Why some words are so darn funny

November 30, 2018

Upchuck, bubby, boff, wriggly, yaps, giggle, cooch, guffaw, puffball and jiggly: These are the top ten funniest words in the English language, according to a research results just released by Canada’s University of Alberta.

“Humor is, of course, still personal,” explained U of A psychologist Chris Westbury. “Here, we get at the elements of humor that aren’t personal—things that are universally funny.”

Westbury and his collaborator, U of A computing scientist Geoff Hollis, began their work based on results of a study at England’s University of Warwick that had participants rate the whimsy of nearly 5,000 English words. Westbury and Hollis then modeled these ratings statistically.

“Our model was good at predicting which words participants would judge as funny, and to what extent,” explained Westbury.

The findings show there are two types of predictors to gauge how funny a word is: form predictors and semantic predictors.

Form predictors have nothing to do with the meaning of the word, but rather measure elements such as length, letter and sound probabilities, and how similar the word is to other words in sound and writing.

For example, the researchers found that the letter K and the sound “oo” (as in “boot”) are significantly more likely to occur in funny words than in words that aren’t funny.

Semantic predictors—taken from a computational model of language—measure how related each word is to different emotions, as well as to six categories of funny words: sex, bodily functions, insults, swear words, partying and animals.

“We started out by identifying these six categories,” said Westbury. “It turns out that the best predictor of funniness is not distance from one of those six categories, but rather average distance from all six categories. This makes sense, because lots of words that people find funny fall into more than one category, like sex and bodily functions—like boobs.”

The study, “Wriggly, Squiffy, Lummox, and Boobs: What Makes Some Words Funny?” was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Research contact: chris.westbury@ualberta.ca

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