all three
(the observer, the reader, the listener) can be regarded as particular realizations of a more general
category which can be called the recipient. (An analogy can be drawn here with the ideas
elaborated in the applicational generative theory in linguistics. We would refer the recipient to
the genotypical level and the observer, the reader, the listener to the phenotypical level in the
advanced understanding of the mechanisms of humour.)
The recipient is an important figure, albeit one which exists in the background. It is ultimately
for his sake that the joke is made, and whether or not it works depends not only on the quality of
the joke but also on the 'quality' of the recipient, that is, the degree to which his feeling for
humour is developed, his intellectual ability and the adequacy of his thesaurus (in the sense in
which this concept is now used in information theory), his attitude towards particular types of
jokes, even his disposition in general and at the moment. These are the provisions necessary for
the recipient's comprehension, appreciation and enjoyment of the joke.
If we are on the right track in our search for isomorphic similarities between situational and
linguistic humour, we should be able to establish the other two components which, when taken in
their relationship to one another, are capable of producing a humorous effect which is up to the
reader or listener to discover. It is the author's assumption that, similar to the two objects in situ-
ational humour, these components are two linguistic items comparable in some respects but
essentially different. In other words, the trait(s) of similarity shared by the two are secondary and
peripheral to the nature or to the accentuated feature of the linguistic items confronted in the
The most common humorous effect in linguistically based jokes is that produced by the
nondiscrimination or confusion of items of this kind. The absence of one-to-one correspondence
between form and meaning in linguistic units and the nonsusceptibility of meaning to direct
observation often results in linguistic units not being discriminated or in their being confused due
to a coincidence or similarity of their formal manifestations. Types of linguistic items which
allow for non-discrimination/confusion are numerous: homonyms, lexical, word-formative and
syntactic; lexicosemantic variants of words (polysemy); words used metaphorically as opposed
to those used literally; phraseologisms vs free syntactic combinations with superficially identical
components, and so on.
Here, however, we come to a significant difference between situational and linguistic humour.
While in situational humour the similarity of essentially different objects was the very source of
humour, the similarity of linguistic items plays only a subsidiary role. By means of linguistic
items, two situations are projected, an ordinary, normal one and a 'wrong' one (due to confusion,
non-discrimination or erroneous interpretation of linguistic items). The wrong situation may be
generally possible but for some reason inappropriate or entirely fantastic in the given situation.
Thus the most general language phenomenon underlying many, though not all, linguistically
based jokes, is ambiguity. Ambiguity is effected by various linguistic means. The repertoire of
these means will be outlined in the course of subsequent discussion (a brief enumeration was
given above). However, before proceeding to elaborate on the linguistic generation of humour as
manifested in jokes and the like, it would be good to describe the most popular and current type
of this form of literature.
Commonly there are two basic participants in the plot of a joke. One produces an ambiguous
sentence, usually not intending to be so. The ambiguity of the sentence allows one to interpret it
in a different sense and this is what the other participant does not fail to do. This erroneous
interpretation may be unintentional, as presumably in
(3) Irate Mother (at dinner) — "Johnny, I wish you'd stop reaching for things. Haven't you a
Johnny —"Yes, Mother, but my arm's longer"
or intentional, as in
(4) A taxi was creeping slowly through the rush-hour traffic and the passenger was in a hurry.
"Please," he said to the driver, "can't you go any faster?"
"Of course I can", the cabby replied. "But I ain't allowed to leave the taxi."
In both cases, the erroneous interpretation projects a situation much different from that implied
by the first speaker. The difference and often the incompatibility of the two confronted situations
linguistically brought together by the commonality of linguistic expression is the basis of
Another type of joke is the joke with unconcealed ambiguity. A sentence with unconcealed
ambiguity needs no clarification and therefore can conclude the joke. Here is an example:
(5) "So your uncle is dead. Did he leave much?" "Only his old clock".
"Well, there won't be much bother winding, up his estate".
Unconcealed ambiguity is characteristic of bon mots (q. v.). In fact, the concluding sentence with
unconcealed ambiguity in a joke is a bon mot by itself.
To state that the basic part of a joke with concealed ambiguity is an ambiguous sentence is not
sufficient to explain the mechanism of the joke. The important thing about a particular type of
linguistic joke is that in order for the joke to work the ambiguity, when introduced, must remain
unnoticed by the recipient or be resolved erroneously by him. Only within this condition does the
clarification which usually winds up the joke reveal both the nontrivial use of language and,
often, a new view on things, in this way enabling the recipient to enjoy the joke fully. This is one
of the possible uses of ambiguity in jokes, and, it would seem, by far, the commonest. To push
the recipient in the desired direction in his resolution of ambiguity, sometimes misleading
indexes are introduced. Such, for instance, is the function of waiting on the guests in (6) (the
action implies serving liquids), Country Editor in (7) (inclining the recipient to associate pen
with writing):
(6) Mistress (to new maid) — "Now, when you wait on the guests at dinner, I want you to be
very careful not to spill anything."
Maid — "Don't worry. I won't say a word."
(7) Friend — "Why are you so jubilant?"
Country Editor —"/ just received another fine contribution from Farmer Brown's pen."
Friend — "Huh — what was it?" Country Editor — "A fine fat pig on subscription."
Jokes with concealed ambiguity usually have the following structure:

Symbol The name of the The part’s structural content An example

structural part
Introduction The introduction of the A serviceman was asked by
0 listener/reader into the situation of a civilian friend
the joke.
A concealed arising of A concealed for the A. “How many times do you
1 contradiction listener/reader, intoduction of shave in the army?”
An expication of The baffling of the listener/reader. B. “Oh about thirty or
2 contradiction The srising of psychical tension forty”
A. “what are you a nut?”
The removal of The resoultion of ambiguity and, B. “No, a until barber”
4 contradiction in this way, of misunderstanding.
The removal of tension

Parts 0 and 1 can be given together. Cf. the possibility of the following beginning for the same
joke: "How many times do you shave in the Army?' a serviceman was asked by a civilian
In any linguistically based joke we can distinguish its linguistic core ( = central part). The
linguistic core of the joke is the linguistic item (ranging from word to sentence) whose inherent
feature (s) (its polysemy, homonymity, etc.) is (are) made use of to bring about humorous effect.
Such are the sentence "Haven't you a tongue?" (3), the verb go (4), the verb wind up (5), the verb
spill (6), the noun pen (7), and the verb shave (8) in the foregoing examples.
The linguistic core forms the indispensable, nonomis-sible and unchangeable part of the joke.
The rest is a variable and, at least partially, reducible. Characteristically, it is the linguistic core
of the joke that remains intact in variants of jokes while the rest is often subject to considerable
change. Cf. the different variants of the following jokes:
(9) A very nice old lady had a few words to say to her granddaughter.
"My dear," said the old lady, "1 wish you would do something for me. I wish you would promise
me never to use two words. One is 'lousy' and the other is 'swell? Would you promise me that?"
"Why sure, Granny," said the girl. "What are the words?”
(10) Professor Einstein was fascinated by American slang. He listened carefully three times to
the story of the employer who told his secretary, "There are two words I must ask you never to
use in my presence. One of them is 'lousy,' the other is 'swell.' "That's all right by me," said the
secretary. "What are the two words?" When he finally comprehended, the professor threw back
his head and roared with laughter.
(11) The other day the manager of a firm in the City scolded the office-boy for arriving late.
The office-boy, as so frequently happens, resented the re-proff and forgot his position.
"What I'd tike to know," said the youngster, "is whether I get here later than you."
"That's nothing to do with the question," replied the chief.
"Yes, it has," muttered the boy.
The manager's ire was aroused.
"Look here, young man, are you the manager of this business?" he said.
The boy felt that the position was growing dangerous.
"No, sir."
"Then," replied the chief, "why on earth are you talking like an idiot?"
(12) Prof.— "Young man, are you the teacher of this class?"
Stude — "No, sir." Prof.— "Then don't talk like an idiot!"

The following jokes convincingly show the insignificance of the linguistic core's environment
except as semantic actants whose fillers can be any number of referents.
(13) During a conversational clash Lady Astor said to Bernard Shaw, "If you were my husband I
should put poison in your coffee."
G. B. S. replied, "If I were your husband I should drink it."
(14) An Irishman was sitting in a station smoking, when a woman came in and, sitting beside
him, remarked:
"Sir, if you were a gentleman, you would not smoke here!"
"Mum," he said, "if ye was a lady ye'd sit farther away."
Pretty soon the woman burst out again: "If you were my husband, I'd give you poison!" "Well,
mum," returned the Irishman, as he puffed away at his pipe, "If you wuz me wife, I'd take it."
For (9—10) such semantic actants are animates "X" and "Y", of which one (say "Y") is in a
subservient po sition to the other ("X"). "X" possesses knowledge which he/she tries to impart to
"Y". The failure of communication is due to the difference of "X" 's and "Y" 's sociolinguistic
For (11 —12) the semantic actants "X" and "Y" are also two animates related by virtue of
For (13—14) the semantic actants "X" and "Y" are two animates of different sexes standing to
each other in relation of equality.
It is now time to expand upon linguistic means capable of providing ambiguity. Particular
attention will be paid to those means which have been studied less frequently, if at all.
Ambiguity is a semantic phenomenon. Ambiguity becomes manifest only in the course of speech
perception, and although it can be attained by linguistic means belonging to various levels of
language structure, it is realized primarily in the basic unit of discourse, the sentence. For this
reason I shall begin the discussion by analyzing features of the sentence capable of introducing
The sentence is a multifaceted phenomenon. Here are some of its facets with which the
feasibility of more than one semantic interpretation is associated.

In the sentence content, if this is viewed not merely as a certain piece of information but as part
of actual discourse, particular contential elements are functionally, namely for the purpose of
discourse, more important than others. Such elements make up the contential centre of the sen-
Sometimes such central elements are given prosodic prominence. This can help to avoid
ambiguity as to what is the centre and what is the periphery in the content of the sentence.
However, much oftener the distinction between the contential centre and the periphery is not
formally marked, resulting in the possibility of ambiguity with regard to the contential centre.
Consider the following joke:
(15) Teacher — "If your brother has five apples and you take two from him what will be the
result?" Johnny — "He will beat me up."
For the teacher, the material aspect of the situation reflected in her sentence is insignificant. In
place of apples there could be books, coins and what not. The same is true with regard to animate
objects of the situation. What actually matters to her (and this is what she tries to impress upon
her pupils) is the numerical relation called subtraction between objects: 5—2=3. This is the
centre of sentence content as considered by the teacher. In the pupil's mind, the focus of the
content of the sentence consists in other elements of the content, namely his brother's having
something (here, apples) and his depriving him of part of his possession. As a result the teacher
and the pupil arrive at a different understanding of "what will be the result."
Johnny's answer is contrary not only to the teacher's but also to the reader's expectation. Attuned
to the situation by the word Teacher, which opens the anecdote and, being well aware, due to
long schooling, of the sort of thing a teacher requires, the reader expects a different answer from
Johnny. The unexpectedness and soundness of the boy's answer, together with the discrepancy
between it and the general situation (school) produces a humorous effect.
Interestingly, a similar displacement in the ascertainment of the central can be a source of
situational humour:
(16) President Coolidge once visited the Emily Dickinson house in Amherst, and was shown the
poetess' original manuscripts. He examined them casually and made a single comment: "Wrote
with a pen, eh? I dictate!"
Ambiguity of language units, when viewed closely, is a linguistic phenomenon of a much wider
scope and diversity than is usually assumed. Linguists are well aware of the ambiguity of such
units as homonyms or polysemantic words but ambiguity is existent also in such seemingly
unambiguous sentences as:
(17) Teacher — "I hope I didn't see you looking in Fred's book, Tommy"
as revealed by the end of the completing sentence of the anecdote:
Tommy — "I hope you didn't, either, sir."
Here (in the first sentence), the verb hope, being linked with the past-tense form of the
syntactically dependent verb, acquires a specific connotation, namely that of unwillingness to
openly admit the fact. The use of the verb hope is in contradiction to reality: the boy did look in
Freddy's book and the teacher did notice it. However, for educational or other reasons, the
teacher prefers to let the pupil know of his cognizance of the fact by implication, without
pointing it out directly. Or the statement may be regarded as ironical. Whatever the
interpretation, it is the non-correspondence of the use of the verb hope to the normal meaning of
the verb that is of importance for our discussion.
In contrast (and this is where the humorous effect arises) the pupil's 'echoing' sentence is a
regular one and non-deviant from the common prevalent usage of the verb hope. The sentence is
not burdened with any additional information outside that conveyed by the normal lexical and
grammatical meanings of the words of the sentence.
Sentences of the exemplified and similar types have been noticed before, although, not
necessarily in linguistics. They have been called by Ryle "systemically misleading sentences"
and by Bar-Hillel "sentences in the transposed mode of speech". To use the latter's characteriza-
tion, they are "sentences whose ordinary usage is non-standard (with respect to a certain
sentence-class, to be determined on a pragmatic basis)."
While accepting and fully appreciating the distinction advanced, I think it would be worthwhile
to establish the basis of distinction between ordinary and transposed sentences on other than
pragmatic grounds. Prima facie the frequency index would appear to be of significance.
However, frequency must be a function of another regularity inherent in the sentence. In
addition, the frequency index must be a variable determined by the type of discourse. In
particular types of discourse, such as the one represented in the literature under investigation,
differences in frequency between transposed and ordinary sentences of the same supraclass may
be appreciably blurred. In jocular speech, say in monologues by professional comics on the stage
or TV, transposed sentences may even prevail. All this makes it necessary to search for a
linguistic basis for the distinction. I assume that this can be found in the necessity, if one intends
to produce a transposed sentence, of supplementing otherwise ordinary sentences with additional
linguistic devices (cf. the role of intonation in 'A good fellow you are!', if ironical) or relying on
extralinguistic facts for the purpose.


