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I always had this question in my mind: Why people use the phrase "sense of humour" for the quality of being humorous and funny?

The word sense suggests it is about perceiving and receiving something. But when somebody has good humour and hence referred to as having a good sense of humour, it shows that they create humour rather than receiving and appreciating someone else's humour.

Does this mean that to be able to create good humour one must have a sense and appreciation for good humour as well?

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6  
I guess a simple an explanation is that in order to be funny (most of the time) you need to know (sense) when something is funny. –  George Duckett Mar 15 '12 at 11:38

6 Answers 6

up vote 2 down vote accepted

The following is probably correct, in a cognitive, psychological way:

to be able to create good humour one must have a sense and appreciation for good humour

However, I don't think the expression, to have a sense of humor is motivated by that logic. I perceive that to have a sense of humor is just as likely to refer to the ability to be humorous as to be appreciative of humor. In other words, having a sense of humor is used to describe someone who says funny things, but also to describe someone who responds favorably to funny things. This may be an instance of American English. I'll cite part of a prior EL&U SE question What is a dry sense of humor? for corroboration:

Developing a dry sense of humor can be challenging and fun....Every time I employ my dry wit, I get many different reactions.

Note in particular the answer, which is consistent with my understanding of this expression, as I described above:

dry... (of a joke or sense of humor): subtle, expressed in a matter-of-fact way... "he delighted his friends with a dry, covert sense of humor"

Additional confirmation is provided by an excerpt from both title and content of this eHow article, How to Improve Your Sense of Humor

...why people don't consider you "funny." You may discover that it's just your timing or delivery... your jokes [may be] so off-color, unusual or offensive that the general "audience" doesn't appreciate them.

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Why people use the phrase "sense of humour" for the quality of being humorous and funny?

Having a sense of humour more often means you appreciate humour rather than being a funny person or one who makes jokes.

From Wikipedia:

The majority of people are able to experience humour, i.e., to be amused, to laugh or smile at something funny, and thus they are considered to have a sense of humour.

Does this mean that to be able to create good humour one must have a sense and appreciation for good humour as well?

Yes, to be funny, it helps if you appreciate humour, so funny people usually have a sense of humour as well.

The Free Dictionary defines it as primarily being able to appreciate humour, and parenthetically being to express humour:

Noun 1. sense of humour - the trait of appreciating (and being able to express) the humorous; "she didn't appreciate my humor"; "you can't survive in the army without a sense of humor"

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I'm just thinking out loud here (writing actually). I vaguely remember something related to how people long long time ago used to think that "humors" (a kind of body fluids) would somehow affect our behavior. So having a good sense of humor would mean to be able to feel or detect those humors.

A dry humor would be composed by the elements of Earth and Fire, corresponding to the black and yellow biles (I think it should be red, but anyways). These are Choleric and Melancholic.

So I'm still missing how all this turned into saying someone funny has a good sense of humor, but I think it's something related to the humorism rather than what some other fellows have said.

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"Sense of humour" refers principally to an empathy with the audience of the witty remark or action.

The humours of the body, in mediaeval medicine, related to emotions and personality traits of melancholy, choler, sanguinity, and being phlegmatic.

A person with a sense of humour simply tempers his wit to the humour of his audience, because he senses his audience's humour (or "bent").

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According to a review of Spurzheim, Philosophical Catechism of the Natural laws of Man in the American Baptist Magazine, (April 1833), the analytical system of Dr. Johann Spurzheim categorizes the "affective faculties" into two "genera":

  1. The propensities. Desire of life, desire of meat and drink, sense of amativeness, sense of parental love, sense of attachment, sense of habitation, sense of courage, sense of secrecy, sense of acquiring, sense of constructing.

  2. The sentiments. Sense of cautiousness, sense of approbation, sense of self-esteem, sense of benevolence, sense of reverence, sense of firmness, sense of conscientiousness, sense of hope, sense of marvellousness, sense of the ideal or perfect, sense of mirth or humor, and sense of imitation.

Thus, for Spurzheim, describing humor as a "sense" amounts to describing it as a sentiment, coequal with such other senses as self-esteem, benevolence, reverence, and hope. But Spurzheim also uses sense to describe some of the entries on his list of "propensities"; and in everyday English, the modes of perception are called senses as well.

