What makes a word funny without any context? Why do “booty”, “tinkle”, “whong”, or “dingle” send humans of all walks of life giggling whereas thousands of other words can’t even garner a smile?
Psychologists Chris Westbury and Geoff Hollis of the University of Alberta have spent years trying to answer this surprisingly complex question, and they may have just gotten closer.
Their latest study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, builds upon past research to describe how several different elements can lend humor to a series of letters. To shut our slobbering bungholes and get straight to the point, Westbury and Hollis believe that the foolproof formula for comedy is "a short, infrequent word composed of uncommon letters," with a definition or connotation that is "human and insulting, profane, diminutive and/or related to good times."
As reported by Live Science, arriving at this lighthearted conclusion was a serious endeavor. To begin, the Canadian duo examined a list of 4,997 common words that had been ranked with funniness scores by 800 volunteers as part of an investigation by University of Warwick researchers. It was these participants who consistently rated the aforementioned “booty” and “tinkle” as hilarious, and words like “pain” and “torture” as strictly non-amusing.
Using patterns identified after assessing each of the nearly 5,000 words for the presence or absence of 20 distinct factors – such as its length, how negative or positive it is, and if it contains a dirty-sounding string of letters (see “bunghole”) – Westbury and Hollis created two algorithms that serve to predict the funniness of any word.
Based on a 2016 study by the duo, the equations were also written to quantify how uncommon the combination of letters in a word is. Their earlier work, which involved asking students to rate the funniness of computer-generated fake words, lent support to the idea that humor is influenced by how much something subverts expectations. This concept is known as incongruity theory.
When the algorithms were set loose on a list of more than 45,000 words, one decided that the five most laugh-worthy were “upchuck”, “bubby”, “boff”, “wriggly”, and “yaps”, whereas the other determined that the top five were “slobbering”, “puking”, “fuzz”, “floozy”, and “cackling”.
Comparing the outputs of both algorithms, Westbury and Hollis found that both agreed on several humor principles. Firstly, words associated with clearly negative meanings such as “rape” and “murder” are not funny, but those associated with sex, animals, bodily functions, insults, and partying may be. Per incongruity theory, the algorithms also decided that words with unusual letter composition (like those with many k or hard c sounds, j, or y) are most amusing, as are words with the short u vowel sound (pronounced “uh”, as opposed to the long u sound, “you”).
“Our findings are consistent with several theories of humor, while suggesting that those theories are too narrow. In particular, they are consistent with incongruity theory, which suggests that experienced humor is proportional to the degree to which expectations are violated,” the authors wrote. “We also describe and quantify the semantic attributes of words that are judged funny and show that they are partly compatible with the superiority theory of humor, which focuses on humor as scorn.”
Moving forward, the researchers plan to examine what makes word pairings funny. We’ll leave you with their examples and you can test whether or not you crack a grin: “toothy weasel”, “muzzy muffin”, and “fizzy turd”.