Researchers at the University of Alberta are delving deep into the science of humour and pinning down what makes certain words funny.
Psychology experts determined there are two main kinds of predictors when it comes to the funniness in words: those related to the form of the word and those related to its meaning. Those two types are also referred to as form predictors and semantic predictors.
“Humour is, of course, still personal,” said Chris Westbury, professor in the U of A 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.”
Form predictors are separate from the word’s meaning. They include elements like length, letter and sound probabilities as well as how similar the word is to other words in sound and writing.
For instance, 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.
Semantic predictors use a computational model of language that measures 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,” Westbury said. “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.”
The study found the top 10 funniest words in the English language are: upchuck, bubby, boff, wriggly, yaps, giggle, cooch, guffaw, puffball and jiggly.
Wriggly, squiffy, lummox and boobs also received honourable mentions.
Westbury collaborated with Geoff Hollis from the Department of Computing Science for this study.
They began their work based on a study from the University of Warwick, which had participants rate the humorousness of nearly 5,000 English words.
LISTEN: Chris Westbury joins Zack on Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge to discuss funny words
Their paper, “Wriggly, squiffy, lummox, and boobs: What makes some words funny?” was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
“I was amazed at how well we were able to predict judgments,” Westbury said.
Interestingly, age and gender made almost no difference in what people found amusing. Culture, however, did.
“I have an Iranian grad student who didn’t really find the words we found funny to be funny.
“She said, ‘I find these a bit rude.’ I said, ‘Sorry, that’s the culture you’re in now.”’
Westbury knows that his analysis says little about irony, satire, or more sophisticated yuks. But he said any light shed on laughter sheds light on what it means to be human.
Humour may even have evolutionary value. Westbury said some scientists theorize that the endorphin buzz that comes from a good laugh is a reward for thinking out of the box and being creative.
“We study the things that matter to us.”
— With files from Bob Weber, The Canadian Press
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