Another important linguistic basis for the formation of jokes are sentences with implication. The
implied idea can be ignored, overlooked or, most commonly, wrongly interpreted by a person
perceiving the statement. This is usually revealed by what he says in reaction to the sentence
with implication. The non-correspondence between the content of the stimulus sentence,
implication considered, and that of the response sentence can be full of humour. The implied
idea is made clear in the statement of clarification. The structure of this type of joke is often

A. Statement with implication: "Jim will he in hospital a long time."
B. Response: "Why, have you seen the. doctor?"
A. Clarification statement: "No, the nurse."

The indispensable parts are the statement with implication and the clarification statement.
The semantic content of implication consists in the expounding of cause (the above example),
purpose, or so forth:
(19) "Got a match, Tom?"
"No. But I got a lighter."
"How am I going to pick my teeth with a lighter?"
or in the positive/negative evaluation:
(20) My fourteen-year-old grandson told me that his class was studying Churchill's History of
the English-Speaking Peoples.
"Some of us are going to write him a letter," he said.
"I'm sure Sir Winston will be pleased," I, commented.
"Well, I don't know," he replied. "We're going to ask him not to write any more books."
In the last case the implication is in the verb of communication.
As a rule, the implied cause, etc. is the one least or little expected. If all possible causes, etc. for
a particular situation could be placed on the scale of commonness, the implied idea would be
somewhere on the opposite side of the scale as compared to the usual, common. The examples
cited above: cause (seeing the doctor and eliciting information from him and... seeing a pretty
nurse), purpose (using a match for lighting purposes and...'to pick teeth), etc. A wrong
interpretation of implication can also be prompted by the situation:
(21) A distinguished scientist, says Louis Sobol, who probably saw him, was observing the
heavens through the huge telescope at the Mi. Wilson Observatory. Suddenly he announced, "It's
going to rain." "What makes you think so?" asked his guide. "Because," said the astronomer,
still peering through the telescope, "my corns hurt."
A different use of implication for generating humour is presented by jokes based on the wrong
interpretation of ordinary sentences, that is sentences not intended to carry implication.
Erroneously taken to carry an implication, they are responded to accordingly. The discrepancy
between the actual contents of the sentence and the contents incorrectly ascribed to it can be
The principle of unexpectedness of the actual meaning of the sentence is often realized through
the use of sentences which, through long social practice, have become customary means of
expression, in particular situations, of particular ideas (cf. the sentence "Do you know what the
time is?", commonly a hint as to the lateness of the hour, in the joke below.). However, they may
also be used, contrary to anticipation, in their direct sense:
(22) The young man had been sitting in the drawing-room alone with her for a long time and it
was getting late. Suddenly, the door opened and her father entered. He coughed a little, cleared
his throat, and then said:
"Do you know what the time is?"
The young man arose hurriedly, stammered a few words and in a moment or so was gone.
"Is your young friend an idiot or what?" asked the father of the girl, who stood looking into the
"Why?" queried the daughter, a trifle irritated.
"Well, 1 lust asked him if he knew the time, because my watch has stopped, and he simply
In contradiction to the sentences in jokes (18), (19), (20) analysed above, where implication,
although contentially different, is invariably available (implicational polysemy), two different
sentences can be envisaged in (22): one carrying implication and the other, without it. Humour is
based on the confusion of these two.
A phenomenon similar to implication is presupposition. In particular, in questions presupposing
an answer, particular with regard to its contential nature. In this connection two types of
questions should be distinguished.
Questions of one type are those reduced in or completely devoid of questionhood, that is, they
are questions actually not intended to solicit information (consider, for instance, rhetorical or
phatic questions). Such questions presuppose all important semantic parameters of the answer:
the general referential directedness of sentence content and the very lexicosemantic contents of
the answer,..
For questions of the other type, the semantic parameters of the answer are determined in a more
general way.
Only the general referential directedness of the sentence contents is presupposed by the question
but not the lexico-semantic contents of the answer.
In case the answer is not of the presupposed kind, the discrepancy between what is expected (and
should conventionally be produced) and the actual answer can be a source of humour. This
feature is shared by answers to both types of question. Here are examples:
(23) A politician was invited to give a talk on Americanism to the pupils of the grammar school
he had attended as a boy.
"When I see your smiling faces before me," he began in the accepted oratorical style, "it takes
me back to my childhood. Why is it, my dear girls and boys, you are all so happy?"
He paused for the rhetorical effect, and instantly up went a grimy hand from the front row.
"Well, my lad, what is it?"
"The reason we're so happy," replied the boy, "is if you talk long enough we won't have a
geography lesson this morning."
(24) "Jane," said a lady to her servant, "you have broken more than your wages amount to.
What can be done to prevent this?" .
"I really don't know, mum," said Jane, "unless you raise my wages." .
Linguistically, the possibility of contentially diverse answers is ensured by the referentially
multiple nature of pronominal words heading questions.


The two forms of the existence of language, oral and written, although capable of rendering
basically the same content, each have some specific features which can be lost in the
transformation "oral <=> written". One of these is the effective marking of citations elaborated in
written form (by means of inverted commas, italics or otherwise), unattainable in oral form, at
least to the degree of unambiguity inherent in written form. (Citation here covers not only
quotation of utterances once actually produced but also the specific way of singling out words
used as lexicon items, with the ellipsis of "the word(s)", e. g. 'Spelt acknowledgement'). Many a
joke is based on this inadequacy of oral speech, for instance:
(25) An old gentleman sat on a seat in the park. It was a lovely day; the birds were singing, the
spring flowers round about smelt fragrant and fresh, but there was a strong odour of paint in the
air. The old gentleman looked round and, two seats away, espied a man slapping green paint on
to a dilapidated-looking seat. A terrible thought leapt into his mind, and he looked down at the
seat upon which he was sitting. Yes, it was wet and, what was more, his trousers were smothered
in green. The old gentleman's anger was justifiable and, rushing up to the brush-wielder, he
cried out excitedly:
"Why don't you put 'Wet Paint' on the seats?" "Well, that's what I am er doin', ain't it?" retorted
the painter of seats.
The distinction between citation and direct use is purposely not observed in riddles of the type
(26) What is that which occurs once in a minute, twice in a moment, and not once in a thousand

Under this Whorfian name I brought together, in the present collection, jokes based on
overcoming or at least calling attention to the discrepancy between the semantic conceptual
contents of some linguistic units viewed as a way of presenting reality and the actual state of
things. The point is that customary, commonly accepted ways, for the given linguistic
community, of naming a phenomenon can in time become or be from the very start in contra-
diction, if taken literally, with the actual state of things. This contradiction of which speakers, at
least those less sensitive to language, are usually unaware, can be brought to light by reshaping
the semantic structure of the linguistic item so that the semantic structure of the signifiant is
brought into correspondence with the essence of the signifie;
(27) Impatient man to driver of overdue bus: "Driver, how seldom does this bus run?"
Or the structure may remain unchanged while people are made to feel the absence of proper
correspondence between the semantic structure of the linguistic unit and its actual signification
in some other way as in the following joke:
(28) One sweet young thing arrived at her first football game after the first half. "The score is
nothing to nothing," she heard a fan say.
"Oh, good," she cooed to her escort. "Then we haven't missed a thing."
Another type of joke brought under the same heading "Linguistic Relativity" utilizes the
possibility of diverse linguistic presentation of one and the same situation, with stress laid on this
or that aspect of the object as the speaker prefers to view it. About a bottle with only half of its
volume filled with liquid one can say "half-empty" or "half-full" and both statements will be true
to fact. Here, both expressions are current and therefore neither of them is novel and neither
makes for this reason any appeal to the recipient.
In case one of the two possible interpretations is novel, fresh, witty and implies some attitude on
the part of the speaker/writer counter to the generally accepted view, the statement is humorous:
(29) Terrible Gale in the Channel — Continent Isolated.
(Headline in The Times)
The "half-empty/full bottle" expressions, although re-ferentially equivalent, can stimulate diverse
reaction on the part of the hearer/listener in case their differentiating elements (here 'full' vs
'empty') are associated with the concepts 'negative' us 'positive' or at least 'neutral'. This
distinction is taken account of in statements intended to elicit a positive reaction on the part of
the hearer/listener. When by such a linguistic act one tries to conceal the actual state of things
which are far from being favourable, humorous effect can be achieved, e. g.:
(30) The division commander received a report by radio from one of his unit commanders.
"Sir, we are trapped—surrounded by enemy tanks."
"That's not correct," said the general. "Your force is not surrounded. You are just fighting in
four different directions."
A particular subtype within the discussed class of jokes is that based on measuring time, distance,
etc. in non-traditional, facetious units endowed with especial implications, e. g.:
(31) "So you took that pippin home from the movie last night."
"How far does she live from the theater?"
"Oh, three soda-fountains and a candy-store."

