The European Journal of Humour Research

Vol 6, No 3 (2018)

Shifting from meaning to its carrier: A common denominator for three strains of humour

Ron Aharoni


Incongruity theories maintain that the core of humour is in interplay between meanings. Two incompatible meanings – of situations, verbal utterances or actions – are juxtaposed, one replacing the other or colliding with it. In this paper, I suggest that often the game is not played between two meanings, but between meaning and its carrier. I provide as examples two families of jokes and one general type of humour sharing this mechanism. One of the two families comprises jokes of self-reference, and the other consists of jokes based on deflation of symbols, which means using them in a concrete sense. The general type of humour is the subject of Bergson’s 1900 theory of the comic, mechanical behaviour where flexible human reaction is expected. The mechanism common to all three is a shift of weight from meaning to its carrier. This mechanism is then traced also in other jokes, suggesting possible universality


Aharoni, R. (2012). Man Detaches Meaning – Techniques Common to Poetry and Jokes. Tel Aviv: Hakibutz Hameuchad (In Hebrew).

Aharoni, R. (2016). Circularity. Singapore: World Scientific.

Attardo, S. & Raskin, V. (1991). ‘Script theory revis(it)ed: joke similarity and joke representation model’. Humor 4 (3-4), pp. 293–347.

Beattie, J. (1776). Essays. Edinburg: William Creech.

Bergson, H. (1911). Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic [1900]. New York: Macmillan.

Bergson, H. (1907). Creative Evolution. Trans. A. Mitchell. NY: The Floating Press [2009].

Brainy Quote (2018). Retrieved 30 September 2018 from

De Bono, E. (1990). I Am Right, You Are Wrong. London: Penguin.

Fonagy, P. (2001). Attachment Theory and Psychoanalysis. London: Other Press.

Forabosco, G. (2008). ‘Is the concept of incongruity still useful?’, Lodz Papers in Pragmatics 4.1, Special Issue on Humour. pp. 45-62.

Freud, S. (1960). The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious [1905]. Trans. J. Strachey. London: Penguin. The Pelican Freud Library Vol. 6.

Hartley, G. (1989). ‘Realism and reification: the poetics and politics of three language poets’, Boundary 2, Duke University Press 16(2/3), pp. 311-334.

Jakobson, R. (1960). ‘Closing statements: linguistics and poetics’, in Sebeok, T.A., Style in Language, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1960, pp. 350–377.

Kant, I. (1951). Critique of Judgment [1790]. Trans. J. H. Bernard, New York: Hafner Publishing.

Latta, R. (2009). The Basic Humor Process: A Cognitive-Shift Theory and the Case Against Incongruity. Berlin and New York: Mouton De Gruyter.

McKinley, R.A. (1964). ‘The role of concrete thinking in schizophrenia’, NY State Journal of Medicine 15, pp. 761-768.

Mindess, H. (1971). Laughter and Liberation. Los Angeles: Nash Pub.

Morreall, J. (2008). ‘Philosophy and religion’, in Raskin, V. (ed). The Primer of Humour Research. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Monty Python (1989). ‘The Arguments Clinic’, in Chapman, G. et al. The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus: All the Words, Volume 2. New York: Pantheon Books.

Monty Python (2007). The Story of Brian (Monty Python’s Life of Brian: The Immaculate Edition DVD). Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Müller, R. (2015). ‘A metaphorical perspective on humour’, in Veale, T., Brône, G., Feyaerts, K. (eds.), Cognitive Linguistics and Humor Research. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 111-128.

Olson, A. (2013). Illuminating Schizophrenia: Insights into the Uncommon Mind, Newark: Newark educational and psychological publications.

Oring, E. (2003). Engaging Humour. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

Orwell, G. (1946). Why I Write. London: Penguin.

Piata, A. (2016). ‘When metaphor becomes a joke: Metaphor journeys from political ads to internet memes’, Journal of Pragmatics 106, pp. 39-56.

Raskin, V. (1985). Semantic Mechanisms of Humor. Dordrecht: D. Reidel.

Sartre, J.-P. (1948). What Is Literature? Paris: Gallimard.

Schopenhauer, A. (1907). The World as Will and Idea (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung) [1818/1844]. Trans. R. B. Haldane and J. Kemp, 6th ed., London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Schuetze, S. (2017). Versuch einer Theorie des Komischen [1817], Reprinted. Boston: Forgotten books.

Shklovsky, V. (1998). ‘Art as technique’, in Rivkin, J. and Ryan, M. (eds). Literary Theory: An Anthology. Malden: Blackwell.

Waugh, L. (1980). ‘The poetic function in the theory of Roman Jakobson’, Poetics Today 2 (1a), pp. 57-82.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001). Philosophical Investigations [1953]. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell.