A Survey of Linguistic Contributions to Modern Iocology
Professor of Iocology, Milne-Edwards University, Mangabey, Australia
The experimental study of the psychology of fun, iocology, has taken enormous strides forward since the latter half of the 20th century. A multidisciplinary field little known by outsiders, iocology nonetheless presents the spectacle of specialists in several of the human sciences collaborating in overcoming prima facie insurmountable methodological challenges to offer unexpected vistas into human psychology.
The Fundamentals of Iocology and Iocometry
Fun is measured in units of sims, with one sim equivalent to an hour’s exposure to one macaque monkey or an experimentally determined equivalent number of specimens of a given monkey species. In traditional units 412 sims equals one barrel, though this has given way in most countries to a metric system of sims and kilosims.1 The lower limit below which sleep is induced in 50% of the exposed population is around 0.0012 sims, attained for example in American theoretical syntax lectures with surprising regularity. The highest reported value is thought to have occurred in the notorious Upper Gilhooligan train crash of 1907, in which two circus trains collided, releasing 17 barrels of monkeys of several species; based on the proportions of species recovered by local hunters, it is estimated to have exposed onlookers to 19.4 barrels or just about 8 kilosims and resulted in the death by intercostal exsanguination of 14 local yokels, though it is thought that in more urban(e) populations only one or two fatalities would have been expected.
This points to the difficulty recognized very early on of wide variation in individual iocistic response, roughly correlated with the folk psychology notion of a “sense of humor.” Calibration of individual iocistic response was the major problem with which iocologists wrestled throughout the period from 1913 (the year in which the fundamental work in iocology was published, H. Gipfelhundt-Bundtkuchen’s “Warum war es so Spasz, und warum war ich so Spastisch?”) to 1957. In the latter year the researches of B. Pamplemousse and L. Vasabec, founders of the Department of Iocology at L’Université de Paris à l’Autel du XIIIe Arrondissement, culminated in the publication of L’Amusement et la drôlerie: une investigation psychométrique du trait le plus humain de l’humanité.2 Through a detailed investigation of the iocistic response of 769 subjects from all social origins, educational levels, and occupations, the different dimensions of iocistic response were defined and their combinations analyzed to yield three basic quantities, largeur, sécheur, and gravité, for the measurement of each of which Pamplemousse and Vasabec provided tests that even today are still widely used in European iocometric studies.3
A typical iocometric calibration begins by measuring the largeur of a subject. Selected physiological measurements (pupil response, diaphragm spasm displacement volume, lip aperture) are taken as the subject is shown a series of stock films—in contemporary English-language studies standardized as follows to give uniform coverage of the largeur scale (though presented in randomized sequence): macaque monkeys flinging feces, a clip from a Three Stooges film, an editorial from Speculative Grammarian, an old lady tripping on a banana peel, a Henny Youngman joke, a scene from The Blues Brothers, a knock-knock joke, a scene from I’m All Right Jack, a scene from The Big Lebowski, a speech by Ross Perot, a scene from The Coca-Cola Kid, a reading from Tom Sharpe’s The Throwback, Tom Lehrer’s “Smut,” a scene from The Lady Eve, the Duetto buffo di due gatti, a passage from The Sound Pattern of English, Gilbert and Sullivan’s Major-General’s Song, Saki’s “The Open Window,” an article from Speculative Grammarian, and a scene from Congreve’s The Way of the World. These results are then supplemented with a wide variety of religious, political, sexual, and scatological humor to measure gravité and a variety of interviews by Jerry Springer, Terry Wogan, Graham Kennedy, Al Murray, Tom Snyder, Mike Walsh, Fern Britton, and Dick Cavett to measure sécheur.
