Wriggly, Giggle, Puffball: What Makes Some Words Funny?

Summary: Researchers identify the top ten funniest words in the English language and determine there are two main kinds of predictors for the funniness of the words; those related to the form and those related to the word’s meaning.

Source: University of Alberta.

Upchuck, bubby, boff, wriggly, yaps, giggle, cooch, guffaw, puffball, and jiggly: the top 10 funniest words in the English language, according to a new study by University of Alberta psychology experts.

The researchers determined that there are two main kinds of predictors of funniness in words: those related to the form of the word and those related to its meaning.

“Humour is, of course, still personal,” explained Chris Westbury, professor in the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Science. “Here, we get at the elements of humour that aren’t personal; things that are universally funny.”

The purpose of the study was to understand just what it is about certain words that makes them funny. Westbury and his collaborator Geoff Hollis, from the Department of Computing Science, began their work based on a study from the University of Warwick, which had participants rate the humorousness of nearly 5,000 English words. Westbury and Hollis modeled these ratings statistically. “Our model was good at predicting which words participants would judge as funny, and to what extent,” explained Westbury.

Predicting humour

The findings show there are two types of funniness predictors: 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 study 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 are not funny.

people laughing

Semantic predictors were taken from a computational model of language and 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. NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.

Semantic predictors were taken from a computational model of language and 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.”

About this neuroscience research article

Source: University of Alberta
Publisher: Organized by NeuroscienceNews.com.
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Abstract for “Wriggly, squiffy, lummox, and boobs: What makes some words funny?” by Chris Westbury and Geoff Hollis in Journal of Experimental Psychology. Published November 26 2018.
doi:10.1037/xge0000467

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article
University of Alberta”Wriggly, Giggle, Puffball: What Makes Some Words Funny?.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 28 November 2018.
<http://neurosciencenews.com/funny-word-sounds-10269/>.
University of Alberta(2018, November 28). Wriggly, Giggle, Puffball: What Makes Some Words Funny?. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved November 28, 2018 from http://neurosciencenews.com/funny-word-sounds-10269/
University of Alberta”Wriggly, Giggle, Puffball: What Makes Some Words Funny?.” http://neurosciencenews.com/funny-word-sounds-10269/ (accessed November 28, 2018).

Abstract

Wriggly, squiffy, lummox, and boobs: What makes some words funny?

Theories of humor tend to be post hoc descriptions, suffering from insufficient operationalization and a subsequent inability to make predictions about what will be found humorous and to what extent. Here we build on the Engelthaler & Hills’ (2017) humor rating norms for 4,997 words, by analyzing the semantic, phonological, orthographic, and frequency factors that play a role in the judgments. We were able to predict the original humor rating norms and ratings for previously unrated words with greater reliability than the split half reliability in the original norms, as estimated from splitting those norms along gender or age lines. 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. We demonstrate that words are judged funnier if they are less common and have an improbable orthographic or phonological structure. 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. Several other specific semantic attributes are also associated with humor.

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