Children's speech is a rich fount of humour, at least for adults. At the same time it is the basis for
fruitful and insightful observations on the nature of language and linguistic regularities for
language students. "Children are newcomers to the language" (Hayakawa) and by slips they
make, slips from our doctrinal, grown-up point of view, they help us to see things, things the
feeling for which has been deadened by years of language practice. Following is an outline of
traits of age differentiation in language competence and usage relevant for our discussion.
The distinction between the two levels, genotypical and phenotypical, in the theory of linguistics
becomes particularly explicit in analogical formations so often coined by children. Quite
legitimate on the genotypical level, they turn out to be unpermissible phenotypical formations.
The level of linguistic competence acquired turns out to be inadequate for the production of
particular idiomatic grammatical forms, lexical units, etc. which are logically unpredictable,
deviant from the prevalent pattern. Correct by themselves, such forms, units, etc. are not
acceptable due to some whims of linguistic history or present-day usage in the linguistic
community. In their place some other linguistic items, usually reflexes of once common
regularities whose currency has been sanctioned and perpetuated by tradition, are used. See, for
(33) When the waitress asked how we'd liked our steaks, 1 said, "Medium," my husband said,
"Medium," and our seven-year-old son said trustingly, "Large."
In this way a particular concept already available in the lexicon is given by a child a new
linguistic way of expression drawn from the same lexicon in ignorance or, sometimes, in
defiance of accepted usage. We have in this case a bilateral correspondence between the concept
and the linguistic item for it.
Cognate to this are cases where a word or a phrase, through extension, is applied to a new object,
the usage being unexpected and novel to the grown-up speakers of the language:
(34) As I was roasting the beautiful turkey we were having for Christmas and calculating that
we might have enough left over for Sunday dinner too, my nephew came into the kitchen to
watch me.
"How many stoppers are we going to have today?" he asked.
"Stoppers?" I asked. "What do you mean?" "you know, all those courses you, have first, to stop
people from eating so much turkey."
Children reinterpret words in light of their experience, linguistic and extralinguistic. Doubtless
such 'juvenile interpretation' is continually taking place, both when the child is perceiving and
producing speech, similar to the personal interpretation carried out by every speaker. However,
usually it is not explicit and we become aware of , it only in cases when we are struck by its
"wrongness", when reinterpretation is drastically in discrepancy with the actual signification of
the lexicon item. Particularly funny (to the adult's mind) are reinterpretations of things and
events far removed in terms and concepts from contemporary life as in
(35) The youngest ones at Sunday school were told to draw their conceptions of the Flight into
Egypt. One little girl turned in a picture of an airplane with three people in the back, all with
haloes, and a fourth up in front without one. Perplexed about the fourth person, the teacher
asked the little girl who it was.
"Oh," replied the youngster, "that's Pontius, the pilot." Children are also liable to wrongly
interpret words' etymology and hence arrive at erroneous interpretation of word's meanings. This
process can be illustrated by
(36) Teacher — "What is an octopus?"
Small Boy — "It's an eight-sided cat." The much more concrete thinking inherent in children as
compared to that of more sophisticated grown-ups can result in the literal interpretation of
phraseological units. This serves as a basis for construing such jokes as
(37) Lady — "Why, you naugthy boy. I never heard such language since the day I was born."
Small Boy — "Yes, mum; I s'pose dere wuz a good deal of cussin' de day you wuz born."
The gap between the literal meaning of a phraseological unit and the actual one is not drastic.
The situation is different with phraseological fusions. As the meaning of a phraseological fusion
is not the sum total of the information contained in its components and can be learned only from
experience (similar to the way in which children usually acquire the knowledge df words'
meanings), the child's interpretation of a phraseological fusion can disagree drastically with its
actual meaning and therefore, serve as a good linguistic basis for jokes:
(38) Visitor — "Why, no, Betty, I haven't been away. What made you think I had?"
Little Betty — "Why, my papa and mama both said that you and your wife had been at
Loggerheads for two or three weeks."
The literal interpretation of a phraseological unit by a child can be revealed indirectly, i. e. not by
its actual use, as in
(39) "Now, my little boys and girls," said a teacher, "I want you to be very still — so still that
you can hear a pin drop."
For a minute all was still, and a little boy shrieked out:
"Let her drop!"
Also included among linguistically-based jokes are those in which the centre is a word or
locution identical as far as its meaning is concerned in adults' and children's speech, but differing
considerably in its referential application. The point is that grown-ups and children may use quite
different yard-sticks to evaluate a thing's usefulness, luckiness, goodness, and so forth:
(40) "My sister is awfully lucky," said one little boy to another.
"She went to a party last night where they played a game in which the men either had to kiss a
girl or pay a forfeit of a box of chocolates."
"Well, how was your sister lucky?"
"She came home with thirteen boxes of chocolates."
As children's speech may strikingly reveal, people (and youngsters are "people" too) using" the
same name for the same object can identify it on the basis of quite different features. Most
unexpected bases of identification are found in children's speech. Hence numerous jokes cente-
ring around definitions made by children such as the following one:
(41) Teacher — "Alfred, you may spell the word neighbour."
Alfred—"N-e-i-g-h-b-o-u-r." Teacher — "That's right. Now, Tommy, can you tell me what a
neighbour is?"
Tommy —"Yes, ma'am. It's a woman that borrows things."
Not aware of certain social taboos and conventions, children can unconsciously infringe, in their
speech, upon boundaries between the accepted and the non-accepted, the decent and the
indecent, the conventional and the unconventional. Taboos in modern society are numerous. In
this part, only linguistically interesting anecdotes are included. In particular, they cover the
following violations of accepted usage:
a. The application of low-ranked (on the stylistic scale), usually highly colloquial items to
objects to which, by convention, they are not applied. See, for instance, the following joke:
(43) Father criticized the sermon, mother disliked the blunders of the organist, and the eldest
daughter thought the choir's singing atrocious.
The subject had to be dropped when the small boy of the family, with the schoolboy's love of fair
play, chipped in with remark:
"Dad, I think it was a good show for a penny."
b. The inclusion of words and locutions "borrowed" from various "adults' " technical
vocabularies into everyday speech, as in
(44) Three-year-old Nancy was a radio fan. Nancy listened with rapt attention to everything —
music, speeches, and station announcements.
One night she knelt to say her "Now I lay me." At the end she paused a moment, and then said:
"Tomorrow night at this time there will be another prayer."
The above process can also be regarded as a case of a more general one, namely the mixture of
styles. Not yet fully conscious of stylistic distinctions, children can use stylistically incompatible
words indiscriminately:
(45) A boy was asked by his history teacher to tell the story of Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter
"Well," said the movie-nurtured modern boy, "the queen was hopping out of her taxi, and Sir
Walter Raleigh spread his coat in front of her and said, "Step on it, baby."
A discussion of age differentiation in language competence and performance as displayed and
used in humorous literature of the examined type would be incomplete, I think, if we left out
linguistic beliefs and attitudes characterstic of children. Like some of our ancestors not
sophisticated in linguistic matters, children are apt to consider names as immanent properties of
objects, and a number of jokes reflect this stage in children's thinking. The following example, it
seems likely, is not altogether fictional:
(46) "What is your new brother's name?"
Little Jane — "I don't know yet. We can't understand a word he says."

Differences in pronunciation observed in language performance can be diverse and form an
intrinsic feature of the speech of every language user. However, not all such differences fall
within the scope of linguistic theory. Linguistically (and "linguistically" here implies also
"socially"), only those features of enunciation are significant which mark the individual's speech
as characteristic of a particular language community and/or which can be interpreted as
symptomatic of regional, social, professional or age variations.
One of the commonest assumptions of folk-linguistics is that only one's native language or
dialect is "correct" and capable of fulfilling efficiently the role for which language is intended,
whatever that may be. Naturally, this general attitude is extended into matters of pronunciation.
Hence the assumption of the "goodness" of one's pronunciation as representative of the
pronunciation of the speaker's language community. The attitudes of speakers of a particular
language towards themselves as users of this language and to all others with alien speech are
reflected in many ethnonyms (cf. barbaric going back ultimately to Greek barbarikos, from
bdrbaros "foreign, especially non-Greek speaking; rude" assumed to be originally used in
reference to unintelligible speech) and often in their etymologizing (cf. the establishment of
semantic and etymological connections between German deutsch "German" and deutlich
"distinct (of speech)" in folk etymology, contrary to historical linguistic reality). Although such
an opinion now can often be considerably modified and assessments are devoid of extremities
characteristic of the past, nevertheless features of pronunciation alien to one's pattern of speech
can appear funny, at best, and, accordingly, can be ridiculed. (Naturally in jokes a generally
humorous attitude towards pronunciation distinctions is" reflected.) Speakers of one regional
variety of English, say American English, can perceive with a smile the peculiar phonetics of a
speaker of another regional variety. The same can be observed in connection with territorial
differences in prounciation as well as in connection with distinctions between the literary
standard speech and the vernacular. Unhappy, stylizations of pronunciation imitating features
of enunciation alien to the speaker or situationally inappropriate can also appear funny.
What has been mentioned above refers to differences in form, in this case, the way speech
sounds. Differences in pronunciation can also entail the confusion of words or the emergence of
word associations resulting from phonetic similarity. If, as a result of a semantic reinterpretation
of the utterance, the projected situation is in discrepancy with the original one and the
personages appear in a funny light, idiosyncracies in pronunciation may trigger humorous effect.

It seems appropriate to begin the discussion of lexical means in the generation of humour by
stressing one of the most general properties of the word, namely, the arbitrariness of appellation,
the absence of a natural connection between things, properties, etc., and their linguistic
designations. This fundamental property of human language serves as the basis for numerous
jokes. Here is one of the possible ways in which this property is used.
When the actual meaning of a word is unknown to a person and he is unaware of the fact, the
word can be handled by such a person in complete contradiction to its actual meaning and
normal usage:
(47) Father — "Why were you kept in at school?" Son — "I didn't know where the Azores
were." . Father — "Well, in the future just remember where you put things."

Multiplicity of Referential Connections

Because of the highly abstract nature of man's language, words express concepts which can be
referred to an infinite number of things, events, features, etc., giving rise to the possibility of
ambiguity. In actual discourse the ambiguity is usually resolved or, rather, it does not arise, as
the speakers have the same particular things, etc. in mind because of the commonality of the
situation/environment they are in, their experience, etc. It is highly illuminating for the
understanding of language as the most effective means of communication and of the way people
use this tool, to observe how in the process of communication the scope of feasible referents is
momentarily and imperceptibly narrowed to but one, how the communicants concentrate on
that held in common, leaving outside the focus of their attention a host of other traits, insignif-
icant for this particular act of discourse.
Ambiguity arises when communicants using the same words mean different things. In the joke
quoted below a scholar and a schoolgirl associate "study" and "astronomy" with diverse and
opposing referents.
(48) A high-school girl, seated next, to a famous astronomer at a dinner party, struck up a
conversation with him by asking.
"What do you do in life?"
He replied, "1 study astronomy."
"Dear me," said the girl "I finished astronomy last
Generally, it is possible here to argue whether "study" and "astronomy" as used in the joke are
each associated with one or two meanings. Of course, to study a subject at school is something
different from scholarly study carried out by a scientist. But the labelling of the fact is secondary
in importance in comparison to the establishment of ambiguity. If we call this polysemy, the
example could just as easily be placed among jokes based on this feature of a word's semantic
structure. Here, however, is an example of indubitable multiplicity of referential connections:
(49) An English bishop received the following note from the vicar of a village in his diocese:
"My Lord, I regret to inform you of the death of my wife. Can you possibly send me a substitute
for the weekend?"
Multiplicity of referential connections is particularly characteristic of pronouns because of their
highly abstract nature. A great number of jokes are based on the referential ambiguity of
pronouns. Here is one of the type:
(50) A kindergarten teacher, wishing to test the general knowledge of her class, laid a 50-cent
piece on her desk and asked, -
"Can anyone tell me what this is?"
A small boy in the first row leaned forward, examined the coin, and promptly answered: "Tails!"

Without dwelling at length on this rather well-known subject, I would like only to mention that
apart from true homonyms, there are homonoids, in particular, homo-phonoids — words which
can be taken, because of considerable phonetic similarity, for homonyms, as manifested by jokes
like the following:
(51) "This morning”said the teacher of an early Sunday school class, ”the subject of the lesson
is Ruth the gleaner. Who can tell me anything about Ruth?"
A small boy raised his hand.
"Well, Willie, what do you know about Ruth?" said the teacher encouragingly. And Willie piped
out in a shrill little voice:
"He cleaned up sixty home runs in one season."
In the above case, two different words are brought together on the basis of a wrong phonetic
interpretation of one of them.
In the example below, two other different and etymologically unrelated words are brought
together due to a false etymology.
(52) After looking over his son's report card, father said:
"Bob, if you had a little more spunk, you'd stand better in your grades. And by the way, do you
know what spunk is?"
"Sure, Dad. It's the past participle of spank."
The two different processes connected with different facets of words and word relationships
have a common result — the envisaging of homonyms where they are actually not available.