Linguistic Approaches to Iocology
Until a decade ago, only a few linguists had done significant work on linguistic iocology, most starting from the field of discourse analysis and ending up off the institutional linguistic map entirely in the far greener pastures and temperate climes of iocological discourse studies. The most important works in this field are Brite Laffer and Phantsy Fried, Laughing all the Way to the Bank: A Comparative Study of Public Iocistic Discourse on Wall Street, Canary Wharf, and the Bourse District (Indiana University Press, 1972); Chuck L. Bunnie, Two-Faced Back-Stabbing Whorehouse-Bred Weasels and Gallant Equestrian Toga-Clad Saviors of the Republic: The Discourses of American Political Humor and Political Abuse in Historical Perspective (Georgetown University Press, 1976); Poussie Foote-Innaraounde, It’s No Skin off My Teeth: A Cognitive Theory of Malapropisms from a Iocological Perspective (MIT Press, 1978); Raine N. Dochsenkatz, Millionaires in Monkey Business: Animal Humor, Discourse Presuppositions, and Zoological Gestalts (Bronx Zoological Garden Press, 1985); and Tanière de Tamia and Sottise Blaireau-Farfouilleur, A Good Joke’s No Laughing Matter: Iocometric Studies of Sociolinguistic Variation in 1930s Talkies (University of Delaware Press, 1992).
However, with the publication of X. Beinig Fassaden-Kletterin’s The Theoretical Syntax of Iocological Structures: An X-Bar Analysis of Knock-Knock Jokes and Limericks (MIT Press, 1996), iocology was brought to the uninterested attention of American theoretical linguists. In this study, Vladimir Propp’s analysis of Russian folktales was applied to a large corpus of knock-knock jokes to produce a set of 17 basic knock-knock schemata distinguished by the animacy, agency, and age of the participants; the basic insight of the study was to locate humorous response in a mismatch occurring during theta role assignment. (Despite three chapters being devoted to an X-bar analysis of limericks and a series of three dozen articles elaborating the analysis, it remains unclear just what the author meant in this part.4) While the response on the banks of the Charles was less than enthusiastic (Noam Chomsky: “You know what I said about sociolinguistics? It goes double for iocology,” quoted in R. Schlescher, The Table-Talk of Noam Chomsky) and the book itself dismissed by many (A.Z. Pratt, “While the study is itself a fit subject for iocological investigation, it is hard to discern any virtue in those aspects of the book that might be attributed to the author’s intention,” Speculative Iocologist; G.G. Pomyotnik, “The book in question goes over about as well as telling a knock-knock joke to the deceased at a closed-casket funeral,” Kokomo Review of Books), Fassaden-Kletterin inaugurated a new era of iocological theorizing indebted to a variety of schools of theoretical linguistics.
Of these, the most promising is probably the connectionist approach of Smeshnoy, Glupogrubaya, and Styob-Prikol, whose researches began in 1985 when the first two researchers, international graduate students in linguistics who had been admitted to Texas Wesleyan College (now University) through a clerical error (for said school does not have a linguistics department), enrolled in an advanced literature course on prosody through a misunderstanding of the course catalog. Trying to make head and tail of the first assignment, a prosodic analysis of Dryden’s “Mac Flecknoe,” over beers in a nearby country-and-western bar, the two of them noticed strong similarities between the poem and the song playing at the time. (Unfortunately, due to the amount of beer that had been drunk, there is no agreement on which song it was: The first says Sylvia’s “Like Nothing Ever Happened,” the second Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again.”) Marking stress, rhymes, assonances, alliterations, and shared semantic features in different colors of ink while beating time to the song, they were reminded of their roommate’s different kinds of homework. Excited, they contacted him, a topologist and composer, who in return for free beer and a reduction of his share of the rent began a series of ground-breaking examinations of topological invariances in versification and in the musical structure of humorous songs. After flunking out of TWC at the end of their first semester with the worst grades reported for any graduate students in the history of the school, the three returned to the Soviet Union and earned tenure three years later by republishing their coursework in the leading Russian-language iocological, topological, and musicological journals.
Following up on this lead but taking an independent tack on the grounds that “uh, sorry, I actually don’t know Russian,” certain methodological advances were pursued by Anchous Slivochny-Buterbrot, who studied iocological connectionism quantitatively at SUNY Cortland until his disappearance down a rabbit hole somewhere online in 2007 or 2008, and his line of research was carried on by his students Sonata, Jones-NOO, and Noyrbulchirkhay. While this occasioned a good deal of distracting and acrimonious commentary in the local academic press5 that caused funding and employment to dry up, it was championed by Eastern European scholars beginning in 2009 after Sonata and Jones-NOO used the literature from their research project as reading materials in the ESL classes they taught in Prague and Szeged. No publications have resulted, however.
