4.1 Problems Of Classification

The common collocation ‘tell me a joke’ shows that in our culture a joke is often perceived as a verbal package designed to amuse. Sherzer, for example, states simply: ‘The term “joke” (and related terms in European languages, for example, histoire drole in French and chiste in Spanish) refers to a discourse unit consisting of two parts, the set up and the punch line’ (1985:216). Here is one such, taken from the public domain:

The miser withdrew his money from the bank for a holiday. Once he thought it had had enough of a rest he put it all back.

However, when Douglas (1975) discusses events such as someone lying in a freshly dug grave at a funeral and refusing to move, or someone upon meeting a friend enquiring about their parents’ genitals, she also uses the term ‘joke’. And many essays on humour in general use this word in their title - Freud (in translation, at least), Hockett (1972), Wilson (1979). All of this begs the question: are we talking about the same phenomena when we use the term ‘joke’? While it is the view of this dissertation that there can be no definitive answer to this question, it is a convenient starting point for a brief survey of the difficulties inherent in simply discussing the subject of ‘humour’. The survey will start with Freud (1905), which remains a significant text, then move on to a study by Esar (1954), which is a clear illustration of the grave difficulties that can be had in this area, and finish with a more recent attempt at a taxonomy by a linguist, Hockett (1972).

Strachey (1991) had such problems translating Freud’s work that he saw fit to discuss them at some length in an introduction. He chose not to translate the original ‘Der Witz’ (singular) as ‘wit’ as others had done, but as ‘joke’ (in fact as the plural ‘jokes’). Yet ‘Scherz’, which is a common translation of ‘joke’, is rendered as ‘jest’, a word not immediately distinguishable in English from ‘joke’. He had similar problems with ‘das Komische’ and ‘die Komik’, the use of which he sees as Freud’s way of avoiding stylistic repetition, and so he translates them both as ‘the comic’ (pp.34-6).

Freud himself does not always help matters. When discussing the pleasure which jokes provide he attempts to distinguish between jests and jokes. (Bear in mind Strachey’s translation as just discussed.)

We may now turn to the further development of jests, to the point where they reach their height in tendentious jokes. Jests still give the foremost place to the purpose of giving enjoyment, and are content if what they say does not appear senseless or completely devoid of substance. If what a jest says possesses substance and value it turns into a joke.
(1991:181)

This seems to suggest that jests are content (as jests) if they have substance; yet if they do have substance, they become jokes, a seemingly contradictory state of affairs. Nor is this a trivial matter, for when discussing the genesis and development of jokes from childhood through to adulthood these terms are used for humorous items at different levels of development and thus need to be much more precisely distinguished than they are in the above quote. (See 1.2 above for Freud’s ideas concerning the development and purposes of jokes.)

This is not to say that there is no order in Freud. He gives a detailed summary of the many techniques used in jokes, as follows:

I. Condensation.

(a) with formation of composite words
(b) with modification

II. Multiple use of the same material
(c) as a whole and in part
(d) in different order
(e) with slight modification
(f) of the same words full or empty

III. Double meaning.
(g) meaning as a name and as a thing
(h) metaphorical and literal meaning
(i) double meaning proper (play upon words)
(j) double entendre
(k) double meaning with an allusion
(pp.76-7)

To all this he also adds the extra category of ‘puns’ (p.80).

But even such a seemingly exact taxonomy presents problems. For example, (f) multiple use of the same material full or empty. An example of such a joke is given as:

How are you getting along?’ the blind man asked the lame man. ‘As you see,’ the lame man replied.
(p.68)

Here see has both the ‘full’ meaning related to the sense of sight and the ‘empty’, or what Freud calls the ‘watered-down’, meaning of, let us say, ‘it is apparent’. But (f) is in category II, multiple use of the same material, and ‘double meaning’ is given an entirely separate category of its own, category III. (This also begs the question: which joke does not have a double meaning? This question will be raised again below.) The confusion is compounded when he lists sub-divisions of double meaning (g-k) yet sees puns as an entirely separate category on the basis that double meaning jokes (category III) use identically the same word (but so does his example of (f), category II), whereas puns need only use words which have some ‘vague similarity’.