Some Other Lexicological Notes

As the material under investigation seems to reveal, a word, not only as a vocabulary entry but
also in its actual use, can signal in a single realization within one utterance more than one lexical
meaning. It is hard to ascribe the feature 'primary' — 'secondary' to any of these meanings unless
we agree to associate these characteristics with time, because the two meanings do not appear
simultaneously. While one meaning (this can be given the conventional label 'primary') appears
as soon as the word is used in the utterance and so linearly and/or chronologically comes first in
the discourse, the other (conventionally, 'secondary') acquires its psycholinguistic reality only in
"afterthought", as the result of a recursive mental movement to the original lexical unit. This
move is prompted by relevant environmental or other associative stimuli. So the two meanings
exist in duality. They are based on such oppositions as "abstract vs concrete", "proper vs
common", "phraseological vs free". Here is an example to illustrate the point:
(53) In an argument, the best weapon to hold is the tongue.
Sometimes when the differentiating environment is not spatially separated, as in the above
example, it is difficult "to ascribe the feature 'prirnary'/'secondary' to either of the two meanings
differentiated in accordance with the indexes "abstract vs concrete", "proper.vs common",
"phraseological vs free," Cf. for instance the following joke:
(54) Being a taxi driver is one of the pleasahtest of jobs... you're always running into nice
It seems it would be correct to suppose that one of the two appears earlier but exactly which one
is not easy to determine. Besides, with different people, depending on their previous experience,
their frame of mind - the significance of the degree to which a person's sense of humour has been
developed, etc., the 'choice' of meaning may be a variable.
Some types of phraseological units are functionally equivalent to words and it is only natural that
the way phraseological units are used in jokes is similar to that of words, polysemantic and
homonymic. One of the common facetious uses of phraseological units is based on ambiguity.
The point is that phraseological units have homonyms in the form of free syntactic combinations
of identical surface structure. In case such a structure is used in speech ambiguity is available
and this can be used in the traditional manner to produce humorous effect:
(55) She — "You're the nicest boy that I have ever met."
He —"Tell it to the Marines."
She — "I have — to dozens of them."
A phraseological unit, like a word, can be polysemantic, that is, a particular word combination
can be endowed with more than one phraseological meaning. So in this case the phraseological
meanings are sufficient to produce ambiguity without resorting to the nonphraseological ones as
(56) Auto Salesman — "Yes, sir, this car is absolutely the very last word."
Customer — "Good, I'll take it. My wife loves it."
There are also some specific uses of units belonging to the phraseological stock of language such
as the witty alteration of a phraseological unit (particularly characteristic of proverbs):
(57) A friend who isn't in need is a friend indeed the use of a phraseological unit with an appeal
to its literal meaning:
(58) He (at 11 P. M.) — "Did you know I could imitate any bird you can name?"
She — "No, I didn't. Can you imitate a homing pigeon?"
the implicational use of (part of) a phraseological unit:
(59) At Columbia, a warning bell sounds three minutes before the end of a classroom hour.
Edman was lecturing on Santayana one afternoon when the warning bell sounded, and several
students stirred in their seats.
"Just a moment, gentlemen," said Edman. "That was not the final bell: 1 wish to cast a few more

Polysemy of Syntactic Constructions
Syntactic constructions whose components differ in their deep structural interpretation assume
to be polysemantic. Consider, for instance, the noun phrase a beautiful singer. The adjective
beautiful is endowed here, due to a specific character of the derivational history of singer, with
two such meanings. In one, the property of beauty is attributed to the object, in the other, to the
object's activity. The structural polysemy of such an adjective forms the linguistic foundation of
the following joke in which the misunderstanding arises because the interlocutors ascribe dif-
ferent structural interpretations to one and the same construction:
(60) "But you said she sang beautifully."
"No, I didn't."
"What did you say?"
"I said she was a beautiful singer."

Homonymy of Syntactic Constructions

There are many syntactic constructions which, although identical in their surface structure, differ
in the relations and/or syntactic functions of their components. The result is the ambiguity of
such constructions in discourse. Elsewhere I have outlined certain types of ambiguous syntactic
constructions. On the basis of that discussion the distinction between the following two types
seems to be valid for present purposes. The two constructions in question are:
a. Syntactic constructions whose components differ as to syntactic function and/or their syntactic
relations. Consider, for example, the noun group with componential structure N3's N2 N in the
anecdote given below. The group allows of two interpretations depending on the choice of
connections within the group, namely camel's (hair (brush)) and (camel's(hair)) brush:
(61) "Papa, is this a camel's hair brush?" "Yes, my child, that's a camel's hair brush." "Golly,
papa, it must take him a terribly long time to brush himself."
b. Syntactic constructions with diverse class/subclass nature of the components. Take for
instance the following anecdote:
(62) "Daddy, what's a 'feebly'?" "A 'feebly'?" "Yes, Daddy." "How is it used?"
"Why, here in this book it says, 'The man had a feebly growing down on his chin' "
in which the phrase a feebly growing is ambiguous since it allows of two structural
interpretations, Det A N and Det N Ving. However, this is only when the phrase is written. In
oral speech, the nature of the juncture between feebly and growing prevents any
misunderstanding. Humour due to syntactic homonymy is common in advertisement columns.
Trying to be brief, the editor or author can produce homonymic, if often only in print, sentences
such as the following:
(63) "Wanted a smart woman who can wash, iron and milk cows"
(64) "For Sale, a piano, by a widowed lady with carved legs."


Language is a system in which the redundance of items is inherent. However, in most cases
redundance is not absolute. Since a linguistic item is a multifaceted phenomenon, a particular
item can be both redundant within one subsystem and at the same time functionally significant as
part of another subsystem. Consider, for instance, verbs which denote the act or the process of
dying (die, depart, decease, kick the bucket, croak) or the different means for the expression of
the plural of nouns. The former are redundant when viewed as designators of the said act or
process, and the latter, as expressors of the grammatical meaning of plurality. At the same time,
the respective series of items are not redundant stylistically.
Stylistic differentiation of linguistic units, at least in the province of the lexicon, is not formally
expressed and is determined solely by usage. This fact has important consequences for the
generation of humour. The absence of structural limitations on the use of a stylistically marked
item in contrast with the usage conventionally established for it makes possible the transference
of such a unit into an environment stylistically alien to it. The contrast between the actual
situation and the situation associatively generated by the use of a stylistically alien item can have
a comical effect, particularly if the two situations, actual and projected, are incompatible or
radically disparate.
(65) "When Lot's wife looked back," said the Sunday-school teacher, "what 'happened to her?"
"She was transmuted into chloride of sodium," answered the boy with the goggles.

Bon Mots
The bon mots included in the book are also linguistically based. Unlike an anecdote, which is in
itself a piece of literature with a narrative, a plot, and fictional or anecdotal characters, bon mots
are simply apt, witty sayings. That which usually precedes them is merely intended to show, the
reader/listener the situation in which the bon mot was produced so that he may fully appreciate
The aptness of a bon mot lies primarily in the novelty or unexpectedness of the saying. A bon
mot violates the conventional mode of statement sanctified by linguistic tradition and,
accordingly, shatters, as it were, our vision of reality patterned by traditional linguistic usages.
The interpretation of reality offered by such a bon mot is true to life, if unconventionally
expressed. This alloy of unexpectedness and aptness constitutes the essence of the boh mot.
One of the common ways of coining bon mots of the outlined type is what may be called
reversion. If reversed, two items of a unit exchange positions. Cf. the following joke:
(66) A scriptwriter was describing a scene to film director Mike Curtiz when Curtiz cut in to tell
him how the scene should be played. The writer tried to go on, but Curtiz held up his hand.
"Please don't talk while I'm interrupting," he snapped.
The unit within which reversion takes place can be a simple or complex sentence, a phrase, or a
word. The items of such a unit, then, range from words to morphemes and even phonemes.
Reversion can involve more than a couple of items:
(67) Paderewski, the famous pianist, once praised a young society man who was distinguished
as a polo player for his clever playing.
The young man said it was different indeed from Paderewski's performance.
"Oh," answered Paderewski, "the difference between us is perfectly clear. You are a dear soul
who plays polo, while I am a poor Pole who plays solo."
Another type of bon mot is exemplified by the following joke:
(68) "Call that a kind man," said an actor, speaking of an absent acquaintance; "a man who is
away from his family and never sends them a farthing! Call that kindness!"
"Yes, unremitting kindness," Jerrold replied.
Here, as in the above case, the bon mot appeals to the perceiver because of its unexpectedness
and, at the same time, its soundness. The linguistic means of attaining this is, however, of a
different sort. It is confluence. Two or more contentially distinct but homophonic linguistic items
expressing completely unrelated ideas have come to be applicable or relevant to the same
Still another type of bon mot is a "catching-up remark" centered around a linguistic unit
extracted from a previous utterance/text and applied to an entirely different situation or
interpreted in a different sense with reference to the same situation. (In the latter Case, it is
possible that the unit is not actually present in the catching-up remark.) 'Extracting' is perhaps
not the best word for the process because the central unit of the catching-up remark is identical
only phonetically to the linguistic unit in the previous utterance; in the catching-up remark the
same form is endowed with a different semantic content. From this it is clear that such bon mots
are based on the use of homonyms and polysemantic words. Here are examples:
(69) Judge Ben B. Lindsey was lunching one day — it was a very hot day — when a politician
paused beside his table, "fudge," said he, "I see you're drinking coffee. That's a heating drink. In
this weather you want to drink iced drinks, Judge — sharp iced drinks. Did you ever try gin and
ginger ale?"
"No," said the Judge, smiling, "but I have tried several fellows who have."
(70) A drunken Congressman said to Horace Greeley one day: "I am a sell-made man."
"Then, sir," replied Greeley, "this fact relieves the Almighty of a great responsibility."
Jokes and bon mots are not rigidly distinct from one another. A bon mot can be, and actually
often is, the centre of a joke. (The same can be true of jokes and riddles, many of which are
mutually convertible.)
Linguistic means of humour vary widely and the foregoing discussion was only meant to serve
as an attempt at a brief outline of some of these means.
The exploration of linguistic humour is rewarding to many scholarly ends. It seems extremely
promising for the study of some aspects of the nature of humans particularly if viewed in their
distinction from other species. Take for instance the study of the structure and semantics of
language, this unique characteristic with which only humans are endowed. The exploration of the
linguistic mechanism of humour enables the analyst to discover many finer points of language
structure and semantics overlooked in previous linguistic research and to give a new assessment
to familiar linguistic facts. In particular the study of humour has brought to light the variety of
linguistic means of production of ambiguity and necessitates it to reconsider the role of
ambiguity in communication by means of language. Ambiguity is an important attribute of
language. In some uses of language, it is as essential and indispensable as unambiguity in others.
Previously in this chapter I mentioned the possibility of different reactions of individuals to one
and the same event. In particular the diversity of the reaction of film viewers towards what is
being shown on the screen was noted. There are reasons for, thinking that these and similar
differences associated with humour indicate not so much distinct personal qualities of people as
differences of cultures, namely the differences of cultures with regard to what is considered
funny and whether (and, if yes, within what social condition) one's personal humorous view may
be made public.
There is another important and interesting point bearing, now, on human thought, prompted by
the study of humour, which was raised by Chafe. He (in correspondence) suggested that the
resolution of ambiguity in jokes (bringing the psychological aspect of the matter to the
foreground he refers to what he, tentatively, calls "the 'distruction of expectation' phase") "seems
usually to contain a way of looking at things that is unusual or bizarre. It assumes a world that is
different from the way one normally assumes the world to be. It also seems likely that this new,
strange world should be one in which things are especially interesting — for one reason or ano-
I would like to conclude with a paraphrase of Habbard's remarks to the effect "Don't take life too
seriously or you will never scramble out of it alive." In the same vein, I would like to propose:
"Don't take humour too seriously or you risk losing the precious ability to enjoy it." Of course,
this dictum itself certainly should not be taken too seriously either.
Humour as a pedagogical tool in foreign language and translation courses.