And here we come to the end of our brief survey of the burgeoning field of linguistic iocology, whose long-term prognosis has been aptly described by one of its long-term observers thus: “Once thought good and dead after a brief flare-up and secondary recrudescence back in the dark days before sulfonamide, in fact it passed decades in latency and has erupted gummatously all over the face of learning.”6 While this has led some scholars to shun the field as unclean and tainted, others insist on a more understanding, less judgmental approach: “I don’t think we should condemn it for its youthful excesses, for any of us could be next, well, not all of us, but some of you. Yeah, I’m looking at you, Smedley, you silly lexicalist! I’d run less risk embracing your mistress than your principles!”7 However, the promise of the field has been best summed up by one of its leading practitioners, “Ooh, it’s just so warm and fuzzy and cuddly and it makes me want to feed it carrots and pet it all day long.”8
1 This system of units goes back to early 20th century circus technology. As circuses competed in size, it became necessary to build special tank-shaped railroad cars called “barrels,” which were first introduced in 1887. By 1893 the largest feasible barrel was introduced, measuring 23 feet long and 10 feet in diameter and containing 412 restraining harnesses. The task of restraining 412 monkeys was of course onerous, as was the job of cleaning the barrel out afterwards, which gave rise to the originally sarcastic saying, “As much fun as a barrel of monkeys and almost as smelly.”
2 Available in English translation only in the long out-of-print Fun and Games: A Serious Study of a Light Subject (Dover, 1963).
3 Some of which, predominantly those to measure gravité, are commemorated in the filmed laboratory collaborations of Honeydew and Beaker that originally served Pamplemousse and Vasabec for preliminary iocometric calibration and later took on new life in popular culture.
4 The interested reader is directed to Fassaden-Kletterin’s final review article, “Indem ich jetzt Verbeamtung habe, warum zerreden wir immer noch solchen Quatsch?”, Spaßuntersuchungensarbeitsunterlagen von der Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, Vol. 18 No. 2, pp. 46-95 (2006).
5 E.T.A. Schlaffmann, “Local Professor Disappears from Computer Lab Sometime in the Last Eight Months, Department Breathes Sigh of Relief,” The Cortland Ember, 17 Feb 2008, p. 1; E.T.A. Schlaffmann, “Information Technology Expands List of ‘Dangerous and Prohibited Sites,’ Warns Campus Community Against ‘Rabbit Holes and Time Sucks,’ ” The Cortland Ember, 17 Mar 2008, p. 1; F.A.E. Sonata, “But rabbits are cute!,” Journal of the Bunny Fanciers Anonymous of SUNY Cortland, Vol. 5 No. 4, pp. 17-28 (2008); A.C.E. Jenkins, “No they’re not,” The Albany Albino, 17 May 2008, p. 6; F.A.E. Sonata, “Life Without Rabbits is Like the Mall Without Christmas Music,” Speculative Fictionary, Vol. 2 No. 6, pp. 12-74 (2008); A.K.A. Elias, “Miles Davis Never Made a Christmas Album, and There’s a Reason for That,” The (Schenectady) New York Times, 17 Jun 2008, p. 14; A.H.M. Jones (No, the Other One), “Jazzbos Chap My Hide Even More than Longhairs,” The Militant Iocologist, Vol. 3 No. 7, p. 16 (2008); Virginia van Zandt-Nicholas, “No, There’s No Jolly Fat Man in a Red Suit at the End of That Rabbit Hole,” SUNY Binghamton Addiction Research Quarterly, Vol. 17 No. 8, pp. 17-27 (2008); Tarwagany Noyrbulchirkhay, “Dude, If You Don’t Get the Joke, You’re Not Qualified to Discuss Our Research,” Iocology Quarterly of the Mohawk Valley, Vol. 7 No. 9, pp. 4-26 (2008); M.A. Thompson, “Following Bunnies Finds You Easter Eggs,” Speculative Leporidologist, Vol. 3 No. 4, p. 12 (8 Apr 2013).
6 E.F.K. Koerner (No, the Other One), Whadda Joke: A History of the Study of Humor from Aristotle to Quine (The Weisenheimer Servile Shoggoth Press, 2012), p. 437.
7 Trey Jones (Yes, That One), p.c. (1 Apr 2013).
8 Is a citation really necessary? Who else could it be?