Tinkle, booger, flapjacks, schmuck. What makes a word funny?

To discover the answer, researchers tested 45,000 of them. The result: a humor formula based on words’ looks, sounds, and meanings.

This story appears in the July 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

It can be hard to guess what might make a stranger laugh. Now researchers at the University of Alberta, in Canada, have developed a formula. After reading a study in which participants rated the humorousness of some 5,000 English words, psychologists Chris Westbury and Geoff Hollis wanted to break down what makes a word intrinsically comical. They expanded the list to almost 45,000 words, then generated a complex statistical model to score the funny factors and analyze the humor of each one.

ANATOMY OF A SIDESPLITTER

Westbury and Hollis discovered there are two main predictors of what makes a word funny: how it looks and sounds, and the meaning behind it. “Pizzazz” is comical for its unusual combination of letters, but typically it’s the definition of a word that tickles us the most. Try not to smirk when you say “booger.”

Contains

the letters

or sound oo

Words associated with a

consonant plus le*

waddle

wiggle

wiggly

schmooze

jiggle

jiggling

whoop

puking

droopy

drool

booby

boozy

juju

frolic

hubbub

puffy

yummy

buzz

poop

cuddle

fluffy

slobbering

fanny

schmuck

Contains

letters used

less frequently

Strong

emotional

association

booger

bozo

twerp

jackass

dude

Larger type reflects

a higher composite

humor score

Humorous

meaning

RECIPE FOR LAUGHTER

A closer look at the 500 words that Westbury and Hollis ranked as funniest reveals common ingredients. “Puking,” for example, has a funny-word form—the oo sound and the letter k—as well as associations with profanity, bodily function, and partying, three of the six funny-word categories in the study.

NUMBER OF

WORDS WITH

ATTRIBUTE

Low-

probability

letters

55

Contains

oo

61

Contains

consonant

plus le

WORD-FORM

CATEGORIES

95*

Contains

k

97

Contains

y

129

Sexuality

210

202

Profanity

Bodily

functions

185

SUBJECT

CATEGORIES

162

Insults

97

Partying

41

Animals

Words labeled as containing a consonant plus le

include variations such as -ling, -ly, and other

words with similar meanings.

sOURCE: Chris Westbury and Geoff Hollis,

University of Alberta

*

waddle

wiggle

wiggly

schmooze

Words associated with a

consonant plus le*

jiggle

Contains

the letters

or sound oo

gobble

jiggling

amble

whoop

puking

droopy

toddle

gurgle

tootle

tinkle

schmoozing

drool

woozy

booby

boozy

Humorous

meaning

juicy

juju

puny

frolic

hubbub

puffy

yummy

buzz

poop

pizzazz

flapjacks

cuddle

bubbly

fizzy

fluffy

jazzy

slobbering

fuzzy

frumpy

Contains

letters used

less frequently

fanny

playful

howdy

Larger type reflects a higher composite humor score

schmuck

cutest

booger

marshmallows

bozo

Strong emotional

association

ANATOMY OF A SIDESPLITTER

Westbury and Hollis discovered there are two main predictors of what makes a word funny: how it looks and sounds, and the meaning behind it. “Pizzazz” is comical for its unusual combination of letters, but typically it’s the definition of a word that tickles us the most. Try not to smirk when you say “booger.”

twerp

turd

jackass

dude

RECIPE FOR LAUGHTER

A closer look at the 500 words that Westbury and Hollis ranked as funniest reveals common ingredients. “Puking,” for example, has a funny-word form—the oo sound and the letter k—as well as associations with profanity, bodily function, and partying, three of the six funny-word categories in the study.

210

202

NUMBER OF WORDS WITH

ATTRIBUTE

185

162

129

97

95*

97

61

55

41

Low-

probability

letters

Contains

oo

Contains

consonant

plus le

Contains

k

Contains

y

Sexuality

Profanity

Bodily

functions

Insults

Partying

Animals

WORD-FORM CATEGORIES

SUBJECT CATEGORIES

*

Words labeled as containing a consonant plus le include variations such as -ling, -ly, and other words with similar meanings.

sOURCE: Chris Westbury and Geoff Hollis, University of Alberta