Given that English has for centuries used "sense of" to mean any of a number of ideas—including "feeling of," "consciousness of," "awareness of," and "notion of"—it is hardly surprising that the idea or recognition or appreciation of humor should also be described as a "sense of humor." In a thoroughly unscientific series of Google Books searches (the results of which are presented below), the first occurrence of "sense of humour" was from a book published in 1753—by no means early in the continuum of "sense of X" entries that I checked, and much later than such other mental senses as sorrow, love, piety, shame, gratitude, grief, and joy.


A Chronology of Senses in Google Books Search Results

I ran a Google Books search for the years 1550 through 1900 for one hundred "sense of" phrases, each of which yielded matches from not later than 1880. The phrases I searched for were as follows, in chronological order by first Google Books match:

1584: "sense of feeling"

1590: "sense of sorrow"

1591: "sense of love"

1598 "sense of hearing"

1603: "sense of pain"

1604: "sense of smelling"

1619: "sense of piety"

1623: "sense of shame"

1626: "sense of wrong"

1628: "sense of plesure"

1631: "sense of gratitude"; "sense of sin"

1633: "sense of grief"

1634: "sense of discipline"; "sense of faith"; "sense of frailty"; "sense of comfort"

1640: "sense of pity"

1641: "sense of security"; "sense of scruple"

1642: "sense of seeing"; "sense of humanity"

1643: "sense of religion"

1646: "sense of want"

1648: "sense of joy"

1649: "sense of tasting"; "sense of touching"

1653: "sense of duty"; "sense of mercy"

1654: "sense of conscience"

1658: "sense of compassion"

1659: "sense of honour"; "sense of peace"

1660: "sense of sacrifices"

1674: "sense of goodness"

1692: "sense of danger"

1694 (from a 1657 journal entry): "sense of truth"

1699: "sense of propriety"

1700: "sense of honesty"

1702: "sense of virtue"

1705: "sense of modesty"; "sense of merit"

1710: "sense of faith"

1714: "sense of vice"; "sense of right and wrong""

1719: "sense of the sublime"

1726: "sense of beauty"; "sense of obligation"; "sense of fear"; "sense of mortality"

1728: "sense of happiness"

1729: "sense of law"

1730: "sense of justice"

1740: "sense of devotion"; "sense of perfection"

1748: "sense of benevolence"

1749: "sense of approbation"

1751: "sense of right"; "sense of imitation"

1753: "sense of humour"

1757: "sense of impropriety"; "sense of awe"

1769: "sense of proportion"

1771: "sense of salvation"

1773: "sense of irony"

1785: "sense of self-esteem"

1787: "sense of godliness"

1790: "sense of pride"

1792: "sense of seriousness"; "sense of understanding"

1795: "sense of reverence"

1797: "sense of responsibility"; "sense of sympathy"; "sense of perdition"

1800: "sense of surprise"; "sense of righteouness"

1802: "sense of respect"

1806: "sense of admiration"

1815: "sense of fair play"

1819: "sense of attachment"

1821: "sense of wonder"

1823: "sense of serenity"

1825: "sense of conscientiousness"

1826: "sense of abandonment"

1829: "sense of mockery"

1831: "sense of hope"

1833: "sense of caution"

1834: "sense of outrage"

1835: "sense of trust"; "sense of longing"

1839: "sense of despair"

1840: "sense of appreciation"

1841: "sense of approval"

1842: "sense of absurdity"

1849: "sense of caution"

1851: "sense of genius"

1853: "sense of pathos"

1873: "sense of fun"

1880: "sense of disbelief"; "sense of play"

Not surprisingly, the earliest instances tend to involve relatively basic and/or devotional senses; and not surprisingly (to me), negative senses such as sorrow and pain tend to precede their positive counterparts such as joy and pleasure, sometimes by decades.

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davarinofuntucson,

I like your answer as it makes sense of an historical word. Maybe a medieval doctor had a "sense of the humors" and could proceed accordingly?

Very often I believe that those who we say have a good sense of humor the "funny" sense are also those who have deep insights into the world/society/and human nature. Often their humor is revealing or biting against the ills of society, and not mere comical.The Three Stooges were hilarious, but I don't think their work had a "sense of humor." Robin Williams, on the other hand with works like the Birdcage and Mrs. Doubtfire had an acute sense of humor; maybe because he actually fought with the same demons he "made jokes" about.

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