What makes something funny? Feel free not to even try to answer that, because obviously humour, like an earthworm in a snowstorm, is hard to pin down. Some suggest it’s based on minor transgressions, the release of tension, or shedding new light on things we take for granted. Of course, all of this depends on context and a wide number of variables, and is still going to be subjective even then. If we look at which individual words we tend to find funny though, there aren’t so many variables to consider, and we might be able to find out why they’re funny.
I’m thinking about this because researchers at the University of Warwick conducted a study of what the funniest words in the English language are. They did this by choosing a random sample of 5,000 words, and the asking 800 people to rate them for humour from 1 (unfunny) to 5 (hilarious). Here’s what they came up with, starting with the funniest:
If you’re not rolling on the floor laughing, perhaps they’re funnier when delivered coldly by a crowdsourcing website asking you to rate their “humour value.” Disregarding your own opinion of how funny or not they are though, do you see any patterns? The clear one to me is that three of the top four are synonyms for breast, and the other is a synonym for posterior which sounds almost identical to one of the synonyms for breast. So I suppose that means that breasts are funny. Or at least that referring to them is transgressive, which matches the idea I looked at last week, that we think sexual organs are still quite taboo. It’s another perspective, less negative, allowing us perhaps to safely refer to these taboo organs with silly names.
1, 2, and 4 also suggest that the long /u:/ sound is inherently funny, at least when it’s followed by a second syllable. I don’t want to analyse why this might be funny, but I suspect two things might be involved: the sounds made by our simian cousins, and the words we use to talk to babies.
5, 6, and 7 also seem to indicate that the letters tw- together are funny. Again, I don’t want to dwell too much on why that might be funny, but the slightly whistley nature of the sound, and the fact we have to purse our lips like we’re kissing might be factors.
And as for waddle and tinkle, I think they’re funny because they’re ideophones. Tinkle I’m sure makes you think of going to the bathroom, and also has a light, sparkly sound. And for me, waddle makes me picture a fat, fuzzy little duckling walking quickly, which makes me smile anyway.
All this talk of funny words has naturally made me think of what words I think are funny. And to be honest, I can’t think of any. I can see why people might think the ones on the list are funny (except for bebop), but I can’t say they make me smile. But I’m not sure if I can really find words funny anymore. Perhaps there are some with naturally pleasing sounds, but I think that I think too much about words, instantly analysing them for their meaning or etymology to be able to have a visceral reaction to a word, and find it funny.
But I don’t think I mind that so much. If I just went around finding words funny and not thinking about them, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here typing this. And you wouldn’t want that, would you? Or would you rather I wrote about why I think the word fart is funny all the time? (it actually is a little funny) I’d like to think not, and willing to make the sacrifice of not finding words funny in order to share my thoughts with you.
I would like to know what you think of this list though, and what words you think are funny, so please share below.