That Thinking Feeling

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What makes a word funny?

One of my favourite comedians is Stewart Lee, who has made an entire career out of deconstructing his own comedy, often in the middle of his routines. In his book How I Escaped My Certain Fate, he wrote about how over the course of a tour he will change small details every night to keep things interesting for himself and how he was saddened that the recorded version of a line about a fart wasn’t as funny as some other versions he’d come up with. A few pages later, he wrote about how wool was a good all-purpose funny word, and then about how he found balaclavas inherently absurd.

All in all, I finished the book with the strong impression that some things – some words – were much funnier than others. Stoat is funnier than rabbit. Bassoon is funnier than saxophone. Tit is definitely funnier than sparrow.

 
A bluetit perching on a twig

A bluetit perching on a twig

 

Heehee, tit.

 

As you might imagine, because different languages are likely to have different combinations of sounds in their words, this is all dependent on what language/s you speak. For example, I’m a native speaker of English and find all of the following words hilarious: hippopotamus, gurgle, biscuit, flaccid, spatula. I’m lucky enough to know lots of people who aren’t native English speakers, so I asked a few of them to tell me what English words they found funny and found myself scratching my head, because many of them seemed quite normal to me. A German friend told me that she found abseil funny, while a Dutch friend said that for her, pun was silly.

All this is by way of saying that the small but extremely delightful set of studies I’ve found about inherently funny words are all on English speakers and English words, so bear in mind that things might be very different in other languages.

 

Tell me about the research

We know that people tend to find words funny if they are uncommon, are unusual in terms of how they are written, or are unusual in terms of how they sound [i].

We can break it down a bit further than this thanks to Gultchin and colleagues [ii], who say that there are six reasons that a word can be funny:

  • It’s got an unusual combination of noises (compared to other words in the language/s that we speak), like cuckoo.

  • It’s got an unexpected combination of concepts, like egghead.

  • It’s got sexual connotations, like tit.

  • It’s got scatological connotations, like turd.

  • It’s got insulting connotations, like buffoon.

  • It’s a slangy or casual word, like oomph.

Strings of letters that aren’t (English) words can be funny too, especially if they’re close to swearwords (like focky and clunt) or violate our expectation of what a word should be like [iii]. For example, howaymb is much funnier to native speakers of English than chertin, and I’d bet my spatula that it’s because howaymb looks much less like an English word ‘should’ in terms of the combination of letters. (I did a quick check on the parts of the words I found strangest: aymb doesn’t appear in any English words, while rtin appears in over 600.)

 

Fine-tuning funny words

In a study of about 5000 English words, Engelthaler and Hill [iv] were able to come up with a ranked list for how funny people found them. They also looked at gender and age differences, which is how I know that men typically think ‘corn’ is funnier than women do, while women think ‘giggle’ is funnier than men do. Similarly, older people think ‘jingle’ is much funnier than young people do, while young people think ‘squabble’ is funnier than men do. There were also some words that everyone who did the study found hilarious, like twerp, chug and, of course, joke.

If you’re in need of some inspiration for a stand-up gig or a speech, then good news! You can find the whole dataset here.

And if you’re not sure what word to pick from such a huge list, then let’s return to the Gultchin and colleagues study [ii] for a moment. They tried training a machine learning algorithm to predict what words an individual would find funny on the basis of a few words that were already known to be funny to that person – and it worked! So now all you need is a few hours’ observation of what makes someone laugh, and a friendly programmer…

 

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