mid-14c., "fluid or juice of an animal or plant," from Old North French humour "liquid, dampness; (medical) humor" (Old French humor, umor; Modern French humeur), from Latin umor "body fluid" (also humor, by false association with humus "earth"); related to umere "be wet, moist," and to uvescere "become wet" (see humid).
In old medicine, "any of the four body fluids" (blood, phlegm, choler, and melancholy or black bile).
The human body had four humors—blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile—which, in turn, were associated with particular organs. Blood came from the heart, phlegm from the brain, yellow bile from the liver, and black bile from the spleen. Galen and Avicenna attributed certain elemental qualities to each humor. Blood was hot and moist, like air; phlegm was cold and moist, like water; yellow bile was hot and dry, like fire; and black bile was cold and dry, like earth. In effect, the human body was a microcosm of the larger world. [Robert S. Gottfried, "The Black Death," 1983]
Their relative proportions were thought to determine physical condition and state of mind. This gave humor an extended sense of "mood, temporary state of mind" (recorded from 1520s); the sense of "amusing quality, funniness, jocular turn of mind" is first recorded 1680s, probably via sense of "whim, caprice" as determined by state of mind (1560s), which also produced the verb sense of "indulge (someone's) fancy or disposition." Modern French has them as doublets: humeur "disposition, mood, whim;" humour "humor." "The pronunciation of the initial h is only of recent date, and is sometimes omitted ..." [OED].
For aid in distinguishing the various devices that tend to be grouped under "humor," this guide, from Henry W. Fowler ["Modern English Usage," 1926] may be of use:
HUMOR: motive/aim: discovery; province: human nature; method/means: observation; audience: the sympathetic
WIT: motive/aim: throwing light; province: words & ideas; method/means: surprise; audience: the intelligent
SATIRE: motive/aim: amendment; province: morals & manners; method/means: accentuation; audience: the self-satisfied
SARCASM: motive/aim: inflicting pain; province: faults & foibles; method/means: inversion; audience: victim & bystander
INVECTIVE: motive/aim: discredit; province: misconduct; method/means: direct statement; audience: the public
IRONY: motive/aim: exclusiveness; province: statement of facts; method/means: mystification; audience: an inner circle
CYNICISM: motive/aim: self-justification; province: morals; method/means: exposure of nakedness; audience: the respectable
SARDONIC: motive/aim: self-relief; province: adversity; method/means: pessimism; audience: the self
Middle English setten, from Old English settan (transitive) "cause to sit; make or cause to rest as on a seat; cause to be put, placed, or seated;" also "put in a definite place," also "arrange, fix adjust; fix or appoint (a time) for some affair or transaction," and "cause (thoughts, affections) to dwell on."
This is from Proto-Germanic *(bi)satejanan "to cause to sit, set" (source also of Old Norse setja, Swedish sätta, Old Saxon settian, Old Frisian setta, Dutch zetten, German setzen, Gothic satjan), causative form of PIE *sod-, a variant of the root *sed- (1) "to sit." Also see set (n.2). It has been confused with sit (v.) at least since early 14c.
The intransitive sense of "be seated" is from c. 1200; that of "sink down, descend, decline toward and pass below the horizon" (of the sun, moon, or stars) is by mid-13c., perhaps from similar use of the cognates in Scandinavian languages; figurative use of this is from c. 1600.
Many uses are highly idiomatic, the verb, like put, its nearest equivalent, and do, make, get, etc., having become of almost universal application, and taking its distinctive color from the context. [Century Dictionary]
The sense of "make or cause to do, act, or be; start, bring (something) to a certain state" (on fire, in order, etc.) and that of "mount a gemstone" are attested by mid-13c. That of "determine upon, resolve" is from c. 1300; hence be set against "resisting" (mid-14c.).
The sense of "make a table ready for a meal" is from late 14c.; that of "regulate or adjust by a standard" (of a clock, etc.) is from late 14c. In printing, "to place (types) in the proper order for reading; put into type," 1520s. From c. 1500 as "put words to music." From 1570s as "put (a broken or dislocated bone) in position." In cookery, plastering, etc., "become firm or solid in consistency" by 1736.
To set (one's) heart on (something) is from c. 1300 as "love, be devoted to;" c. 1400 as "have a desire for." To set (one's) mind is from mid-15c.; transitive set (one's mind) to "determine to accomplish" is from late 15c. To set (something) on "incite to attack" (c. 1300) originally was in reference to hounds and game. To set an example is mid-14c. (set (v.) in the sense of "present" is from late Old English). The notion of "fix the value of" is behind old phrases such as set at naught "regard as nothing."
