Musing on the Half-life of Humour

I’ve been reading ‘A Slip of the Keyboard’, a collection of non-fiction by the late and so very much lamented Sir Terry Pratchett. It’s an interesting read on many levels. There’s one trainee journalist I know who definitely should read it. But that’s not what this is about.

There’s reference made in passing to ‘Spem in Alium’, a famous piece of English choral music by Thomas Tallis, composed in 1570. I am incidentally a great fan of such choral music and sang in a very highly regarded church choir in my teens, got my Royal School of Church Music medals and we once sang in Salisbury Cathedral. But that’s not what this is about either.

The thing is, as an erstwhile Classicist, I can’t read ‘Spem in Alium’ without mentally translating it into ‘Hope in Garlic’ and inwardly giggling, as an inveterate fan of puns. It’s actually ‘Hope in Another’, for those of you who don’t have the Latin, as the late Peter Cook would say. (And how old do you have to be, for that reference to make any sense?)

Given I’m reading Terry Pratchett, I immediately think what a great Discworldian motto ‘Spem in Allium’ would make for a family of vampire hunters! Until they met the Count de Magpyr – but that’s a different story. ‘Carpe Jugulum’ to be precise. Which is another Latin based joke, of course, riffing on Carpe Diem.

So now I’m wondering, how long will these jokes be funny now that Latin is no longer taught in any widespread sense? Satirists like Flanders and Swann in the 60’s could get a roar of laughter in a packed theatre when they’re talking about newspapers on the ‘At the Drop of a Hat’ recording, and translate ‘O Tempora! O Mores!’ as ‘Oh, Times! Oh Daily Mirror!’ Could that happen today?

And this goes beyond Latin and indeed goes beyond humour. Just as Classics courses at universities now offer places to those with no Latin or Greek and include intensive language study from the start, so English Literature faculties are now including texts like the Bible in their first year courses because they can no longer assume that students will arrive with sufficient ‘cultural Christianity’ to engage as fully as possible with Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example. Is that a good thing, or a bad one? Or is it simply a thing to adapt to and move on?

What does all this mean for popular or indeed, high-brow culture? Who knows? But we can definitely see this shift taking place.

Not that this is a recent phenomenon, as evidenced by a conversation I had a few months ago with a Son. Son was passing through the lounge, where I was reading and there was a concert playing on the telly.

He halted, his attention caught by the music. ‘Oh, I know this – what’s it called?’
Me, not looking up. ‘Elgar, Nimrod.’
Son, affronted. ‘I only asked.’
Me, glancing up, slightly surprised. ‘And I only answered.’
Son, still indignant. ‘You didn’t have to call me a Nimrod.’
Me, putting book down. ‘What are you talking about? It’s the name of the piece – Nimrod, the mighty hunter. It’s by the composer Elgar.’
Son, baffled ‘How did that end up meaning a stupid person?’
Me, now equally baffled. ‘What on earth are you talking about?’

Well, it turns out that for the sons’ generation, ‘Nimrod’ is indeed an insult and they have no knowledge of the Biblical reference to contradict it.

For that, believe it or not, we can thank Bugs Bunny. Back in the 1940s, he would refer mockingly to Elmer Fudd as ‘poor little Nimrod’, ‘what a Nimrod’ and so on. US cinema audiences began using it as an insult for buffoons like Elmer. With any knowledge of the Biblical origin? Who can say – but the mocking term was soon standing alone without any need for explanation, certainly in American English.

Given the exponential proliferation of pop culture these days, I am wondering where future writers, humorous and otherwise, will find sufficiently common references to draw on? What will they do, when there’s a distinct possibility that only a handful of people will get a particular joke? Use it or lose it?

What about the people who don’t get the joke? How will they feel? For instance, in the first Avengers movie, the use of a quotation from Ezekiel instantly identified those few of us who laughed out loud as the ones in the cinema who’d also seen Pulp Fiction. How distracting was that for the rest of the audience? Realising they’d missed something but having no idea what it might be. I still wonder.

I don’t have any answers. Anyone got any observations or thoughts?

Author: Juliet

Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels so far. Her debut, The Thief’s Gamble, began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, followed by The Aldabreshin Compass sequence, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, and The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. The Green Man’s Heir was her first modern fantasy inspired by British folklore in 2018, and The Green Man’s Quarry in 2023 is the sixth title in this ongoing series. Her 2023 novel The Cleaving is a female-centred retelling of the story of King Arthur, while her shorter stories include forays into dark fantasy, steampunk and science fiction. She promotes SF&Fantasy by reviewing, by blogging on book trade issues, attending conventions and teaching creative writing. She has served as a judge for major genre awards. As J M Alvey, she has written historical murder mysteries set in ancient Greece.

16 thoughts on “Musing on the Half-life of Humour

  1. So now I’m wondering, how long will these jokes be funny now that Latin is no longer taught in any widespread sense?

    Their humour is going to fade away, unfortunately. Wordplay, puns and allusions only really work if people know both meanings. With one half of the equation gone, it just echoes on.

    For example, AOU and Ultron riffing off of Pinocchio only works as long as Pinocchio remains relevant. Take that away, and the “no strings on me” falls flat.

