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S e m a n t i c M e c h a n i s m s o f H u m o r. Caitlin Tweedy February 2, 2007. “Different people will not necessarily find the same things funny—many things which will strike one group as funny may bore another group; some jokes are private or individual.

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S e m a n t i c m e c h a n i s m s o f h u m o r l.jpg

SemanticMechanisms ofHumor

Caitlin Tweedy

February 2, 2007

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“Different people will not necessarily find the same things funny—many things which will strike one group as funny may bore another group; some jokes are private or individual...

…[but] the ability to appreciate humor is universal and shared by all people…”

--Victor Raskin

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Raskin: “Laughter is a way of human communication which is essentially and exclusively human.”


Rapp: “Do animals have a sense of humor?”

What do we laugh at according to hazlitt l.jpg

Absurdity essentially and exclusively human.”


Dress of foreigners, and they at ours

One dressed in the height of fashion

One quite out of it


What we do not believe

To show satisfaction with ourselves

To show contempt for those around us

To conceal envy, ignorance


Those who pretend to be wise

Extreme simplicity




What do we laugh at?According to Hazlitt

What characterizes the humor act l.jpg
What characterizes the essentially and exclusively human.”humor act?

  • Human participants

    • Speaker and one or more hearers

    • Writer and one or more readers

    • Person on television and one or more viewers

  • A stimulus

  • Life experience of an individual

    4. Psychological type of individual

    5. Certain physical environment/Situation

    -provides context

    6. Society

    - cultural context

  • Laughter is seen as l.jpg

    ( + ) essentially and exclusively human.”

    Pleasure giving/pleasurable

    Purposeless movement expressing joy


    Release of aggression


    A reflex

    i.e. tickling…can trigger other reflexes WATCH OUT

    Telling of society

    ( - )


    i.e. The Bible—no jokes here

    Concealing state of mind

    i.e. shame, shyness, anger


    A detriment to mankind’s progress

    Born out of hostility


    Laughter is seen as…

    Is humor good or bad l.jpg
    Is humor good or bad? essentially and exclusively human.”

    Other undefined phenomena in this way:

    • Love

    • Happiness

    • Marriage

    • Faith

    • Success

    • The electoral college

    • Donald Trump’s comb-over

    A good verbal joke is l.jpg
    A good verbal joke is… essentially and exclusively human.”

    • Not too long

    • Not too short

    • Not too trivial

    • Not too hard to understand

    • Has an element of surprise →

    • Not given away too early

    • Has adequate amount of detail

    • Known to be a joke

    • Accompanied by gestures, facial expressions

    • …JUST RIGHT!

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    Advice from Fry: essentially and exclusively human.”

    “For the presenter to laugh occasionally and to be mildly amused by his [or her] own joke increases the power of its humor.”

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    Advice from Fry (cont.): essentially and exclusively human.”

    “For the presenter to laugh immoderately and to be obviously carried away by his own joke spoils the joke for the recipient…”

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    Seeks to model the semantic competence of the native speaker essentially and exclusively human.”

    Script-based contextual semantics

    Cannot account for ALL meanings of every sentence in every possible setting

    No sentence occurs in isolation (context!)

    One needs semantics (knowledge of language) and pragmatics (knowledge of world) to correctly calculate the meaning of a word in a context

    Semantic Theory

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    (1) Lexicon: essentially and exclusively human.” to model the native speaker’s knowledge of the meaning of words

    Extra lexical info

    Ex: Mary saw a black cat and immediately turned home.

    (2) Combinatorial Rules: to model the native speaker’s ability to combine the meanings of the words which make up the sentence into meaning of the whole

    Usefulness of a dictionary?

    Ex: The bill was large.

    The bill was large, but we paid it anyway.

    Ex: She could not bear children.

    Elements of Contextual Semantics

    • Script-based lexicon

    • Script: a large chunk of semantic info surrounding the word or evoked by it

      • - Represents native speaker’s knowledge of a part of the world

      • - Common sense

      • - Basic situations

    Slide13 l.jpg

    DOCTOR essentially and exclusively human.”

    Subject [ Human ] [ + Adult ]

    Activity: > Study Medicine

    = Receive patients: - patient comes or doctor visits

    - doctor listens to complaints

    - doctor examines patient

    = Cure Disease - doctor diagnoses disease

    - doctor prescribes treatment

    = (Take patient’s money)

    Place: > Medical School

    = Hospital or doctor’s office

    Time: > Many years

    = Every day

    = Immediately

    Condition: Physical contact

    Where > stands for past and = stands for present

    A Lexical Script

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    Importance of Scripts in essentially and exclusively human.”Understanding Semantics of Humor

    • “It is obvious that our entire civilization is a large number of scripts, that the more scripts one has internalized the deeper one’s comprehension, which could be amply illustrated by jokes, literary allusions, and other texts inaccessible to the non-initiated.”

      --Victor Raskin

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    Script overlap essentially and exclusively human.”

    ex: “Is the doctor at home?” the patient asked in his bronchial whisper. “No,” the doctor’s young and pretty wife whispered in reply. “Come right in.”


    Script oppositeness

    - Script 1 vs. Script 2

    ex: “Who was that gentleman I saw you with last night?”

    “That was no gentleman. That was a senator.”

    Senators are gentlemen vs. Senators are not gentlemen

    ex: “The first thing which strikes a stranger in New York City is a big car.”

    Collision vs. Impression

    How Semantics Work to

    Create Humor

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    Three Types of Script Opposition essentially and exclusively human.”


      • “He used such nautical terms.”

        “Yes, sailors always talk dirty.”

      • He’s a man of letters. He works at the Post Office.


    • Should a person stir his coffee with his right hand or his left hand?

      Neither. He should use a spoon

    • When is a joke not a joke? Usually.


    • His teeth have so many cavities, he talks with an echo.

    • Common aspirin cures my headaches if I follow the directions on the bottle – Keep Away from Children.

  • Classification of humor l.jpg
    Classification of Humor essentially and exclusively human.”

    • Ridicule

    • Deliberate ridicule

    • Humor at speaker’s own expense

    • Riddle

    • Conundrum

    • Pun

    • Suppression/Repression

    • Wisecrack

    • Epigram