The use of humor in language courses, in addition to making classes more enjoyable, can
contribute to improving students' proficiency. Humor is useful for the development of listening
comprehension and reading.
Learners and tyro translators should deal first with the relatively straightforward universal
humor, continue with cultural humor, which demands more of learners and translators, and
finally deal with linguistic humor that offers serious challenges to students of foreign languages
and translation. The study of humor presents translators with the opportunity to exercise their
creativity. Word-based or linguistic humor serves as a test of what can and cannot be translated
and may entail a change in script if the "new" humorous discourse is to evoke laughter or at least
a smile on the part of the target language audience. Humor is part of virtually most social
encounters; the use of humor and wit is intimately related to human nature. Humorous statements
are speech acts that have different functions in spoken and written discourse.
some involve social satire, a play on words, while others have as their target, criticism of either
men or women or a particular group, nation or race. I will use the cover term “humorous
discourse” to refer to a variety of texts that are related but have often subtle differences: jokes,
jests, witticisms, quips, quipsels, sallies, cracks, wisecracks, gags, puns, retorts, riddles, one
Sigmund Freud's pioneering study on humor in which a distinction is made between
"tendentious" and "nontendentious humor", the former being that which is "derogatory or
ridiculing and that masks themes of hostility or aggression” whereas the later, "void of hostility,
is more playful and innocent in character". The first can also be referred to as “destructive
humor” and the second is “constructive humor”. There are, however, problems when it is a
question of making use of some humorous material, particularly in high school and, possibly in
university classrooms.

The use of humor in the English as a Foreign Language and Foreign Language Classroom
I propose the use of humorous material in written and oral form as input in language classrooms.
But this procedure, however, does not exclude other uses of humor uch as the use of “personal
anecdote or story related to the subject/topic”, “some form of verbal comedy” or “a brief
humorous comment directed at national or world events, personalities, or at popular culture”. In
this stance the instructor herself tries to be spontaneously humorous and does not depend on the
presentation of oral and written material. It would appear that the American high school teachers
in experiment were not foreign language teachers. Although the author does not inform his
readers about the specific disciplines taught by the teachers who participated in the experiment, I
conjecture that the courses were conducted (in English) to native speakers of the language in the
social and natural sciences. Many of these procedures obviously would not be of use to foreign/
second language teachers until, perhaps the advanced stages of learning. teachers use humor as a
way of putting students at ease, as an attention-getter, as a way of showing that the teacher is
human, as a way to keep the class less formal, and to make learning more fun.”
Humor provides teachers and students with the opportunity for a respite from the formally
assigned text material. Since humor in most societies occurs at specific moments or situations in
social interactions, it would be best for teachers to maintain a file of humorous texts for use at
specific moments in the language classroom. Learning another language is indeed hard work and
requires a great deal of effort on the part of the learners. Humorous material can add variety to
the class, providing a change of pace, and can contribute to reducing tension that many learners
feel during the learning process. But the use of humorous texts in classes should be planned by
the teacher. It should give learners the impression of being spontaneous but yet be an integral
part of the course instrumental in building language skills, and never an incidental or “by the
way” activity. In order to increase the lexical competence of students as rapidly as possible, the
vocabulary that is part of humorous material could be introduced prior to the presentation of
humorous material. All the vocabulary that is presented and eventually learned as part of the
course would be included in the evaluation of progress. In this way, humor in the language
classroom would be “no laughing or joking matter” and hopefully would be taken seriously.

I feel humorous discourse in the form of anecdotes, jokes, puns and quips should be introduced
from the initial stage of language instruction and continued throughout the language program. To
be sure, the humorous material has to be selected to fit the linguistic competence of the students.
It is important for students of foreign languages to know what types of discourse native speakers
consider to be humorous or "funny" or downright hilarious. It is important also to identify
appropriate texts that provoke laughter or at least a smile on the part of native speakers. The
earlier students are introduced to authentic language input, to different styles of speech and to
speakers of different ages, sex, socio-cultural level and from different regions, the less artificial
or "classroom-like" their output will be.
One objection that might be leveled at the proposal made in this part is that it is a mere
reflection on the use of humor in the classroom rather than an empirical study of humor with
actual trials in school contexts. To be sure, it would indeed be useful to conduct experiments in
different classroom settings in different parts of the world with humorous discourse, focusing on
the three types of humor outlined above. Such a project would indeed be the subject of another
paper. The present study might be viewed as a plea for empirical research. There is, without any
doubt, a need for research on the use of humor in language classrooms, but until there are
sufficient studies based on experiments with humor in different teaching situations, with
different levels of proficiency, different target and source languages, in different countries, most
of the proposals and recommendations will perforce be based on practical experience with humor
and classroom teaching.
In elementary courses, the instructor who wants to use humor is of course restricted by the
limited competence of the students. The early introduction of humor makes it necessary to
provide students as soon as possible with appropriate vocabulary. Bearing in mind that the
students at this stage are far from being proficient, only universal humor is appropriate for it
would in most cases be expected that the linguistic and cultural jokes are beyond the level of
competence of the students. In beginning courses, at least towards the end of the semester, the
teacher may introduce “quips”, that is, "smart" answers or retorts to the questions or statements
as presented in the example:

(a) Are you fishing?

No, just drowning worms?
(b) I don’t like the flies in here.
Well, come around to tomorrow. We’ll have some new ones.
(c) Last week I went fishing and all I got was a sunburn, poison ivy and mosquito bites.
(d) Gee, Dad, that’s a swell fish you caught. Can I use it as bait?
(e) Are you fishing? No, just drowning worms.
(f) Do fish grow fast? Sure. Every time my Dad mentions the one that got away, it grows
another foot.

In (a) the irony of the situation is that no fish were caught, but the narrator gained experience in
dealing with the hard realities of nature. In (b) a young man ridicules the size of the fish his
father caught by asking whether or not he could use it for bait. In (c) the answer to the “stupid”
question is a sarcastic remark. In (d) the answer to the query about whether fish grow fast is the
retort provided by a son whose father always exaggerates the size of those fish that escaped. The
humorous texts in exapmle deal with real world situations, human behavior (lying, exaggerating,
bragging and asking obvious questions). For learners there are no language internal or linguistic
problems in “getting” the humor of these texts. The material in example can be presented as
reading, used as dictation or as a brief listening - comprehension activity.
The advanced level: humor at is best
Linguistic or word-based humor and the cultural joke should be exploited fully at the advanced
An example of a linguistic-based joke which takes advantage of the polysemy of word still
would be appropriate at this level of proficiency.

Wife: “Do you love me still?”

Husband: “I might if you’d stay still long enough."

Those foreign learners of English who have not developed language awareness or "word
sensitivity" will no doubt fail to see the humor in the situation in which a wife wishes to be
assured that her husband continues to love her and in another situation in which the husband
states that he can only make love to his wife provided she remain in one place for a specific
period of time. Some students, particularly "false" intermediate students, fail to "get" this type of
joke owing to lack of awareness that a single word can signal different meanings.
Students need massive amounts of vocabulary in order to feel confident that they can understand
some or all of the exchanges that they hear and also have the opportunity to employ their
vocabulary in real situations. A good example of a linguistic-based joke, quite difficult for many
learners is joke below. Many learners of English will not find the joke to be funny at all due to
their lack of vocabulary and experience punning.:

What is the difference between stabbing a man and killing a hog? One is assaulting with intent
to kill and the other is killing with intent to salt.

This joke demands a great deal of lexical competence on the part of learners for they have to
cope with the play on the word salt and the contrast "killing with intent to salt" and "assaulting
with intent to kill." Many learners who are native speakers of languages that do not have this
type of humor fail to find this type of joke to be amusing, and as a result consider this exchange
and others like them to be silly or even stupid. Puns and plays of words are characteristic of
English and part of the culture. Those students who continue their study of English and embark
on the reading, for example, of Shakespeare’s plays will encounter large numbers of puns and if
they are to appreciate the Bard’s plays they must understand this humor and attempt to see
humorous discourse, as far as possible, as the playwright’s audiences did.
In order to help students cope with humorous discourse it is important to present the vocabulary
along with the different readings or possible scripts. It would appear that those who fail to
understand a specific joke have difficulty in seeing that there exists a misunderstanding due to
the introduction of another script on the part of the participants in the joke narrative. Word power
is basic to the comprehension of humorous discourse, but I would also contend that “humor
competence and joke competence” are also essential. Learners do not always develop joke and
humor competence in a foreign language immediately but with sufficient input in the form of
humorous texts this competence can be nurtured for steady development during the course of
Another type of pun, the conundrum, is also appropriate at the advanced level. This type is more
difficult for foreign language learners for they involve reference to two different meanings of a
word or a play on two different word meanings.
(a) When is a boat like a heap of snow?
When it’s adrift.
(b) When does a cabbage beat a beet in growing?
When it gets ahead.
(c) Why is the attorney like a minister?
Because he studies the law and the profits.
(d) If there are two flies in the kitchen, which one is the cowboy?
The one on the range.
(e) What part of the fish weighs the most?
The scales.
English has a large stock of phonological jokes that bring together different meanings of a
specific word or relate different word sense that sound alike. In (a, b, c) the learners have to
know about the existence of snow drifts and boats adrift, about cabbages that come in “heads”,
that is, a head of cabbage, a head of lettuce as distinguished from winning a competition, beating
someone in a game or contest, that is “getting ahead”. In addition, there is a play on the
homophony between beat as a verb with the meaning to defeat and beet as a noun referring to a
type of vegetable. In (c) the humor derives from the contrast of two homophones in English,
namely, profits (the unexpected or surprise remark) and prophets (the expected one). A foreign
language learner will not perceive (d) as a humorous texts unless he knows that “ cowboys work
on the range” while the flies in the kitchen are lighting on “the (gas) range”. Joke (e) can bring a
smile to those who know that in English fish have scales and that objects are weighed with the
use of scales.
Beyond the advanced level
Many learners of English as a foreign language who travel to the USA and many Americans who
study foreign languages in high school or college and visit foreign countries have difficulty in
understanding jokes when they hear them in actual conversational exchanges, while watching
television or seeing a film. However, in my view, if those students had had the opportunity to
listen to humorous material in the classroom or in the language laboratory, they would have been
better “listeners”. Those students who are willing listeners make more progress in their foreign
language course than those who avoid opportunities to hear jokes and puns. Another
accomplishment for language learners is to be able to tell a joke to a native speaker. The ability
to tell a joke, to be a good storyteller, on the part of the learner permits the bonding of speaker
and listener, of joke teller with joke receiver or listener. (I remember my own feeling of elation
as a high school student when I was able to tell a joke to native speakers and have them actually
laugh at the joke.) Understanding a joke is one thing, but telling one is indeed another and this
competence may not occur until students have been truly " advanced" students for quite some
time. If foreign language learners are to become proficient in the day- to- day use of the target
language, they need to develop strategies to get involved in conversational interactions. Some
speakers are very competent joke tellers while others are hopeless and cannot remember even a
single joke. Humorous material in the foreign language should be available for those students
who have the potential as language learners to tell a joke. But humorous material should also be
available for those learners who are reluctant to tell jokes but would like to understand them
when they appear in interactions.

Humorous discourse in the translation class.

Before I examine in more detail the question of whether or not humorous discourse can be
translated from one language to another, I want to present, first of all, some remarks about recent
developments in translation studies and, secondly, to argue a case for the utilization of texts that
involve humor in translation and interpretation courses.
Deconstruction and post-structural theories refute the traditional view of translation that attempts
to search for original meanings in texts. An original work, in the traditional view, is superior to
any translation; the task of the translator is viewed as being inferior or secondary to that of the
original author. It is the translator's task, in this traditional view, to protect the meaning of the
original and deliver it “as best as he/she can”. Translators, in this conception, can never be
"perfect" and never aspire to be better than the original text in the source language. These
essentialist or logocentric views have influenced translation theory for over two thousand years.
Deconstruction and post-structural views of language in addition question as well the notion of
Deconstructionalists argue that translators are never, in reality, faithful to the original although
many of them may believe that they are. When it comes down to translating a pun that is
language-dependent or language specific such as in the example:

The Dark Ages were so named because the period was full of knights.

It is not a question of respecting original versions or ferreting about for original or “sacred”
meanings. Rather, in a translation of the example above to another language, it is the practical
question of finding specific (as in the case of the homonomy of knight/night in a specific target
language such as French or Portuguese that would contribute to creating a humorous effect in
those languages. The lack of the same play on words, knight/night and dark (= lack of light) and
Dark Ages (= lack of learning, obscurantism) forces the translator to find another script with a
different set of homonyms in order to try at least to obtain a humorous effect in other languages.
Obviously, the pun will not be “same” nor is there any guarantee that the response on the part of
the listeners to the humor will be the “same” as in the case of the source language joke.
Translation of humor is indeed a challenge and highly creative for the translators must know the
target and source language and culture extremely well.