Such a distinction may have been acceptable in German 100 years ago but more recent studies (in English) do not concur. Empson, for example, discusses all manner of linguistic ambiguities (he identifies seven distinct types), defining an ambiguity as ‘any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language’ [1930] (1995:19, emphasis added). Sherzer accepts both identical and similar words as puns: here as a play (unintended) with identical words:

In his search for economic and military aid, Anwar Sadat has not exactly
been greeted with open arms. (CBS radio news report)
(1978:337-8)

where ‘arms’ can mean both ‘weapons’ and ‘limbs’. Next as a play with ‘vague similarities’:

When shooting elephants in Africa I found the tusks very difficult to remove but in Alabama the Tuscaloosa. (Groucho Marx)
(p.340-1)

where ‘Tuscaloosa’ resembles ‘tusks are looser’.

Attridge regards puns in a way diametrically opposed to Freud, seeing them as the use of the same word. He gives the following example from Pope (first cited in Empson p.134):

Where Bentley late tempestuous wont to sport
In troubled waters, but now sleeps in port.
(1988:141)

Here ‘port’ can either mean ‘harbour’ or 'wine’. For Attridge a pun is either ‘one signifier with two possible signifieds, which in a particular context are simultaneously activated’, or ‘two identical signifiers, which are in a particular context made to coalesce’ (p.144).

But Freud himself was aware that words ‘are a plastic material which can do all kinds of things’ (1991:68) and he frankly stated the problems inherent in his classification. When discussing multiple use of the same material, he commented:

The further cases of multiple use [category II] which can be brought together under the title of ‘double meaning’ as a new, third group, can easily be divided into sub-classes, which, it is true, cannot be separated from one another by essential distinctions any more than can the third group from the second.
(p.70. emphasis added)

Thus, both the sub-classes and the larger groupings are liable to blur into one another, a state of affairs which does not help the reader understand the complexities of what is already a dense text.

Indeed, merely creating new categories of humour which differ only negligibly or not at all can serve to befog rather than clarify. Esar (1954) bemoaned the lack of scientific rigour in writing about humour and set out to provide such, naming his science of humour ‘humorology’ (p.10). He ventured, ‘What this budding science needs is another Agassis to do for its nomenclature what he did for zoology’ (p.11). The results of focusing on the naming rather than on something deeper leads Esar into complexities and contradictions which are difficult if not impossible to resolve.

He presents us with 16 chapters, each of which discusses at least 5 varieties of humour (or sub-categories of these varieties). While his aim is to distinguish between different types of humour, his ‘scientific’ explanations do not always help. For example, the difference between a ‘wisecrack’ and an ‘epigram’. According to him a wisecrack always deals with a particular person or thing (p.15), which here is interpreted to mean that a person or thing is the butt of the joke. He gives the following example.

He’s a man of letters; he works in the post office. (p.15)

The epigram ‘refers to a general group of persons or things’ (p.18):

Age gives people away; it tells on them.

Thus simply switching the subject transforms one into the other, so that

The man who is buried in thought is generally of grave appearance

is an epigram, but

Whenever John is buried in thought he has a grave appearance

is a wisecrack (p.18). Thus the locus of these jokes - ‘bury’, ‘grave’- is ignored in favour of focusing on whether the subject of the sentence is named or not. It is indeed the case that the naming of the subject can be significant if, for example, the teller wishes to target a specific butt. However, as such a butt can be either an individual (a certain authority figure, for example) or a group (a certain reviled group, for example), Esar’s distinction would seem to take us no further forward in our understanding of such jokes.

Elsewhere he attempts to distinguish between ‘joke’, ‘gag’, and ‘anecdote’.

A joke is a distinct element of humour although it is loosely applied to related elements like the gag and the anecdote. It lies somewhere between the two, being longer than the gag which is dialogue and shorter than the anecdote which is often an extended joke. Like the gag the joke is of irreducible brevity, but unlike the gag it applies to situation comedy. Like the anecdote the joke is a story, but unlike the anecdote it bears no illustration of a moral point of a celebrity’s character.
(p.28)

It is not the wisest strategy to attempt to define three items in terms of one another, so there is much that is unclear in this. To focus on one aspect only - length. The gag seems to be the shortest item, the joke is longer, and the anecdote is longest. Yet both the gag and the joke are of irreducible brevity. Further, the anecdote is often an extended version of the ‘distinct element’ (emphasis added), the joke. This does not in any way approach the scientific rigour that Esar claims. Throughout the entire work not once is something as schematic as a list or a tree diagram offered, only the blurred outlines of more and more parts which seem to take us further away from the substance of the jokes. The major problem Esar would seem to have is that he views humour as an object in the world without subjective content, as if it actually were something like zoology. But as it not such an object, it is not amenable to as rigid a scientific approach as he would like. Even if it were, he falls well short of the standards his own approach demands.

