Meaning and Humour

A blog by Andrew Goatly

Meaning and Humour

To what extent is humour a liberating force? According to the theory advanced in Meaning and Humour, humour defeats expectations or introduces incongruities. And, linguistically speaking, this can be analysed as an overriding of lexical priming (Hoey), or as surprising foregrounding (Leech). For example, consider this joke:

“Give a man a fish–feed him for a day. Give a man two fish—feed him for two days”.


Internally the second sentence is not foregrounded—it is entirely predictable, to the point of near redundancy. Whereas externally, according to the expectations of this epigrammatic genre, where we anticipate something clever, unpredictable, entropic, the second sentence is foregrounded. The fact that most humour depends upon the overriding of lexical priming or startling departures from discoursal norms would appear to make it a linguistically disruptive or rebellious force. However, humour does little to change priming patterns.One might contrast it with original metaphor in this respect, which can change the lexical meanings of a language more permanently. It is no accident that most metaphorical humour, at least metaphorical punning, depends upon conventional, lexicalised metaphors. For instance:

“You could walk through George W Bush’s deepest thoughts and not get your ankles wet”

This depends upon the conceptual metaphor UNDERSTANDING/INSIGHT IS DEPTH realised in the two meanings of deep.In terms of its social uses and functions humour is also rather ambiguous as a liberating force. On the one hand it can be a tool for rebellion against authority. On the other, it could be regarded as a means of social control, often through embarrassment (Billig). Either way, as well as its uses as a social lubricant, humour can be seen as a weapon.

This example of unintentional humour encapsulates some of these ideas.

Dale Martin, an entertainer, has been ordered by a provincial court judge to avoid making anyone pregnant for the next three years. The order not to impregnate any girls came from Judge Leslie Bewley, who gave Martin a suspended sentence and three years probation for possession of an offensive weapon. (Toronto Globe Tibballs 2006: 490)

In the context of the conceptual metaphor sex is violence and due to the textual priming by “pregnant” we are likely to interpret “weapon” as a sexual metaphor. However, an alternative priming, by the genre of (news reports of) legal judgements, rules out this meaning, and predicts the literal one. By the way, this conceptual metaphor association of sex with violence underlies the theories of humour as both aggressive and sexual (Freud, Koestler, Fonagy). Jokes have “punch” lines, and may “misfire”, as well as being associated with sex. In the Collins Cobuild Wordbanks Online corpus sex is the most common (T-score) collocate of joke, and dirty is the 25th most common.

Andrew Goatly is a professor in the Department of English at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. His new title Meaning and Humour is now available from Cambridge University Press at £22.99 / $35.99

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