The cultural joke: will it be humorous after translation?

Cultural jokes are language specific and are often a challenge for translators. Many of them do
not “translate” well and would obviously not be humorous to native speakers of the target
language. For example, the question in joke "We'd like to know if he's bullish or bearish right
now” and the punchline.” Right now I'd say he's sheepish” are probably untranslatable into other
languages. The translator would have to find another joke, that is, a different joke with no doubt
another scenario and frame.
Another type of cultural joke examined earlier in this part is that which is demeaning to a
specific profession or trade. Jokes about lawyers in general offer no serious problem in
translation, but may not be humorous in a culture that does not relish "poking fun" or feel the
need to criticize members of the legal profession.
A good example “Everyone in my family follows the medical profession,” noted Smith.
“They’re lawyers.”
The jokes from the third group, the "linguistic" or language based ones are indeed difficult or
impossible to translate. An example from this group that resist translation is joke above:

What is the difference between stabbing a man and killing a hog? One is assaulting with intent
to kill and the other is killing with intent to salt.

Insofar as all translation begins as an exercise in reading, the study of punning can be used
during the first stage of the learning process to make students aware of how meanings can be
construed and misconstrued.
In conclusion, I have made a case in this part for the use of humor as a pedagogical tool in
language classes. have also contended that students of translation should likewise be exposed to
humorous discourse as part of their training. In the course of my remarks, I have claimed that
linguistic humor offers a greater challenge to translators than non-linguistic humor. It would
appear to be no accident that it is the linguistic-based humor rather than the non-linguistic that
presents more difficulties for both language learners and translators.
Psychological Context of Joke-telling
People talk because they have ideas and feelings to express. If the listener can get or infer the
speaker’s deep motives, it will be of great help for them to enhance cooperation during the
conversation. So, in a broad sense, the psychologizing of people’s speech is also an approach to
the investigation of the context of discourse. This is also true of jokes’ sending and receiving.
That is why I spare much space here to discuss the psychological factors in joke-telling.
Jokes, which are actually a special type of topic, must be injected appropriately in talks or
conversations. We know from our experiences that certain jokes only bring laughter to certain
group of people, and that some jokes can only be exchanged among very close friends, still few
could be mentioned in public, and some jokes may even offend the audience if the senders have
no idea of their psychological background. Therefore, to probe the subtle motives of joking from
the psychological aspect becomes essential and helpful.
Since people could form and understand words, they have been used to telling and listening to
jokes. Relatives, friends, and colleagues often greet each other with their latest jokes. When we
reminisce about important individuals in our life, we may remind ourselves of the particular
jokes they have told us.
Probably many people may recognize on intuition that many ideas and emotions that we human
beings fail to express directly can be communicated through the medium of jokes. Freud had his
statement: “The joke will evade restrictions and open sources of pleasure that have become
Our reasons for telling jokes are many—“strong bids for love and appreciation, a means of
coping with anxiety, a disguised way of expressing erotic and hostile wishes, satisfying
exhibitionism, and much more.”
In the following pages efforts are made to discuss what deep feelings people wish to express
while telling jokes, and particularly to demonstrate how unconscious fantasies, wishes, defenses,
and superego injunctions are shown in jokes.

Defy Superiorit
One of the most miserable conditions that afflicting a human being is the feeling of being
inferior or inadequate. When people perceive themselves as less intelligent, less attractive, less
successful than those about them, they tend to be depressed and agitated.
Our sense of humor, however, strengthens our ability to cope with this condition. We all derive a
salient satisfaction from the exercise of ridiculing our superiors because it allows us to throw off
the feeling of inferiority instilled in us. In showing them up as stupid, selfish, mean or conceited,
or in creating a fantasy wherein the victors become the victims, we provide ourselves with a
moment of respite from our subordinated condition. Please read the following example:

Mr. Cohen and Mr. Brown commuted from New Rochelle to New York City every day for
twenty years, although they noticed each other daily, they never exchanged any greeting.
Finally, Mr. Cohen approached Mr. Brown and said, “Mister, for tventy years we go back and
forth on the same train. Vy we shouldn’t make friends?” with a contemptuous air and Harvard
accent, Brown replied, “My name is Brown, B-R-O-W-N-, Harvard, 1932, from the top of my
head to the bottom of my toes, the name is Brown. And my father’s name was Brown, B-R-O-W-
N, Yale, 1901. From the top of his head to the bottom of his toes, his name was Brown. And my
grandfather’s name was Brown, B-R-O-W-N, Princeton, 1877. From the top of his head to the
bottom of his toes, the name was Brown.” Cohen responds, “My name is Cohen, C-O-H-E-N,
Dubrovna, 1937. And my fodder’s name was Cohen, C-O-H-E-N, Minsk, 1912. And my zedeh’s
(grandfather’s) name was Cohen, C-O-H-E-N, Moscow, 1885. From the top of our heads to the
bottom of our toes, we are all vhite, except in one place, our asshole. There we are brown, b-r-o-

In the above case, the superior individual has not just been toppled from his perch; he has been
done in with his own weapons. Here is another variation on this theme:

The doctor’s wife is unable to sleep because the toilet is dripping. So she has her husband call
the plumber in the middle of the night. After listening to the problem on the phone, the plumber
grumpily declares, “But it’s 2 A.M.!”
“So what?” replies the doctor. “If your child was sick, wouldn’t you call me?”
“Yes,” mumbles the plumber. “You’re right. So I will tell you what to do. Throw a couple of
aspirins into the bowl and, if it doesn’t get better by morning, call me again.”

Many jokes derided an individual’s use of highfalutin language. Our pleasure in demeaning
someone trying to sound superior probably comes from our childhood when we felt small and
vulnerable, thus hostile or envious toward “bigger” people who used big words that made us feel
inferior. On occasion, the child in us wants to humiliate an individual who comes across as a
A newly arrived freshman at Princeton, an African-American, asks an upperclassman in the
quad, “Say, fella, can you tell me where the library’s at?” The Princetonian responds, “At
Princeton, we don’t end sentences with a preposition!” “Oh,” the freshman replies, “then can
you tell me where the library’s at, son of bitch?”

Break Restrictions and Norms

We live in various kinds of social bonds, restrictions or norms—the compulsion to act, think,
and feel in ways which are sanctioned by our group. The events of our lives conspire to siphon
the childish delight and freedom out of us as soon as we enter adulthood. Completing education,
establishing ourselves in society, getting married and raising a family, paying our bills,
becoming involved in social issues: all these actions and commitments rob us of our childish
Yet people try to defy these social bonds. One way is to tell jokes in which the heroes engage in
behavior that is deemed inappropriate, improper, or positively scandalous by their society. By
doing so, people get pleasure and find a vent to their repression. And something in us recalls the
bliss of the carefree spirit and delights in its reawakening.
Because rebelliousness of children emanating from their conflicts is a universal fact of life
causing conflict to adults, there are many jokes that have childhood rebellion as their major

Two boys about 12 years old were talking about how difficult home and school were, how no
one understood them at either place, and how much they wanted to chuck it all and run away.
Finally one of the boys blurted out, “Let’s do it. Let’s run away!” “Run away?” asked the
second boy, “our fathers will find us and beat the hell out of us.” “So,” replied the first
youngster, “we’ll hit them back.” “What? Hit your father? You must be crazy!” retorted the
friend. “Have you forgotten one of the most important of the Ten Commandments—always
honor your father and mother?” the initiator of the plot thought silently for a moment and then
suggested, “So you hit my father and I’ll hit yours.”

What is going on in the home can be surmised by children’s productions in the classroom.

A new teacher was eager to enrich the curriculum and decided to bring in hands-on experiences
for her first grade class. She brought in three kinds of meat and passed out small samples to
every child. When she asked if they recognizes the first sample, many hands went up to show
they knew it was pork. The second sample. Roast beef, got fewer hands but still a good response.
On the third sample, venison, the children chewed vigorously, but no one recognized deer meat.
Finally the teacher said, “I’ll give you a hint. What does your mother call your father?” One
youngster jumped up shouting. “Spit it out! Spit it out! It’s asshole!”

Although marriage or something akin to it has been an important institution in every known
society, there has never been a Golden Age of Marriage gleaming at us from our history.
Considering the enormous ambivalence that married individuals have toward each other, it
should not surprise us that jokes on marital conflict are in abundance.

A man visiting his wife’s grave sees a man at a grave sobbing hysterically, “Why did you die?
Why did you die?” the first man approaches and says, “I assume you are a relative of the
deceased?” The man answers, “No, I’m not,” but goes on crying, “Why did you die? Why did
you die?” Somewhat puzzled, he asks, “Then who is the deceased?” “It’s my wife’s first

Degradation and Mockery

According to Hobbes’s superiority theory of laughter, we laugh from “sudden glory” at the
pratfalls and errors of others because they enhance our feelings of superiority.
Degradation, for example, is the subject of certain category of jokes. Physical handicaps which
are the topic of “sick” jokes may well appeal to feeling of repressed sadism, while most western
societies possess a dimwitted underdog who is the butt of a whole subcategory of derogatory
jokes which possibly allow their recipients to give vent to equally repressed feelings of
superiority. The Irishman in England is transformed into a Belgian in France, a Portuguese in
Brazil and a Pole in the United States. All of them are victims of jokes in which they display
pure stupidity. The Polish captain in the following joke can be substituted by a captain of the
“inferior” group of one’s choice in order to adapt it to a non-American audience:

A Polish Airline passenger plane lands with difficulty on a modern runway just stopping short
of disaster. The Polish wipes his brow after successfully braking the plane. “Whew!” he says,
“that’s the shortest runway I’ve ever seen.”
“Yes”, says his copilot, looking wonderingly to his left and then to his right, “but it sure is

In considering the properties of a “good” joke, we may have noted that a major element in
virtually all jokes is that someone is being mocked. Freud (1905) in Jokes and Their Relation to
the Unconscious explained quite clearly why disguised hostility is frequently present in the
stories and anecdotes that make us laugh:
“Since our individual childhood, and similarly, since the childhood of human civilization, hostile
impulses against our fellow men have been subject to the same restrictions, the same progressive
repression, as our sexual urges. We have not yet got so far as to be able to love our enemies or to
offer our left cheek after being struck in the right…. Brutal hostility, forbidden by law, has been
replaced by verbal invective… (in utilizing) the technique of invective… we make our enemy
small, inferior, despicable, or comic, we achieve in a roundabout way the enjoyment of
overcoming him—to which the third person, who has made no efforts, bears witness by his
“We are now prepared to realize the part played by jokes in hostile aggressiveness. A joke will
allow us to exploit something ridiculous in our enemy, which we could not, on account of
obstacles in the way, bring forward openly or consciously; once again, then, the joke will evade
restrictions and open sources of pleasure that have become inaccessible.”
Jokes therefore give us a wonderful opportunity to express aggression in a concealed manner
toward all kinds of enemies. The following joke is alleged to have taken place in the House of
Parliament in England in the 1800s:

Prime Minister Disraeli and Lord Gladstone were archenemies who reveled in insulting each
other at any opportunity. Gladstone once taunted Disraeli by remarking, “I predict, sir, that you
will die on the gallows or from some heinous disease.” Disraeli replied, “That depends, my dear
sir, whether I embrace your principles or your mistress!”

Free from Moral Inhibitions

We will all agree with Freud’s idea of the child born free but who is forced into a state of
repression within months of birth if we consider that by playground age a child is ready to giggle
guiltily at a scurrilous remark.
Thus we come to learn that certain jokes (more usually called “dirty jokes”) we tell give us the
opportunity to break from our moral inhibitions.
Here is one joke concerning anal preoccupations, which we often harbor in the inner recess of
our hearts but seldom come out to others.

