Language Is Fun

Word games have long been popular. Before Words with Friends there was Apples to Apples, Boggle, Scrabble, and crossword puzzles. Writers, poets, and comedians have built careers on their ability to have fun with language and in turn share that fun with others. The fun and frivolity of language becomes clear as teachers get half-hearted laughs from students when they make puns, Jay Leno has a whole bit where he shows the hilarious mistakes people unintentionally make when they employ language, and people vie to construct the longest palindromic sentence (a sentence that as the same letters backward and forward).

The productivity and limitlessness of language we discussed earlier leads some people to spend an inordinate amount of time discovering things about words. Two examples that I have found fascinating are palindromes and contranyms. Palindromes, as noted, are words that read the same from left to right and from right to left. Racecar is a commonly cited example, but a little time spent looking through Google results for palindromes exposes many more, ranging from “Live not on evil” to “Doc, note I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.” “Neil/Fred’s Gigantic List of Palindromes,” accessed June 7, 2012, Contranyms are words that have multiple meanings, two of which are opposites. For example, sanction can mean “to allow” and “to prevent,” and dust can mean “to remove particles” when used in reference to furniture or “to add particles” when used in reference to a cake. These are just two examples of humorous and contradictory features of the English language—the book Crazy English by Richard Lederer explores dozens more. A fun aspect of language enjoyed by more people than a small community of word enthusiasts is humor.

There are more than one hundred theories of humor, but none of them quite captures the complex and often contradictory nature of what we find funny. Hugh Foot and May McCreaddie, “Humour and Laughter,” in The Handbook of Communication Skills, ed. Owen Hargie (New York, NY: Routledge, 2006), 295. Humor is a complicated social phenomenon that is largely based on the relationship between language and meaning. Humor functions to liven up conversations, break the ice, and increase group cohesion. We also use humor to test our compatibility with others when a deep conversation about certain topics like politics or religion would be awkward. Bringing up these topics in a lighthearted way can give us indirect information about another person’s beliefs, attitudes, and values. Based on their response to the humorous message, we can either probe further or change the subject and write it off as a poor attempt at humor. Hugh Foot and May McCreaddie, “Humour and Laughter,” in The Handbook of Communication Skills, ed. Owen Hargie (New York, NY: Routledge, 2006), 299. Using humor also draws attention to us, and the reactions that we get from others feeds into our self-concept. We also use humor to disclose information about ourselves that we might not feel comfortable revealing in a more straightforward way. Humor can also be used to express sexual interest or to cope with bad news or bad situations.

We first start to develop an understanding of humor as children when we realize that the words we use for objects are really arbitrary and can be manipulated. This manipulation creates a distortion or incongruous moment in the reality that we had previously known. Some humor scholars believe that this early word play—for example, calling a horse a turtle and a turtle a horse—leads us to appreciate language-based humor like puns and riddles. Hugh Foot and May McCreaddie, “Humour and Laughter,” in The Handbook of Communication Skills, ed. Owen Hargie (New York, NY: Routledge, 2006), 294–95. It is in the process of encoding and decoding that humor emerges. People use encoding to decide how and when to use humor, and people use decoding to make sense of humorous communication. Things can go wrong in both of those processes. I’m sure we can all relate to the experience of witnessing a poorly timed or executed joke (a problem with encoding) and of not getting a joke (a problem with decoding).

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