What makes a word funny? Scientists say they’ve found the 10 silliest English words

Study author Chris Westbury reads from a treasury of Dr. Seuss books. Seuss was famous for using made-up words for humor.
Study author Chris Westbury reads from a treasury of Dr. Seuss books. Seuss was famous for using made-up words for humor. University of Alberta/Video screenshot

That wiggly jiggly poodle just upchucked a puffball. Does that make you giggle and guffaw?

It might, because those two sentences are chock full of what some scientists in Canada say are some of the funniest words in the English language, according to a new study called “Wriggly, squiffy, lummox, and boobs: What makes some words funny?” published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in November.

In that study, University of Alberta psychologist and study author Chris Westbury tried to identify the funniest words in English — but also tried to find out what made them so funny in the first place.

Those words? Upchuck, bubby, boff, wriggly, yaps, giggle, cooch, guffaw, puffball and jiggly.

“Humor is, of course, still personal,” he said in a news release. “Here, we get at the elements of humor that aren’t personal; things that are universally funny.”

There are a few theories about why we find things funny. One theory is incongruity, which says we find things funny when they unexpectedly violate norms or push the envelope, according to the study. Another theory is superiority, which says we laugh when we see people do poorly or look worse off than us, such as in slapstick comedy.

Westbury’s study of individual words supports a mix of both theories. The word’s meaning matters, because sometimes it makes fun of someone or something, and we can find that funny.

But its structure also matters: If it looks more unexpected, we find it funnier. He called this the “snunkoople effect” in previous research on why people found some made-up words funnier than others. Dr. Seuss was a master of this, coining nonsensical words like sneedle, humpf-humpf-a-dumpfer and gootch.

For the study, participants were asked to rate how funny they found thousands of words, and the scientists were able to predict which ones they were most likely to find funny, according to a news release.

The predictions were based both on the word’s category (sex, bodily functions, insults, swear words, partying, and animals) and on how unexpected its composition was. For example, words with the long “o” sound, like in “poot” or “boobs” were funnier than others, according to the study. Double letters and words that end in “le” like “giggle” were also winners, according to the Toronto Star.

The average distance of a word from all six of the categories also helped predict whether it was funny.

“This makes sense, because lots of words that people find funny fall into more than one category, like sex and bodily functions — like boobs,” Westbury said in the news release. “I was amazed at how well we were able to predict judgments.”

So why study this at all? For one, “we study the things that matter to us,” and that includes humor, Westbury said, according to Global News Canada. But he also said there are other potential impacts: For example, making people laugh could reinforce our ability to think clearly and creatively, according to the site.

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