A drunk comes into a bar and says, “Shay, mister, where’s your men’s room?” The bartender,
annoyed that the man had bought his liquor elsewhere, says, “It’s in the back.” A moment later,
the drunk returns and says, “It’s locked.” “Oh, yeah,” says the bartender, “here’s the key.” The
tilting drunk says, “A key? A key to your men’s room? Why, my brother owned a bar for twenty
years, he didn’t have a key to his men’s room, and he never had one piece of shit stolen!”

In the process of growing up, no one is exempt from feeling envious. Boys envy girls and girls
envy boys. (Of course we envy our own gender, too.) Envy does not cease at the end of
childhood or adolescence; the competition between the sexes goes on at a feverish pace
throughout life. For example, jokes involving competitive sadism among men and women are

When Harry Cohen died, his wife called the New York Times to put in a death notice. She was
told she had a choice of fifteen words for $100 or seven words for $50. She chose the seven word
notice, and thought for a minute. “Harry Cohen is dead,” she began. The clerk gently reminded
her she had a total of seven words. Thinking again, she added, “Volvo for sale.”

But why do we smile in satisfaction, laugh in glee? What pleasure do we get from these jokes?
The truth is that we smile and laugh because we are found out, because we are touched at our
core, because the implicit message of the jokes ring true and enable us, “for a delicious, fleeting
moment, to stop pretending, stop striving and hoping and dreaming, and to fall back honestly
into our flesh and bones.”

Show off Wit

One of the features frequently characteristic of a joke is its riddlelike quality. Children
especially love to tell riddles. It gives them a wonderful opportunity to be in the driver’s seat, a
role usually proscribed by their elders. By telling jokes like riddles, people have the opportunity
to be the boss, ask question, and be the smart one who knows the answer, all at the same time!

Question: What does Madonna lack, the Pope has but doesn’t use,
and Arnold Schwarzenegger uses all the time?
Answer: A last name.

It is easy to conclude that if the teller and the listener have the similar psychological complex,
both of them will get a better appreciation of the joke and they will burst into simultaneous
laughter. Only then can the joke reach its climax of humorous effect. To some extent, this may
explain why certain jokes can bring hearty laughter to the audience while others only invite a
smile or a chuckle.
Pragmatic Approach

Jokes are live literature. We can not analyze them without referring to pragmatics. That is to say,
how do people plan jokes and try to make recipients laugh? And during the sending and
appreciating jokes, what rules or laws does the discourse follow? These are the problems to be
explained in this chapter.

The Sender’s Control of His Recipient

As we have noted, the inclusive meaning of joke embraces anything said or done that amuses,
while its specific meaning stands for an anonymous funny story. Also mentioned is the structure
of this most popular one of humorous stories. It is a brief single incident, a comic tale stripped of
all non-essential details. It usually begins with a situation, has no middle, and ends with a
surprise, an unexpected twist. Generally the opening is descriptive, the ending spoken. The
humor lies in the relation between the two parts, the situation catching the listener or reader
unprepared for the sudden flash of punchline. “If either part is too brief, the effect is spoiled by
ambiguity. If either is too rambling or extended, the surprise element is weakened.”[19]

The opening of a joke is the signaling of an intention to joke. Although it is not always the case,
someone who is about to tell a joke will often say that they are about to, or will ask permission to
do so first. One of the reasons for doing this is, of course, to make sure that the recipient is in the
mood to hear a joke; another is to check whether he/she has or has not heard the joke before:

Initiator: Do you know the one about the Englishman who had an inferiority complex?
Recipient: No, is it like the architect…?
Initiator: A little like…
Recipient: Oh dear, go on, tell me about the Englishman who had the inferiority complex…

The opening of a joke is indispensable, and takes various forms. Apart from the above
propositional question “Did you hear the one about…?”, it may be the existential opening “There
is this fellow…”; or it may be the question that forewarns of a riddle “What’s a …?”, “How do
you…?”, “How many…?”, “Where do…?”; it may be a quotation that has worn into a cliche
(thus “I think, therefore I am” yields “I drink, therefore I am.”)
In short, there are forms of words that warn us of the advent of a joke, in some cases all the more
emphatically because they are only used for joking purposes. Meanwhile, the listener or reader
recognizes a convention, realizes that he has met something like this before, understands that his
wits are being keyed and preconditioned to the acceptance of humor.

Acceptance of Joke’s Absurdity

Recognition of the joke’s opening follows the acceptance of some absurd proposition or
representation. This acceptance may in some cases be taken for granted, simply because it is
necessary to the joke, while in others an attempt is made to create grounds of plausibility, by
adjusting the conditions we would normally require before accepting a statement, etc as “true”.
Let us take the cartoon image Hello Kitty for an example. We know that cats do not speak, or
wear bowties, or wish to be a poet and pianist. We are glad to accept the condition as if, because
Hello Kitty is female, not adult, which has been compared to a little girl. Therefore once this is
accepted as plausible there is no difficulty in accepting anything else. We may allow the
narrative to proceed as if cats could speak, or as if cats could have many bowties, etc.
Sometimes the power and the point of a joke lie not so much in the reader’s reaction to the
absurdity of the joke. Consider the following example:
On the first evening after moving into his new house, Bob went down to the local pub, and there
fell into conversation with a friendly barman, a man full of local knowledge and a useful source
of information on interesting places and strange events, presently their talk was interrupted by
the arrival of a dapper little man, evidently a regular, who greeted the barman, ordered a large
glass of sherry, drank it, said goodnight, walked up the wall, across the ceiling, down the
opposite wall, and so out through the double door, after this performance there was a short
silence before Bob said, quaveringly:

“Wow! Did you say strange?”

“Yes,” mused the barman. “That was strange, he usually drinks whisky.”

Clearly this joke is not about an unlikely event (the gravity-defying walk), but about a response
to that event, the barman’s response. The fact that the barman believes that anything can happen,
however, does not mean that nothing will be perceived as remarkable. It is part of the joke that
even in a world of suspended physics people are expected to follow common patterns of minor
behavior; the law of gravity lapses, but the force of habit remains. Therefore, even though
anything can happen, the barman can still perceive something out of the ordinary, which is just
the locus of the joke.
The joke’s context here is the playing surface of a joke; a background, a condition, a set of
limiting facts. In humor, as in usage generally, context may be verbally represented, or may be
perceived extra-linguistically, in the understood situation or the general cultural assumption.
The context in which joke operates is usually redundant, but the length of the joke is important
and is part of the listener’s enjoyment. And the irrelevancies are interesting, the more
information is included, the better the final effect.
Here is a fairly well-known “golf’ story:

The vicar, who enjoyed his golf, went down to the club one Monday afternoon, and found the
place almost deserted, the only person there to give him a game was Billy Benson.
Billy’s trouble was that he was very bad at golf, and very profane. Nothing would go right for
him. His approach shots were pathetically bad, and he couldn’t succeed in sinking a simple putt.
And every time the ball rolled past the hole, he said, “Hell and damnation. Missed.”
The vicar put up with this for some time, but at last he said, “Look, Benson, would you mind not
swearing.” Billy promised to curb his tongue, but at the very next hole he fluffed the easiest of
putts, from two feet. “Hell and damnation. Missed,” he said.
Now the vicar was really annoyed. “Look here, Benson,” he said, “if you swear like that again,
God will hear you, and a thunderbolt will come from on high and strike you down.”
Billy resolved to clean up his language and improve his golf. At the next hole, therefore, he took
particular trouble with his putt. He walked all round the ball, he raked away fallen leaves, he
laid his putter on the grass and got down and squinted along it. At last, after a few practice
shots, he addressed the ball and struck it very gently. It rolled straight and true, and stopped one
inch from the hole. “Hell and damnation! Missed!” cried Billy Benson. And out of the sky shot a
ball of lightning. And hit the vicar.
Then from on high came a mighty voice saying, “Hell and damnation. Missed.”

The pattern of this anecdote is clear from the outset to anyone who has ever heard, or told, a fairy
tale; it is the old ritual of three occurrences plus the crucial consequence:
Phase 1: Billy Benson swears - the vicar protests
Phase 2: Billy Benson swears - the vicar warns of
again God’s lightning
Phase 3: Billy Benson swears for - God’s lightning strikes
the third time - but hits the vicar
Many humorous anecdotes adopt this kind of phasing, generally suggestive of the “external”
viewpoint of a narrator who is not involved in the plot and is free to demonstrate to his audience
the compulsive symmetry of events.
Reference to the text of this anecdote will show that the filling out of the frame is longer and
more elaborate from Phase 1 to Phase 2, and from Phase 2 to the end of Phase 3; there is a
deliberate retarding of the narrative before its climax – a common enough feature, perhaps, of the
story-teller’s art.

Unexpected Ending
One of the major elements in a story or anecdote that helps make a good joke is surprise.
A joke without surprise is not a joke. It is a story that is without stimulation. It is an event that
does not stir up emotions. The more the element of surprise exists in the story, the more we
Professor George Brown visited his colleague Professor Peterson in his departmental office at
the university. “Where is your secretary?” Brown asked. “I fired her! She was too efficient,”
answered Peterson. “Too efficient? How can that be?” Professor Brown asked with a puzzled
expression on his face. Peterson explained, “You see, last week was my birthday. Did my wife
remember it? No. Did my children? No. Did anybody else? No. Only my secretary. She did it
right. She took me out for a wonderful dinner at an elegant restaurant with good food, wine, and
candlelight. We felt close to each other, and romantic, and then she took me back to her
apartment. We were getting very intimate, and she was just about naked, when she excused
herself to go into another room. I was taking off my last bit of clothes when she came into the
room, followed by my wife and kids singing, ‘Happy Birthday to you’!”
In this case, the superfluous, redundant information is vital to the performance. It serves to spin
the story out; without the information it would no longer be a good joke. But what finally makes
the reader laugh is the unexpected punchline.
The punchline is the surprise terminal line that carries the punch or point of a joke. “It is the gist
of the jest that takes the listener unawares, or the switch that catches the reader off guard.

The situation depicted in the joke’s context can be ambiguous and allow for different
interpretations. Temporarily, the ambiguity remains unnoticed, and this leads to an eventual
wrong interpretation of the situation. The discrepancy between the two interpretations and the
effect of the unexpectedness, for the given situation, of the “correct” interpretation, bring about
the humorous effect. For example:
A young soldier who came home on leave was telling his folks about his military life. Suddenly
he stopped to look with interest at four pretty girls coming down the street. His mother gave a
nudge to the father.
“Look how our little boy has grown,” she gasped. “He was never interested in girls before the
Meanwhile their son watched the girls intently until they were out of sight, then tuned back and
announced, “One of them is out of step.”

Violation of the Maxims of Cooperative Principle

Grice (1975) proposed that we adhere to a Cooperative Principle and a set of so-called
“conversational maxims” derived from it in our talk exchanges. He argued that listeners draw
inferences about intended meanings based on the maxims and on the assumption that speakers
are observing the Cooperative Principle generally even when they violate a maxim.

In conversational joking, especially dialogue jokes and riddles, the “maxims” are sometimes just
intentionally violated. For example:
Constantinople is a very long word, can you spell it?
Whether the recipient answers by spelling out “Constantinople” or “it”, he/she will be wrong
because it can refer to both Constantinople and it. Amongst Grice’s maxims of manner we find:
“Avoid ambiguity”; so, if I really want someone to spell IT (i.e. the word “it”) and not (the word)
CONSTANTINOPLE, I make sure that my intonation is such that inverted commas are clearly
heard around the “it”; this will also stop me from breaking another maxim: “Avoid obscurity of
expression”. What is more, by not being as informative as might perhaps be required, a maxim of
quantity is also being broken. As all linguistic play is ambiguous, it follows that all exchanges
containing play are deliberately flouting one or more of Grice’s principles.
The following is a riddle:
Where did King John sign the Magna Carta?
Here the recipient is faced with a question and not unreasonably tries to respond to a request for
information by remembering his/her history. However he/she will soon find that no city or town
is the right one because King John signed the Magna Carta at the bottom. The question is
intentionally misleading, not only because of the many-sidedness of the item where, but above
all because of the insufficient information given (quantity maxim), its obscurity (manner
maxim), and its deception (quality maxim). Of course, the sender could equally well have asked
“On which part of the Magna Carta did King John sigh his name”, but that would have been
falling flat, which, as we have seen, is not always the intention of our jokers.

