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A Possible Connection Between Word Creation and Humor
Is it funny to make up words? What might this mean? Here are some thoughts on the subject.
About fifteen years ago I was on a train from Frankfurt to Zürich. It was the only time I've had an opportunity to try out my (poorly-learned, and by then, quite rusty) German. I had a conversation with a young woman. We talked mostly about school and travel. I was amazed and gratified that we could communicate at all. I used sign language and an occasional English word when I got stuck. At one point, I couldn't remember the word "airplane," and made a flying gesture with my hands. "Flugzeug," she reminded me. "Ach, ja," I said, seeing the logic of it, "Flug und Zeug" ("flight" and "stuff" -- stuff which flies -- flying stuff). Hearing this, she burst out laughing! She'd known the word "Flugzeug" all her life, but she'd always though of it as a whole, and hadn't taken it apart into its pieces; now that she did, she thought it was amusing. And so did I.
I make up words occasionally -- who doesn't? Whether it's a silly name for a pet or a new technical term for my work, the act of creating a new word is always fun -- and almost always funny. Has it always been that way? How could we find out?
Looking through a dictionary, most word derivations seem very obvious: a word moves into a new language, and gets reshaped to follow the grammatical and phonemic conventions of that new language.
But sometimes, a word shifts its meaning, resulting in a word the meaning of which could not be predicted (at least, not in any obvious way) from the words from which it was derived -- a truly "new" word.
For example, take the word "pool," in the sense of "a fund containing the money bet in a game of chance." You might think that this was like the word "kitty," (meaning more or less the same thing), which derived from the word "kitte," meaning "tub." At least, that would make sense, since you might be tossing your money into a tub or bowl. But no; "pool" (in this sense, anyway) is from the French word poule -- hen, chicken. I wasn't there, and I haven't looked into this deeply, but I'm guessing that at some point, farmers were playing a game and betting chickens on the outcome. Then, later, when they were betting money, somebody referred to the money that had been bet so far as the "chicken.". Okay, maybe I'm wrong about the particulars; but doesn't it seem likely that the derivation of this word started as a joke?
Another kind of word creation that seems likely to have its roots in humor is that which is based on onomatopoeia. Imagine, being the first to refer to a bubbling, hissing sound with the word "fizz." Or the first to use "shush" as a verb. Can these but have been humorous times?
Funny things are easier to remember. Why is that? I read something a few years ago that suggested that humor caused a temporary change the brain chemistry, a change related to the changes present during excitement, and that memory was enhanced by these changes.
Even if that's not true, humor is pleasurable (why is that?), and we therefore repeat and dwell on funny things -- which would help us remember them.
Anyway, it seems possible that humor plays some part in the way language develops.