28 March 2019

Funny Words

Can single words
really be funny?
Welcome back. As words go, do you find upchuck funny? How about wriggly or puffball? Maybe I’m an old grump, but I have a hard time thinking any single word is even the slightest bit humorous.

Here’s the thing: A study placed those words on the list of the 10 funniest words in the English language.

‘Twould be best if I begin with an earlier study that covered the same ground and generated the pool of words from which the more recent study chose its winners.

Surveying Word Humor
A 2017 study by psychology researchers from the UK’s University of Warwick set out to enhance the resources available for understanding cognitive, developmental and applied aspects of humor.

They selected 7,775 words common to previously collected word norms on valence, arousal, dominance, acquisition, lexical decision and frequency. From those, they randomly selected a final pool of 5,000 words. 

Some people might smile
at some words.
Using an online crowdsourcing platform and participants recruited through Amazon Mechanical Turk, the researchers obtained humor ratings (1-not funny to 5-most funny) of 200 words, chosen randomly for each participant from the 5,000-word pool.

They also obtained each participant’s humor ratings of 11 calibrator words, rated previously in a pilot study with 150 participants, and each participant’s age, gender, language, country growing up and education.

Crowdsource Ratings

For the final dataset, 821 participants rated 4,997 words. The average number of ratings for each word was 33; the minimum number was 15. All participants also rated the 11 calibrator words. The participants ranged in age from 18 to 78 (mean 35), most were female (58%), 70% had a bachelor’s degree or higher and only about 1% lacked at least a high school degree.

Among the words judged funniest were booty, nitwit, waddle, bebop and twerp. Ratings differed significantly by gender (men liked sexual words; women liked giggle, beast and circus). Younger and older people generally found the same words funny, yet there were differences. People age 32 and younger thought words like goatee, joint and gangster were funniest, while those older than 32 preferred squint, jingle and burlesque.

Alleviating my guilt about being a grump, the authors’ statistical analyses showed people view words as humorous to a varying extent, with a skew towards seeing the majority of words as humorless…

Modeling Word Humor
The recent study by researchers from Canada’s University of Alberta took a more in-depth look. Rather than rank words based on peoples’ personal choices, they sought to understand what makes certain words funny.

Working with the same pool of 4,997 words, they analyzed the semantic (meaning), phonological (sound patterns), orthographic (writing conventions) and frequency factors that play a role in judging humor.

Through modeling, they determined that there are two main kinds of predictors of word humor--those related to the word’s form and those related to the word’s meaning.

Some people might even
laugh at some words.
They were able to demonstrate that words are judged funnier if they are less common and have an improbable orthographic or phonological structure. They also described and quantified the semantic attributes that are judged funny. The semantic predictors 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.

Their 10 funniest words were: upchuck, bubby, boff, wriggly, yaps, giggle, cooch, guffaw, puffball and jiggly.

Wrap Up

I should add that the University of Alberta researchers found the semantic attributes are partly compatible with the superiority theory of humor. That sent me searching for theories of humor.

It turns out the three primary theories of humor are:
-Superiority theory relates to others’ misfortune, mistakes or stupidity because of detachment (e.g., falling down stairs),
-Incongruity theory relates to things that don’t normally go together, and
-Relief theory relates to releasing tension during emotional moments.

Although new to me, those three theories weren’t recently conceived. The superiority theory, for example, traces to Plato or Aristotle. I wonder if they thought single words could be funny.

Thanks for stopping by.

2017 study of word humor in Behavior Research Methods journal:
University of Warwick news release on study:
2018 study of word humor in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General: psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fxge0000467
Articles on study:
Theories of Humor:

A version of this blog post appeared earlier on www.warrensnotice.com.

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