We all have our favorite funny words. But what makes a word funny? Do funny words fit in certain categories? And why do we spend time thinking about what makes a word funny? Aren’t there better things for us to do?
Apparently, some researchers think not. Those who have studied the humor behind words have found that the spelling and sound of a word contribute to its humor. Also, we find a word funny if it doesn’t match our expectations regarding its meaning or use.
Ways to Predict a Word Will Be Funny
Humans often find the unexpected humorous, and words are no different. Researcher Chris Westbury’s research on why some words are humorous has shown that we find words that could not be real funnier than words that are made up but sound realistic.
When study participants were given a list of nonwords, the more the nonword did not sound like it could be a real word, the more likely respondents found it amusing. Dr. Seuss must have intuitively recognized this, as some of his more outlandish, but lesser-known words were judged more amusing than nonwords that sound real.
Snipsy or Kakilspy—take your pick.
Also, aspects of a word’s structure or form affect the word’s “funniness.”
Words with letters used less frequently are considered to be funnier. According to an analysis by Cornell University, the five least common letters are K, X, Q, J, and Z. Interestingly, those letters have the highest point values in Scrabble!
Participants in research studies have also identified words that contain a “k” sound rank higher on the funny scale. The “oo” sound in boob and poop gathers more giggles, as do words that end in le. So nibble on that giggle with your noogie.
Three Theories of Humor
Those who study what makes people laugh have developed several theories of humor: superiority humor, incongruity theory, and juxtaposition theory.
Superiority humor. Many humans find humor in making fun of others. We call others names—Blockhead, tell Yo Mama jokes, or throw out insults like “your face makes onions cry.”
Incongrurity Theory. If something unexpected happens, we laugh. A person walking on the sidewalk is not funny. The same person walking, stepping on something and slipping is funny to onlookers. (But not the person who fell, especially if they fell on something that should have been picked up.
Juxtaposition Theory. We laugh when two contradictory elements are put together. The APA Dictionary of Psychology uses a Bob Hope joke as an example:
“The mosquitoes here are huge. Last night I shot one in my pajamas. They were tight on him too.”
However, combining two incongruous or juxtapositional elements doesn’t mean they will be funny. The humor happens when what occurs doesn’t match what we expect. If we don’t expect it could happen, we won’t find it funny.
Consider this pun: What did the grape say when it got crushed? Nothing. It just let out a little wine.
The humor in the pun is that we expect a whine or more when someone or something gets hurt. And grapes do make wine. So the justaposition works. But change the wording, and the humor is gone.
What did the grape say when it got crushed? It howled like a wolf.
Findings by researchers like Chris Westbury confirm what comedians have known instinctively. Early Google pioneers used justapositions and less likely words and created a little known internet sport: Googlewhacking.
A Googlewhack results in a single hit on a Google search. To be a proper Googlewhack, two or more words (without quote marks) must provide only one result. Like Scrabble, the words need to be found in a dictionary. So Swuble Saga shouldn’t count, although it resulted in one hit.
Resulted–past tense–because once Google indexes this post, it will be a second result. Googlewhackers got around this by adding x’s when they listed the words, which would mean xxSwublexxSagaxx will not result in a second hit.
By the mid-2000s, finding Googlewhacks had become nearly impossible, and the website shut down. However, it is currently housed on the Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s website.
A GoogleWhackBlatts is a single word with only one hit. I located one, and will spell it xxistxxporxx. Ignore the x’s, and you should find a single word that supposedly means “having absolutely no money.” The link leads to an empty Weebly website.
What are your favorite funny words, language lover? Leave them in the comments.
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