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humor

Printable Version Pronunciation: hyu-mêr Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun, Verb

Meaning: 1. [Countable noun] Any bodily fluid: blood, lymph, or other glandular secretion. 2. [Mass noun] Anything that causes smiles or laughter, and puts us in a very good mood. 3. [Verb] To favor or do a favor for, be nice to someone.

Notes: This word started out referring to fluid and, in the medical profession, it still does. Elsewhere it migrated to a mass noun, as to be in good humor (= mood), and from there, to its sense of comedy today. If you live outside the US, look out for the British spelling humour, like the British spelling of colour, labour, and splendour. The verb humor has a slightly different meaning as in, "I know you don't like this program but humor me and watch it this one time."

In Play: Today we begin a series on the four ancient humors and their influence on English adjectives. Ancient and medieval physiologists believed that our moods were determined by four bodily fluids: blood (confidence, cheerfulness), phlegm (sluggishness), yellow bile (short-temper), and black bile (thoughtfulness, depression). Over the course of this week we will explore these moods and the English words that still reflect them. In the meantime, we can use today's word as a substitute for mood: "Lloyd seems to be out of humor today; let's all try humoring him as much as possible." We may also join the medical profession and use this word in the sense of "bodily fluid": "The very mention of Spitzer's name makes all my humors boil!"

Word History: Today's Good Word started out as Latin humor "fluid, moisture" from the verb humere "be wet, moist". The same root gave Latin humidus "wet", which English borrowed as humid. Because these words were also spelled without the initial H, i.e. umor, umidus, most etymologists think that they were confused with humus "earth, soil" and picked up the initial H from that otherwise unrelated word. (Jim Marlin's suggestion that we treat sanguine as a Good Word put us in the humor to offer all four words associated with the ancient humors, beginning with humor itself.)

Dr. Goodword, alphaDictionary.com

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