Why Are Some Words Funny?
In the nineteen seventy-five movie, the sunshine boys, an aging vaudeville, comedian explains a classic truism of comedy to his nephew the case. Sound is always funny. The comedian played by Walter Matthau said fifty seven years in this business. You learn a few things, you know, what words are funny. And which words are not funny. Alka seltzer is funny. You say alka seltzer. You get a laugh, Casey Stengel. That's a funny name. Robert Taylor is not funny. Cupcake is funny tomato is not funny. Cleveland is funny. Maryland is not funny. Then there's chicken chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. And it's true. If you need a place name for a punchline, you're guaranteed to kill with Kalamazoo, connected key or Rancho Cucamonga, but why psychology professor Chris Westbury at the university of Berta has a fascinating theory. And it's based on perhaps the two unfunny est words in the English language statistical, probability Westbury. Published a paper in October of two thousand eighteen in the journal of experimental psychology with a first rate title, Wrigley, squeaky, Lennox and boobs. What makes some words funny in his research? He started with the list of the five thousand English words rated funniest by real humans and constructed a working with medical model for predicting the laugh factor of nearly every word in the dictionary. When Westbury applied his model to a data set of forty five thousand five hundred and sixteen English words, it decided that these ten words were the funniest of all up Chuck bubbly Baath wriggly. Yes, giggle. Kuch Cafa puffball and gigli runners-up included squeaky flappy and bucco and the perennial favorites of every eight year old on the planet poop, puke and boobs on the other end of the spectrum the word found to be the absolute least funny was harassment. In his paper Westbury explains that philosophers have been trying to unravel the mystery of humor for millennia Plato and Aristotle we're big fans of humor seeing it mostly as a way of denigrating and feeling superior to others Casero introduced incongruity theory, a writing that the most common kind of joke is when we expect one thing and another is said in which case our own disappointed. Expectation makes us laugh while the incongruity theory of comedy makes perfect sense of even rainy tins. Find switcheroo tricks high. Larry's Westbury says that it's not a true scientific theory in the clearly not every incongruence event is as funny as another a random coughing fit in a crowded movie theater isn't nearly as comical as a random farting fit. I mean, just try to say random farting fit without smiling. So the goal of Westbury's modeling experiments was to go beyond philosophical theorising and come up with a truly quantifiable scale of funny to do it. Westbury analyst words. In two different ways by their meaning and by their form for the first analysis. The researchers looked at semantic predictors. That group words with similar meanings. Using a free tool developed by Google that identifies words that are commonly used for one another aka co occurrence Westbury mapped out the semantic relationships between two hundred and thirty four of the human picked funniest words from this correlation plot, the researchers identified six different clusters or categories of funny words, insult sex party animal bodily function and expletive. Now. This is where things get dangerously mathematical since many of the words on the human rated funny list fell into more than one category. Other researchers needed a more precise measurement of how a words being translated into comedy using the Google tool. They came up with lists of words most closely related to each of the six categories, then they came up with the average values for each of those word categories. Using something called linear regression analysis. Those average values for each category. You know, insult expedited cetera became known as category defining vectors. When looking specifically at meaning it turns out that the funniest words don't necessarily fall cleanly into the most categories, but are the words whose mathematical values are the closest on average to those six category defining vectors. Here's how Westbury summed it up in a press. Brief the average similarity of a words meaning to these six categories is itself, the best measure, we found of a words funniness, especially at the word also has strongly positive emotional connotations. But meaning is only one type of measurement Westbury and his team looked at the form of funny words, a things like word length or the individual sounds or phonemes that make up each word in the second analysis the data fit nicely with the incongruity theory of humor. It turns out that the fewer times a word or its phonemes appear in the language. The funnier we think they are that helps explain why there are so many K and use ounds in funny word lists. There's typically improbable where it's ending in L E. Like Waddell in wriggle or another source of funds suggesting as the study, put it repetition usually with diminutive aspect. So why are we laughing? Now, this is where things get really weird the human brain seems as running all of these complex mathematical models all the time without any of us knowing it as we watch TV and read and talk to people our brains are constantly parsing language for subtle semantic, cross-connections and statistical probabilities and the result, at least on this basic one word level is what we call humor Westbury said if asked which letter is more common p or be I think the average person would have no clue consciously, but unconsciously they are sensitive to that. And we know that because they're funding this judgments are reflecting. Exactly that kind of fine tuned calculation. In other words, said Westbury people are using emotions to do math. Westbury argues that all of this makes perfect sense. Abolution airily our brains had been hardwired over millions of years to identify anything that's out of the ordinary as a potential threat and human emotions, including humor likely developed as ways of responding to improbable events and environments Westbury summed it up people laugh based on how improbable the world is. Of course, it's a long conceptual leap from predicting the funniness level of individual words to modeling the comedic mechanics of knock knock joker salty Limerick. But whispers, work points the way, maybe someday we'll finally understand why that chicken crossed the road. One thing's clear, though, a frog wouldn't have been half as