Laughing at Pandemics, Kings, and Abracadabra

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January 14, 2021 by libroshombre

            Merriam-Webster.com has announced that, “based upon a statistical analysis of words that are looked up in extremely high numbers in our online dictionary while also showing a significant year-over-year increase in traffic, Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year for 2020 is ‘pandemic’.”  That’s not surprising, but the virulence of the term is.  On February 3rd, the day the first COVID-19 patient was released from a Seattle hospital, pandemic was looked up 1,621% more than the previous year.  On March 11th the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 had officially become a pandemic, look-ups jumped by 115,806%, and “it has remained high in our look-ups ever since, staying near the top of our word list for the past 10 months.”

            The physical effects of the pandemic have been horrific enough, but the social isolation has exacerbated everyone’s emotional well-being.  Fortunately, while there’s no vaccine for that, there is a ready and effective balm: laughter.  Back in pre-pandemic 2019, the University of St. Augustine released a report showing laughter can reduce the physical and emotional effects of stress by improving your overall mood and strengthening your immune system by releasing stress-fighting neuropeptides and infection-fighting antibodies.  Laughing oxygenates your lungs and blood, thereby improving vascular function and decreasing the risk of heart attacks.  Guffawing stimulates your heart and other muscles and afterwards relaxes those muscles for up to 45 minutes.  And it lowers blood pressure while burning calories.

            Or you can wear an amulet your neck with “ABRACADABRA” on the top line, “ABRACADABR” on the second, “ABRACADAB” on the third and so on until the bottom reads “A.”  It was prescribed around 200 CE by Serenus Sammonicus, a prominent Roman physician in his book “De medicina praecepta.”  He owned a magnificent 60,000 volume library, but it’s uncertain whether Serenus or a myopic scribe mistransliterated the Greek word, “abrasadabra,” with an “S,” into the Latin “abracadabra.”  However, according to WorldWideWords.org, “it seems likely that abracadabra is older, and that it derives from one of the Semitic languages, though nobody can say for sure, because there in no written record before Serenus.”

            The right words at the right time can determine life-or-death situations, as illustrated by the career of Nicolas Ferrial, “one of the most celebrated jesters in history,” according to the online CommonplaceFacts.  Ferrial (1479-1536) was better known by his stage name, “Triboulet,” and served as court jester to Kings Louis XII and Francis I of France.  He dressed in a red jumper complete with the jester’s traditional, pointy hat and was the model for Rigoletto in Verdi’s opera which was based in turn on the character of Triboulet in Victor Hugo’s novel, “Le Roi s’amuse.”  “Once,” according to Wikipedia and many other sources, “Triboulet could not contain himself and slapped the monarch on the bum.”  Louie ordered the jester’s execution but calmed down and said he’d forgive Triboulet if he “could think of an apology more insulting than the offending deed.  A few seconds later, Triboulet responded: ‘I’m so sorry, your majesty, that I didn’t recognize you!  I mistook you for the Queen!”  When Triboulet also poked fun at King Francis’ queen, he was again sentenced to death.  Since he’d “served the king particularly well for many years, Francis I granted Triboulet the right to choose the way he would die.”  Triboulet’s response: “for Saint Nitouche’s and Saint Pansard’s sake, patrons of insanity, I choose to die of old age,” thereby winning exile rather than death. 

            Keeping kings laughing kept Triboulet alive, but how can we improve our humor levels?  The Mayo Clinic recommends keeping things that amuse you in plain sight, like photos, comic strips, funny movies, books, and magazines, on hand.  And “Find a way to laugh at your own situations …Even if it feels forced at first, practice laughing … Make it a habit to spend time with friends who make you laugh.”  Mayo also suggests exploring your public library’s extensive resources of humorous materials: books, videos, podcasts, music and magazines, all of which are accessible, even during the COVID-19 crisis.

            Humorous items are all around to those looking for them.  There’s “The UK’s Oddest Place Names,” for example, with Brokenwind, Fattiehead, Lost, and Dull in Scotland, and England’s Pity Me, Wetwang, Blubberhouses, Giggleswick Catbrain, Loose Bottom, and Crapstone.  Potential laughter abounds, especially if Santa brought you amusing books, like “Classic Feynman: All the Adventures of a Curious Character, Richard P. Feynman,”å which includes the highlights from Feynman’s book, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman.”  This librarian also self-prescribed an efficacious course of “The Complete Calvin and Hobbes” by Bill Watterson, P.G. Wodehouse’s “Jeeves” stories on DVDs (starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry), and Garrison Keillor’s “Pretty Good Joke Book,” for as Santa likes to say, “Ho, ho, ho!”

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