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A Sense of Humour and Verbal Play: Correlation and Gauge
(based on the humorous passages from B. Bryson’s Notes from a Big Country)
A sense of humour is one of the notions that is easier described with the help of multiple circumlocutions and sinuous turns of phrases than properly, that is, comprehensively and succinctly defined. For some inexplicable reason most people, if not actually every single person, would feel offended if referred to as having no or little sense of humour. Although, there is no one explanation of this, it seems that it is basically down to the fact that a sense of humour, that is, its presence, is an indication of, allegedly, more significant characteristics that everyone wants to possess, – wit, intelligence, acumen. In other words, the ability to spot and appreciate a joke or one of the other multiple varieties of verbal play (play involving the usage of natural language) is deemed by some an indication, although an indirect one, of a person’s mental abilities and even of his/her intellect. Research into the question of whether there is such a correlation or not is impeded by several factors. The most weighty one can be formulated as follows: it is hardly possible to pinpoint the only single response to a joke that would be indicative of the presence (or absence) of a sense of humour. The stumbling block here is that the appreciation of a joke leads to a variety of responses, each as indicative of a sense of humour as it is not. For a number of reasons a speaker’s reaction to a joke may vary on the scale of explicitness. If, for instance, in a bad mood or when preoccupied with some thoughts, an individual may demonstrate no outward reaction to the joke while “appreciation” takes place. If the joke is appreciated, but deemed in poor taste, the reaction may also be subdued. Apart from that, a persons’ temperament should also be taken into account: a phlegmatic and a melancholic are usually more reserved than a choleric or a sanguine person. Given this, it seems that one of the best ways of gauging an individual’s sense of humour, if “gauging” can at all be applied here, is encouraging one to describe their own understanding of the joke, the feelings it brought about, and their evaluation of the joke.
As a complex phenomenon, a sense of humour should also be delved into from the active point of view, not only from the receptive vantage point. In other words, an individual’s ability and, probably, willingness to construct and apply jokes should not be discarded, either. Having said this, the following question arises: should a person who does not joke a lot be deemed as possessing no sense of humour whatsoever? It seems that the answer is in the negative. A number of factors are involved here, such as: an individual’s outlook on life, philosophy, religion, family history and even personal life. Researchers are hard put to consider all these factors and, as a rule, prefer to confine their investigation to a neatly, if narrowly, defined track, which more often than not renders the results incomplete, equivocal and contestable.
The more fruitful and seminal study of humour is embraced from a different perspective, which presupposes the analysis of the linguistic and other means and modes of creating jokes. One of the best and indisputable punsters is a contemporary writer Bill Bryson, whose array of books, among which are “Down Under”, “Notes form a Small Island”, “A Walk in the Woods”, “Made in America”, “The Lost Continent” and “Notes from a Big Country”. The material for the present paper is drawn from the book “Notes from a Big Country” – one of the most joke-infested work by the author. The predominant stylistic devises by means of which most of the jokes are constructed there are irony and sarcasm as well as hyperbole and understatement. A number of paradoxical statements are employed to reveal the author’s firm stance on a number of issues dealing with the USA. The cumulative point and effect of the jokes could be summed up as follows: a facetious treatment of most serious and critical aspects of American life. The ones that seem to be particularly full of punning are taxation (or rather the red tape associated with it), car-hire, computers, American sense of humour, junk food, Americans’ intellect and mentality. It must be noted that the author’s intention is not to exclusively mock Americans as a nation (after all, the writer himself was born in America and lived there some span of his life), but also to highlight those written and unwritten prescriptions he is reluctant to follow, although he admits that some of them are quite sensible. This concerns physical exercises, healthy life style, dependence on convenience and protocol.