    I do think the atomization of popular culture makes wide-ranging humor harder and harder to pull off. The Doctor Who episode with the space station with reality shows. If you never saw or heard of those shows, the allusions just don’t work.

    Heck, at one point, the Doctor says “Rose, I’m coming to get you.” I didn’t know for years after that it was a catch phrase from the British Big Brother and that it was a reference. I missed it entirely.

    1. Yes, I think the more specific the basis for a joke’s going to be, the quicker it’s going to date and the greater the risk of someone simply not getting it.

      Humour based on observing human nature is what seems to last – those bits of Classical Greek Comedy are still funny, where the jibes at specific politicians now need footnotes (often saying ‘we have no idea who this is or why he’s being mocked’)

  2. I suspect you have to be at least as old as you and I to get the Peter Cook reference!

    I think it’s a shame that children aren’t taught the ‘classics’ of British culture at school – we make non-Brits wanting to become citizens learn this stuff, surely we should also make sure our kids learn it too?

    Or else we bow down and accept the American homogenisation of British culture. (And I say that as someone who’s not *hugely* patriotic – I just think we have a culture that’s worth knowing about and learning to appreciate.)

  3. Nimrod meaning stupid? Well, that’s a new one on me! As a bloke of a certain age, my other reference was a jet aircraft used by the RAF… Sad, eh?

    Humour is indeed a funny thing – ahem – and I imagine that it will fail to translate down the generations in the same way as it often fails to translate across language and culture. One man’s joke is another’s downright insult. I once spent a year abroad in Germany learning just that, the hard way.

    I consider you fortunate to have learned Latin. I wish I had. It’s all Greek to me.

    1. I remain very proud of my husband, who, after being introduced to a delightful little girl called Corvette, waited until we were alone in the car to wonder aloud if she’d been name for the car or the battleship…

      And yes, every translator I’ve ever spoken to says getting humour across a language barrier is *really hard*

  4. One of the joys of re-reading a Terry Pratchett book is spotting the jokes you missed the first few times, as your cultural knowledge expands with age.

    Having said that, the Pulp Fiction reference in Avengers must have gone straight over my head, even though I have seen that film! I caught the one in Winter Solider, though.

  5. I’m not sure about Latin jokes. I was the only person in my class to do Latin O-level. I don’t know anywhere where students still learn Latin before third level. However, “Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus” is a joke from the most successful book series of our generation. Somebody must be finding it funny.

      1. I think that the average Potter reader would need the Latin tag to be translated – but I think that the Latin is intended to be funny also. The spells are largely in Latin, or made to sound as if they are in Latin.

  6. Some of my early involvement with James Branch Cabell involved my getting some of the jokes and references but not others. There’s a scene in (I think) Figures of Earth where Manuel the pigherd meets several gods from different pantheons, including (again, I think, a long time ago) Kali and Thor, and at least one which I am sure now was imagined. The fact that I got some of the joke led me to enquiring about the rest of it, and the fact that I was now looking for such conundrums was one of the reasons I really, really liked Cabell’s work.

    I guess my point is that for some people knowing there are jokes to get that they are not getting is part of the fun.

    1. And a very good point it is. I’ve certainly gone away and looked up things I realised I didn’t know about after coming across them in books. Such as ‘logarithm’ when it cropped up in John Wyndham’s Chocky.

      Can’t think of an instance of humour where that’s happened – but I wouldn’t be surprised.

  7. I’m glad to know someone else does the double-take at Spem in Alium.

    I suspect that in 30 years people will be posting similar comments about the loss of references that they hold dear that date from today.

    And younger people do learn to recognize many of these allusions, just by different routes. They play Assassins Creed etc., and pick up all sorts of history, geography and myth, and some of them go on to look up that is old or real and what is new. So what if their ideas about Valhalla come via films of Marvel superheroes? They may learn the ‘true’ version later. Any anyway, ideas of what the right version of myths is have always been challenged and changed. Our versions of many Greek myths are frequently based on Ovid’s, and his were very different from some of the Greek versions. This is not so much true of Christianity, thanks to worries about hurting Americans’ feeling – It would be interesting to see what happens when only the Monty Python version survives.

  8. The lack of common ground for word-play humour has been bothering me for a long time. I think it is accelerated by the fact that our references tend to be online these days. I never did Latin at school, but I learnt from the ‘list of foreign words and phrases in common use’ in dictionaries, books of Etymology, Brewer’s and the like. It’s harder to unconsciously absorb things when the Internet simply gives you what you want to know – and only that. Pre-Internet, we were bored enough on wet days to read anything with print on, from HP Sauce labels to the Authorised Version and everything in between.
    But, as Julia says, we still learn with time, suddenly ‘see’ jokes we couldn’t have seen a few years ago. I have been re-reading Dickens and other Victorian writers, seeing things that I missed in school’s Eng Lit lessons – simply from being more informed about the era. The best humorous writers, like Pratchett, have always worked on several levels at the same time; so there is the simple slapstick and observations, the clever illusions, the obscure fun and then the deeper philosophy as well – I don’t think that kind of book dates as fast as we might think. On the other hand, future editions may need Even More Footnotes!

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