When we now turn to someone who is a well-known linguist, Hockett, we find that he avoids giving a definition of jokes, perhaps realising the difficulties inherent in such a position. He uses the term ‘jokes’ as the title of his essay and thus the reader infers that for Hockett everything discussed therein is to be considered a discussion of the term ‘joke’. He comments that ‘[o]ur concern with jokes is purely taxonomic’ (1972:154), but this does not lead him into the same maze as Freud and Esar, for whether discussing puns, riddles, games, or verses, they would all seem to be embraced implicitly by the title, ‘Jokes’. He does, however, divide jokes into two major categories, and this is worth further comment.

For him jokes are a genre of literature (p.154) and just as literature distinguishes between poetry and prose, so he makes the distinction between ‘poetic’ and ‘prosaic’ jokes. He argues that ‘any language presents the literary artist with a vast and intricate tracery of partial resemblances between words and phrases in sound and in meaning’ (p.157). (Note how this echoes Freud's ‘words are plastic material’ above.) Thus, for Hockett, poetic jokes are ones which ‘turn on accidental resemblances between words in sound and meaning’ and are either difficult or impossible to translate (p.157). An example of a poetic joke (p.155).

Mr. Wong a Canadian of Chinese extraction, visited the nursery in the maternity ward, and then hastened, perturbed, to his wife’s bedside. Said he: ‘Two Wongs don’t make a White!’ Said she: ‘I can assure you it was purely occidental.’

Here the coincidence between the key nouns in the fixed idiom 'Two wrongs don’t make a right’ and the words 'Wongs' and ‘White’, as well as the similarity between ‘accidental’ and ‘occidental’ are the loci of the joke and must remain exactly as they are. It is extremely doubtful that this is translatable. An example of a prosaic joke:

An irate man walks into a drugstore. ‘Yesterday I came in for a hair
tonic ,’ he complained, ‘but what you sold me was glue. This morning
I tried to tip my hat and I lifted myself two inches off the sidewalk.’
(p.154)

Here the joke centres on the confusion of X for Y, which leads to mishap Z. It would not be too problematic to change one or more of these constituents and still have a working joke. Further, this could well be translated into most if not all languages.

This distinction between poetic and prosaic calls to mind a distinction of Freud’s between ‘verbal’ and ‘conceptual’ jokes, with the former category demanding a word (or words) that cannot be changed and the latter having their centre in an idea that can take a variety of verbal forms. While such a correspondence between these two commentators may suggest some kind of consistency in what constitutes jokes, Chiaro is sceptical. When discussing Freud’s distinctions between ‘multiple use’, ‘double meaning’ and ‘puns’ above, it was asked which joke does not have some kind of double meaning. Chiaro’s criticism of Hockett is more explicit when she says: ‘It seems to be a contradiction in terms to suggest that a verbal conceit such as the [prosaic] joke does not in some way play on words’ (1992:15). This is a valid argument – all verbal jokes play with words - but it must also be said that the constraints on Hockett’s poetic jokes are far greater than on his prosaic jokes and thus they can be seen as technically different.

This brief survey shows that there is no widespread common ground among observers on what, for example, something as apparently obvious as a ‘joke’ is, and this because the problem here is chiefly one of the protean nature of humour, which resists neat classification; as Palmer puts it, ‘it appears to exist in a series of different dimensions’ (1994:5). Further, such individuals’ attempts at classifications, while having significant areas of overlap, tend to be particular to their purposes and so do not always have a general application. Taking this into account, this dissertation favours an inclusive view of humour, and does not attempt any rigid taxonomy. We do, though, need to further consider what this section has touched on – the forms of humour – and this we now do. However, this will not be done as a purely formal analysis, as this dissertation is more concerned with what meanings we construct with these forms, that is, what we do with humour.

4.1 Problems of Classification

4.2 From Style to Content>

Contents>