To set out is from c. 1300 as "display (for sale);" to set up shop "commence doing business" is from c. 1400.
1937, coined in the fantasy tales of J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973).
On a blank leaf I scrawled: 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.' I did not and do not know why. [Tolkien, letter to W.H. Auden, dated 1955]
The word also turns up in a very long list of folkloric supernatural creatures in the writings of Michael Aislabie Denham (d. 1859) as an aside to his explanation that those born on Christmas Eve cannot see spirits. Denham was an early folklorist who concentrated on Northumberland, Durham, Westmoreland, Cumberland, the Isle of Man, and Scotland. This was printed in volume 2 of "The Denham Tracts" [ed. James Hardy, London: Folklore Society, 1895], a compilation of Denham's scattered publications.
What a happiness this must have been seventy or eighty years ago and upwards, to those chosen few who had the good luck to be born on the eve of this festival of all festivals; when the whole earth was so overrun with ghosts, boggles, bloody-bones, spirits, demons, ignis fatui, brownies, bugbears, black dogs, specters, shellycoats, scarecrows, witches, wizards, barguests, Robin-Goodfellows, hags, night-bats, scrags, breaknecks, fantasms, hobgoblins, hobhoulards, boggy-boes, dobbies, hob-thrusts, fetches, kelpies, warlocks, mock-beggars, mum-pokers, Jemmy-burties, urchins, satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, tritons, centaurs, calcars, nymphs, imps, incubuses, spoorns, men-in-the-oak, hell-wains, fire-drakes, kit-a-can-sticks, Tom-tumblers, melch-dicks, larrs, kitty-witches, hobby-lanthorns, Dick-a-Tuesdays, Elf-fires, Gyl-burnt-tales, knockers, elves, rawheads, Meg-with-the-wads, old-shocks, ouphs, pad-foots, pixies, pictrees, giants, dwarfs, Tom-pokers, tutgots, snapdragons, sprets, spunks, conjurers, thurses, spurns, tantarrabobs, swaithes, tints, tod-lowries, Jack-in-the-Wads, mormos, changelings, redcaps, yeth-hounds, colt-pixies, Tom-thumbs, black-bugs, boggarts, scar-bugs, shag-foals, hodge-pochers, hob-thrushes, bugs, bull-beggars, bygorns, bolls, caddies, bomen, brags, wraiths, waffs, flay-boggarts, fiends, gallytrots, imps, gytrashes, patches, hob-and-lanthorns, gringes, boguests, bonelesses, Peg-powlers, pucks, fays, kidnappers, gallybeggars, hudskins, nickers, madcaps, trolls, robinets, friars' lanthorns, silkies, cauld-lads, death-hearses, goblins, hob-headlesses, bugaboos, kows, or cowes, nickies, nacks necks, waiths, miffies, buckies, ghouls, sylphs, guests, swarths, freiths, freits, gy-carlins Gyre-carling, pigmies, chittifaces, nixies, Jinny-burnt-tails, dudmen, hell-hounds, dopple-gangers, boggleboes, bogies, redmen, portunes, grants, hobbits, hobgoblins, brown-men, cowies, dunnies, wirrikows, alholdes, mannikins, follets, korreds, lubberkins, cluricauns, kobolds, leprechauns, kors, mares, korreds, puckles korigans, sylvans, succubuses, blackmen, shadows, banshees, lian-hanshees, clabbernappers, Gabriel-hounds, mawkins, doubles, corpse lights or candles, scrats, mahounds, trows, gnomes, sprites, fates, fiends, sibyls, nicknevins, whitewomen, fairies, thrummy-caps, cutties, and nisses, and apparitions of every shape, make, form, fashion, kind and description, that there was not a village in England that had not its own peculiar ghost. Nay, every lone tenement, castle, or mansion-house, which could boast of any antiquity had its bogle, its specter, or its knocker. The churches, churchyards, and crossroads were all haunted. Every green lane had its boulder-stone on which an apparition kept watch at night. Every common had its circle of fairies belonging to it. And there was scarcely a shepherd to be met with who had not seen a spirit!
[Emphasis added] It is curious that the name occurs nowhere else in folklore, and there is no evidence that Tolkien ever saw this. The word also was recorded from 1835 as "a term generally used in Wales to express a quantity made up of four Welsh pecks" [in English court records for Hughes vs. Humphreys, a weights-and-measures case]. Hobbitry attested from 1947.