Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

What Makes Words Funny?

By Tim Hannan

A new study predicts the most amusing words in the English language.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Two Canadian psychologists walked into a lab. They opened a Funk & Wagnells and – fortuitously coinciding with Neuropsy’s 50th column – tried to work out which are the funniest words in the English Language. While humour is strongly determined by personal preferences, it is evident that some events and stories are found amusing by almost everyone, at least within a cultural group at a particular point in time.

Among the many explanations of humour offered over the centuries, contemporary theories have focused on two main notions.

  • Superiority theory emphasises that humour often involves the denigration of someone, whether it be a pie in the face or a clever verbal putdown.
  • Incongruity theory suggests that humour is derived from the improbable intersection of two frames of reference: that the unexpected is sometimes funny.

While both theories do a reasonable job of describing many examples of humour, neither has provided a sound basis for predicting what might turn out to be funny. Not every insult is funny, and many unexpected outcomes are unpleasant.

Recent studies have examined smaller elements of humour, such as why certain words are commonly judged to be inherently more amusing than others. In one study, researchers asked participants to rate 5000 English words for their inherent funniness. This produced a...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.