chapter  8
22 Pages

On Laughter and Ludicrous Composition

The word 'risible' has been a taxing one for lexicographers. The OED lists the nominal form 'risibility' ('The faculty of laughing; laughter; a disposition to laugh') plus three adjectival senses, these being 1. 'Having the faculty or power of laughing; inclined or given to laughter'; 2. 'Pertaining to, or used in, laughter'; and 3. 'Capable of exciting laughter; laughable, ludicrous, comical'. Sense 1 predates the other two, its earliest recorded usage reaching back to 1557, and remains current into the eighteenth century (though the OED records no usages thereafter), as in Aaron Hill's rhetorical question in his Advice to the Poets (1731): 'What must risible Foreigners have thought of the Court of King William?' The other two senses are actually coined in the eighteenth century, sense 2 dating to 1747 and 3 to 1727. It might reasonably be deduced from this evidence that 'risibility', as a term and idea, comes into its own in the eighteenth century, and certainly what appears to be the sole surviving acceptation of the adjective 'risible', where the word denotes objects 'Capable of exciting laughter', harks back to this era. Yet the lexicographers have not left the issue without muddying it. The OED, for example, does not mark its senses 1 and 2 as obsolete, though these are discarded from The Oxford Dictionaiy & English Usage Guide (1996) in which 'risible' is glossed as 'laughable, ludicrous'. The feeling that 'risible' has nowadays rationalized itself into a single acceptation is reflected in the Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionaiy (1987), a compilation dedicated explicitly to usage, where we are told that 'something that is risible makes you want to laugh'. Curiously, however, the Collins English Dictionaiy (fourth edn, 1998) continues to find space for OED 1, as The Chambers Dictionary (1998) does for senses 1 and 2, ones which our own ears tell us to be no longer extant.