It wasn’t until the 1680s that the word humor began to refer to something amusing or comic. I learned of this by venturing down an Internet rabbit hole…
When I realized that humor was the theme marking the conclusion of our Humans of MHT interview series, I was delighted by the linguistic serendipity - humor and humanness. I assumed that the two words were etymologically linked. However, when I did a cursory Google search, I found evidence to the contrary. Humor comes from the Latin words “humere” (to be moist) and “humor” (liquid, moistness). Human, on the other hand, is borrowed from the Latin words “homo” (man, human) and “humanus” (of or belonging to man, human, humane).
No close historical relation after all.
But it didn’t matter. I was newly delighted by dangling carrots — and it was all about humor as a word for state of mind or mood, not as a reference to something funny. I had stumbled upon an article about humorism - a system of medicine, adopted by ancient Greek and Roman physicians and philosophers, that attributes particular mental states to an excess or deficiency of four distinct bodily fluids in a person, known as humors. In this system, both mental and physical health are dependent on a balance of four primary humors: bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood, and therefore, a person could have a melancholic, bilious, phlegmatic or sanguine temperament. My initial thought was: Huh — there’s something very apropos about this connection because any comedian worth their salt has a zinger about our most embarrassing human secretions.
As I dug deeper, I read that language evolved from speaking of temperament (He’s in ill-humor/She’s in good humor) to “humoring” someone’s mood or whim, and then finally referring to something that could alter someone’s mood by making them laugh. In the 17th century, humor then became synonymous with “imbalance" and "eccentricity of character.” I had an aha moment -- that was the key between humor and humanness! No need for these threads to be linked by the same root word. They were already inextricably tied together in my understanding of a lasting partnership, but I didn't have the turn of phrase to more fully articulate it until my eyes landed on eccentricity of character. What clicked was....When I think about someone’s humanness, I reflect on their particularities, foibles, oddities, or difference. The prickly bits and the rough edges are the most human. In relationship, it is the ability to negotiate eccentricities rather than strive for sameness or perfect complementarity that I believe provides sturdiness to weather the storms of life together.
According to eHarmony, “Almost every person has ‘sense of humor’ high on the list of things they want in a partner.” That rings emotionally true — that’s certainly what my people in my personal life value in their significant others. And it’s something that I cherish in my partner. This conviction was also declared in Lauren Ziel's interview with comedy producer Andi Porter, in which Porter stated “I would have a sack of potatoes as a partner as long as they had a great sense of humor.” When we say that we’re looking for a love interest with a sense of humor, I think we’re wondering: Can this person roll with the punches of life? Can they respect their own eccentricities and will they accept and love my eccentricities? And for me, specifically, can they humor my searching for things equally inane and profound online?
Taz Morgan, MA, is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist, IMF #99714, working under the supervision of Gabrielle Taylor, PhD. She has trained in Depth-oriented psychotherapy and works with adolescents, adults, and couples.