The philosopher J.L.Austin has reminded us that words not only mean something, as signs
referring to objects, concepts, etc, but also do something. In daily life they operate as acts, so that
when, for example, I pay the milkman, handing over the money and at the same time saying
Three pounds sixty-five, my words have significance not as the statement of a calculation, but as
the marker of a transaction. The milkman understands this, and as a rule will acknowledge the
act with some conventional expression of confirmation. His That’s right, or Quite correct, does
not mean that he has counted the money, but that he has noted my act of payment and is
performing his own act of reception.
This we are doing rather naturally everyday. However, the work of Grice, of Austin and of J. R.
Searle, puts into theoretical terms (“four maxims”) what we already know intuitively about these
conversations, ie that it is a contract involving the agreed conduct of various acts of assertion,
direction, performance, verdict-giving, promising, inviting, requesting, etc. When the contract is
broken, whether innocently or designedly, the effect may be funny; may illuminate a character or
situation; or may designate some critical defect in a relationship. Not surprisingly, the humor of
psychological and social satire is expressed to a very great extent through the flaws and missed
connections of speech acts, the contractual failures of parties to conversation.

Diner: “Waiter, what’s this fly doing in my soup?”

Waiter: “Looks like the breast-stroke, sir.”

The diner’s question is to be understood, in its social function, as an act of complaint; he is not
asking for information. But the waiter chooses to interpret his words in that sense, violating the
maxim of quality, and thus brings us the humorous effect.
The Recipient’s Competence

Apart from the above-mentioned psychological basis, which is crucial to the two parties’
appreciation of a joke, we can not do without the investigation of the primary requirements for
the recipient of a joke.
Man is the only creature endowed with a sense of humor. Like other feature, this sense of human
must have developed during the long course of human evolution. Humor, in particular, linguistic
humor, presupposes a highly developed intellect and can only exist within the framework of
specific sociolinguistic conditions.
Thus a certain joke can bring laughter to some people, but others may remain quite indifferent to
it. Interestingly, a particular joke can have a completely opposite effect with different
individuals. Therefore, whether or not it works depends not only on the quality of the joke but
also on the “quality” of the recipient, that is, the degree to which his feeling for humor is
developed, his intellectual ability and the adequacy of his thesaurus, his attitude towards
particular types of jokes, even his disposition in general and at the moment (this may fall into the
category of psychological basis). These are the provisions necessary for the recipient’s
comprehension, appreciation and enjoyment of the joke.

Linguistic Competence
In order to get English jokes, the recipient must first of all have an elementary linguistic
competence in English apart from the general background of these jokes.
Some jokes may require the knowledge of “semantic concords and dissonance”—eg. in
synonymy, hyponymy, and antonymy, or in “normal” and “deviant” collocations. Some may
require the recognition of coupling mechanisms—eg. features such as rhyme, rhythm and
alliteration; or pointed antitheses (“the boys all biceps and the girls all chest”); some others may
require the understanding of structural mimesis—eg. the recurrence and variation of joke-bearing
syntactic structures; and still more may require the comprehensive grasp of linguistic
competence in the above three aspects.
Let us take a further look at the following examples:
In the twenties of this century it became usual in certain circles to pronounce the vowel “O” as
if it were “U”, and as this was most marked in those who had been to the older university it was
known as the Oxford accent. A certain bishop who did this was giving prizes away at a Girls
High School Speech Day in the far north of England. The girls were rather puzzled when they
heard him talk about the way in which they should mudel their lives but their burst of laughter
took him aback when, dealing with leisure occupation he said, “In your spare time, girls, see
that each one of you cultivates a hubby.”
—(Variation in Pronunciation)
Nose: A feature of the face that snoops, snubs, sniffs, and sneezes.
—(Alliterative Definition)
On the other hand, the typical structure of narrative jokes is divided into two parts, which we can
recognize quite easily, with an introduction of situation and an unexpected ending.
Noiselessly the officer of the guard approached and, shaking the dozing sentry roughly by the
shoulders, said, “Private Jones, you are under arrest for sleeping on duty!”
The soldier quickly replied, “A man can’t even have a minute of prayer without someone coming
to spoil it.”
As to the recipient’s other linguistic competence, readers may refer to Chapter two in which the
relevant illustration has been elaborated.

Shared Knowledge—Non-linguistic Competence

If a joke is to be successful, it has to play on knowledge that is shared between sender and
recipient. British humor frequently intrigues non-native speakers of English and one of the
reasons for their not appreciating it to the full is precisely due to a mismatch not only in language
but also in shared sociocultural knowledge.
We may know from the previous examples and the following ones that such shared sociocultural
knowledge is extremely varied, ranging from mundane everyday experiences to the culture,
history, and literature of the language. In these cases, however, linguistic competence is the least
of the recipient’s problems.

Life Experiences
Look at this example:
British Rail announced today that coffee was going up 20p a slice.

To get this joke, a great deal of knowledge regarding the quality of catering provided by British
Rail is required; it is therefore restricted to those who have a sound knowledge and/or experience
of refreshments served by British Rail. Of course, the joke could be explained by describing the
temperature, color, consistency and, above all, the freshness of the liquid in question. Although
such an explanation would help the recipient towards an interpretation of the joke, a personal
experience, even at hearsay level, may well prove essential to understanding exactly why British
Rail coffee is likened to last week’s loaf. What is more, the remark plays on implication, thus
relying on pretty complex reasoning on the part of the recipient who wishes to work it out.

Encyclopedic Knowledge.
The Encyclopedic knowledge may be a matter of common historical information – eg that Henry
VIII had six wives< or that Nelson had one eye, or that Lincoln was assassinated in a theatre.
(But apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the show?) More often, however, it is
simply a question of domestic acquaintance with the world and the ordinary substance of living,
knowing, say, that Coventry is a place in the English midlands, knowing that in most British
towns the buses are double deckers, knowing that the Pope presides over a city called the
Vatican, perhaps also knowing that there exists a whisky called Vat69 (whence the ancient and
child-charming joke that Vat 69 is the Pope’s telephone number). To understand the broadest
humor one must be broadly informed, not with the stuff of scholarship but with things that one
ought to know before being allowed to board the Clapham omnibus.
The rhymester of Little Willie presupposes that we are acquainted with the use of mercury in
silvering the backs of mirrors. He also assumes the knowing that mercury is used in
thermometers; and of course he takes for granted our awareness that this substance is poisonous.
Unless these facts are in our heads, the joke goes nowhere.

We all enjoy the smart graffiti “I drink, therefore I am; I’m drunk, therefore I was”; but this we
can not do without first recognizing the derivation of this joke in the Cartesian cogito,ergo sum,
“I think, therefore I am”. Varied witticisms are varied on these literature materials. Random
examples of these parodic models might be the Ten Commandments, Keats’ Ode to Autumn,
The Gettysburg Address, Eliot’s The Waste Land, etc.
In an allusion, however, the cited text need not be from a poem or any other recognized piece of
literature. Virtually any well-known form of words – from the language of politics, of
advertising, of journalism, of law and social administration – will serve the requirements of wit.
A music critic, reviewing a performance of Bruch’s violin concerto, notes the unusually slow
tempi adopted by the soloist, Shoome, Minttz; and jocosily adds his supposition that this violinist
is “one of the too-good-to-hurry Mintz”. British readers can laugh at this, because they will
almost certainly recognize the allusion to an advertising jingle no longer in use but popular in its
Murraymints, Murraymints,
Too-good-to-hurry mints.
The allusion is impudently funny, and at the same time makes a criticism that might have been
more woundingly phrased; the reviewer does not use expressions like ‘cloying’, or ‘self-
indulgent’, but something of the kind may be implied in his quip.

Cultural Differences
A joke is only successful if the situation depicted is not too culture-specific. Nevertheless, not all
jokes are about an underdog or sex. Many play on events, states and situations that are peculiar
to their culture of origin. Naturally such jokes create serious problems when recipients from a
different culture possessing no cross-cultural knowledge try to comprehend them.

Let us take “OK” jokes for example (see section 2.2.3), which belong to a graphological
convention that does not exist in non-English-speaking countries. Owing to the fact that these
jokes acquire their meanings through reference to other examples of the same type of graffiti,
speakers of other languages would need to possess prior knowledge of the genre of graffiti in
order to understand and appreciate them. Outside the context created by the genre itself, clever as
the play may be, it will remain meaningless. Clearly, the parallel with “real” literature can now
be taken a step further as the aspect of intertextuality inherent in these jokes becomes evident.
Someone who is well read is more likely to recognize the multitude of historical and literary
references included in William Shakerspeare’s works than a reader who has read less widely.
Such recognition adds to the pleasure of the text and gives a new dimension to what would
otherwise have been no more than a tragic or romantic story.
Something similar occurs in a good joke. “OK” graffiti are clever rather than funny; at a galance
the “expert” recipient recognized the text type and links it to its previous counterparts and then
connects the graffito to his or her world knowledge. The pleasure of such a text is gained through
the author’s skill in playing with the language plus the reader’s ability to extract the inner
meaning of the text. Due to the idiosyncratic graphological elements involved, “OK” jokes only
work when they are seen. Their translation is impossible without the loss of their full
significance. A translation would require a complex explanation of how they have derived from a
slogan and developed into a joke form. However, the text would cease to function as a joke after
such an explanation.
So as a result of the possession of different amount of linguistic competence and shared
knowledge, not everybody is amused by the same things. But even above those factors of
whatever type, finding something funny still relies on a number of subjective variables. Some
jokes which, rejoicing in the moment, flies with the moment, are essentially timekeeping. We
seldom laugh at jokes that depend on how things used to be. On the other hand, what may appear
amusing under the influence of a few drinks may not appear quite so funny in the cold light of
the morning after. A homosexual is hardly going to enjoy being insulted by someone’s idea of a
witty remark at his or her expense, any more than the Irish are amused by the thousands of jokes
that depict them as imbeciles. Some people are offended by sexual innuendo, while others by
political references contained in a joke.
Thus we also know when someone doesn’t laugh at a certain joke, we can not accuse him of not
having a sense of humor. Chances are that he doesn’t find the same things funny as we do.

The shortest distance between two people is a smile. Despite the fact that English has now
become an international language, its expressions of humor remain a mystery to all but its most
proficient speakers. Thus a foreigner could be confused by the occurrence of a joke, or else find
that his attempt at punning is met with disapproval, not only because he has chosen the wrong
moment or place to joke, but above all because his audience is unwilling to accept him as part of
their “group” due to their lack of common psychological basis.

For English learners a better comprehension of English jokes will be of great help in breaking
the ice, enhancing rapport and softening cultural barriers during communications with native
English speakers.

As anyone engaged in foreign language teaching knows well, the appropriate introduction of a
joke or anecdote in the course of a lesson can not only revive students' flagging interest, but also
contribute to his understanding and retention of the subject matter as well. Furthermore, jokes
could provide both teachers and students with a wealth of authentic material that is not only
accessible but also enjoyable. In addition, a knowledge of English jokes and their ubiquity is a
central part of culture of English-speaking countries, especially that of Britain. But such
knowledge may not come naturally. The foreign speaker needs to be guided towards the
understanding and subsequently the appreciation of English jokes.

While concluding this thesis, I often consider some questions perhaps available for future study.
They are put here for English experts’ judgement and guidance.

Joke-telling may improve group solidarity, but sometimes also can offend the recipients if being
not properly given. We learn from experiences that sarcasm apparently conveys more aggression
than telling narrative jokes and participation in a round of relating funny personal anecdotes
enhances far more rapport than ironic comments, and so on. Thus here comes the question, to
what degree can the joke-telling enhance the rapport or damage the harmony?

On the other hand, Jokes are oral literature. We can not tell or receive a joke without paying
attention to the speech’s tones and stress and use of accent, pauses and timing, just upon which
some jokes are found amusing. So examining jokes from the phonetic approach becomes an
effort-consuming but rather rewarding task.