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.

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 skewed distribution: while most words were judged to not be particularly funny at all, a small number were reliably rated as humorous.

Words with the highest humour rating included booty, tit, hooter, booby, moo, waddle and twerp. Consistent with the theory that humour may involve denigration of some kind, a large number of words at the funnier end of the spectrum were insults: twit, buffoon, nimrod, blockhead, ninny, scoundrel, hussy, douche, windbag, fathead and dunce. Other highly-rated items were animal words, such as hippo, mutt, chimp, baboon, dingo, heifer and varmint, and words related to sex or excretion: pecker, crotch, penis, pubes, sphincter, scrotum and anus.

Apart from these words, which seem to gain their humour from their meaning, a number of phonological features occurred with higher frequency in humorous words, such as the form “-le” (e.g. waddle, tickle, tingle, nibble, wriggle, jiggle, gobble, squabble)and the sound “oo” (e.g. smooch, cesspool, yahoo, bloomers, oomph, stooge). The letter “k” was also over-represented, validating observations made by several generations of comedians. As Prof Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire once observed: “If you’re going to tell a joke involving an animal, make it a duck”.

In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, delightfully titled “Wriggly, Squiffy, Lummox, and Boobs: What Makes Some Words Funny?” (https://goo.gl/6JYvCg), the two Canadian psychologists analysed each of the 5000 words for both its phonological form and its meaning in order to determine whether and how well these characteristics predict participants’ ratings of their funniness. The phonological form of a word includes its length, its individual letters and the probabilities of its sound combinations, with “-le”, “oo” and “k” all good predictors. Analysis of word meanings indicated that more amusing words were usually members of one of six categories: sex, bodily functions, insults, swear words, partying and animals.

Using this list, the researchers derived an algorithm to predict the expected humour ratings for a set of 45,517 English words. By assessing each word’s phonological form and semantic category, the team predicted that the ten funniest words are upchuck, bubby, boff, wriggly, yaps, giggle, cooch, guffaw, puffball and jiggly. Of the 100 or so highest-ranked words, some derived their humour value from their phonological form (e.g. lubber, wriggly, lummox), some from their scatological or sexual meaning, and some from both (poop, boff, boobs). The words rated lowest for humour owed their rank to their meanings, which chiefly related to illness, violence or crime.

The full list of word ratings are available online (https://osf.io/8p729/). Australasian readers should note that the predictive algorithm is based on the original corpus of 5000 words as rated by UK participants, and the algorithm predicts the humour of North American words. It would be expected that the humour associated with different phonological forms and categories will differ with culture and linguistic usage. For example, in the Canadians’ prediction, “bugger” came in at 809th place which, while still smirk-worthy, may be lower than would be expected. “Chunder” was unrated, which helped to heave its North American synonym “upchuck” to its prime position.


A/Prof Tim Hannan is Head of the School of Psychology at Charles Sturt University, and the Past President of the Australian Psychological Society.