Laughing at Cancer Online: a corpus-based investigation of irreverent humour as coping

Demjen, Zsofia (2016). Laughing at Cancer Online: a corpus-based investigation of irreverent humour as coping. In: Language and Health Online: Typing yourself healthy, 15-16 Apr 2016, Basel, Switzerland.

Abstract

In the context of illnesses like cancer, humour and joking, especially gallows humour “that treats serious, frightening, or painful subject matter in a light or satirical way” (Watson 2011: 38), can still be socially unacceptable. Yet people with cancer and their carers amongst themselves, can sometimes find much needed comfort and relief in breaking social taboos and making light of their often life-threatening situations. Such naturally occurring interactions, however, can be difficult to capture in the physical world.
This paper therefore explores the role of irreverent humour used by patients and carers in the digital world, on a UK-based online forum dedicated to cancer. Specifically, the focus is on a thread called “For those with a warped sense of humour WARNING- no punches pulled here”, consisting of half a million words, over 2500 posts, contributed by 68 individuals. A statistical comparison of this thread with other threads on the same forum using Wmatrix (Rayson 2009) reveals that the key humorous utterances make fun of cancer and its consequences, such as embarrassing bodily functions and paraphernalia required as part of treatment: If baggy had farted lots then HB would have shot across the pool... jet propulsion!
Focusing on such examples identified through combined corpus and qualitative methods, I discuss potential functions of this kind of humour in the cancer context, such as community building, support and empowerment in a situation where people otherwise feel powerless. I also reflect on the affordances of digital environments, both as facilitating such risqué interactions and in enabling researchers to capture them.

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