A recent study by Chris Westbury and Geoff Hollis of the University of Alberta was titled “Wriggly, squiffy, lummox and boobs: What makes some words funny?” Published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, the researchers shared findings that they have created an algorithm that can predict more accurately than ever how funny most people will find any particular word.
Possibly the most amazing thing about the results of their research is that they pretty much mirror exactly what children’s authors have known for decades: words either sound funny or have funny meanings.
The form of words is part of what makes them sound funny, and includes factors like their length, certain letter sounds and similarity to other word sounds. Apparently shorter words are funnier than longer ones, for example, and letter sounds are funnier the less common they are in our language. Double letters generally provide more kick, as does anything ending in -le (like wriggle and giggle).
This is why the following passage from Dr. Seuss’ Fox in Socks makes me smile every time I read it to my kids:
“When beetles fight these battles in a bottle with their paddles and the bottle’s on a poodle and the poodle’s eating noodles… They call this a muddle puddle tweetle poodle beetle noodle bottle paddle battle.”
This principle also holds true for made-up words, of which Dr. Seuss seems to have been the all-time champion. The real trick here is getting as far away from real words as possible. I suspect it’s not just a learned skill, but sort of an addiction. For this blog article, I tried out coming up with a few of my own, and quickly thought up sniggledy-boof, kroolly, wickle-pap, dubblewink, ballooly, jungy, spockledab, roomabagoom, gomblepoop, yawler, broolling, wawosqueezer, kiffertot, secreviation, tootermoot, and zagaboosh. My, oh my, what fun!
On the meaning side of the equation, there were six subject categories that tend to tickle our ears:
- Bodily functions
- Swear words
Doing a quick review of Roald Dahl’s Dirty Beasts, I saw that this master of comedic vocabulary draws on this profligately. For example, this passage, from The Porcupine:
“My backside seemed to catch on fire. A hundred red-hot bits of wire. A hundred prickles sticking in and puncturing my precious skin. I ran for home. I shouted, ‘Mum! Behold the prickles in my bum!’”
The researchers point out that overall funniness is higher when more than one category is ticked off by the same word. As psychology professor Chris Westbury put it: “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.”
How is this useful in the real world?
If you’re writing a picture book for children, which are generally limited to 500 words, you want every word to work as hard as possible to be both fun and meaningful. The funniness of the words themselves aren’t the whole reason something is funny, obviously. But they are a factor.
I really wish that the good professors Westbury and Hollis would create an online tool where one could copy and paste a passage of text into a box, push a button, and then receive a word funniness score. Wouldn’t it be nice to know on an objective basis how funny your text is?
Being Funny Is Serious Stuff
On a more ominous note, I want to point out that the paper is a joint effort of a psychology professor and a professor of computing science. This means they probably are looking at this as being useful for Artificial Intelligence – the technology that will one day replace us all. Imagine a future in which creative content is cranked out factory-style, based on advanced algorithms that know more about how we will react than we know ourselves.
Sort of makes me want to upchuck.