Why some words make us laugh

Photo: Nola Cox

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Patrick Cox : First a warning. This podcast will contain some rude words. Not very rude but, you know, potty humor. And it starts right now.

Nina and Boris say “Poopoo” several times.

Patrick Cox : That’s my old pal Nina Porzucki and her two-year-old son Boris. He’s learning to talk.

Nina Porzucki: And he thinks the words poo and poop are hilarious because they are.

Patrick Cox: Who doesn’t? I’m with Boris all the way.

Nina Porzucki: Poop is an undeniably funny word. And if you don’t think so, write Patrick! But it’s not the first word that has made Boris crack up. So early on, when he really really small, before he could really say more than a few words, he would belly laugh when I said the word boot. I mean belly laugh. But it got me thinking, what exactly makes words funny?

Patrick Cox: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle. Stories about languages and the people who speak them. I’m Patrick Cox. In this episode, Beyond Poop! What’s the nature of a funny word? Can we ever know?

Nina Porzucki: So, Patrick, when you first asked me to do a podcast about humor, I thought, “Oh God!” First, there’s nothing less funny than analyzing a joke and second, I thought humor just seems relative. Did you see the new special from comedian Jo Firestone, Good Timing?

Patrick Cox: No.

Nina Porzucki: During COVID, Jo Firestone taught a comedy class to seniors in New York City and they filmed a special about it. And she does this exercise with her students testing out what’s funny and what isn’t.

Jo Firestone: I’m just going to say words. And you just say whether it’s funny or not funny, by itself. Okay. Ready? Peanuts! How about treadmills?

Student: Not at all. Very serious

Patrick Cox: Wait, is she asking the sound of the word or the meaning?

Nina Porzucki: Ahhh! That’s a big question and we’ll come to it.

Jo Firestone: Pumpkins?

Student: No. Neutral.

Patrick Cox: I dunno, pumpkins are kind of funny to me. I didn’t grow up eating pumpkins.

Nina Porzucki: They are. Pumpkins are funny?

Patrick Cox: Yeah. And they sound funny too. PUMP-KINS.

Nina Porzucki: Right. It all seems rather subjective, and kind of impossible to prove why one word is funnier than another. But it turns out that’s not the case.

Chris Westbury: We were really the first people to seriously try to predict what people are going to find funny and succeeded. And of course we only succeeded because we were looking at the world’s worst jokes.

Nina Porzucki: That’s Chris Westbury. He’s a psycholinguist at the University of Alberta, and the jokes he studied weren’t knock-knocks or even one-liners. Chris’s inquiry began with a single word. Actually, everything started with a single non-word.

Chris Westbury: And that non-word was Snunkoople.

Patrick Cox : Snunkoople, is that he said?

Nina Porzucki: Snunkoople, doesn’t it just roll off the tongue.

Chris Westbury: Snunkoople, which later became actually strangely famous.

Nina Porzucki: But how do you spell it?

Chris Westbury: S-N-U-N-K-O-O-P-L-E.

Nina Porzucki: This non-word actually came up in a study Chris was doing that had nothing to do with humor. It was a study about aphasia, people who have had brain damage and have lost language functioning. Basically, for the study the participants were asked to look at a bunch of random letters on a screen and determine whether what they were reading was a word or not. And what Chris noticed was that without fail people just kept laughing at the made-up word snunkoople.

Chris Westbury: All of the non-words were made up by computer. We didn’t have anything to do with it, so we didn’t choose that word because it was funny. But the interesting thing is we thought it was funny too. And most people do. So my grad student had suggested that we should try and figure out why.

Nina Porzucki: Initially Chris dismissed this out of hand. How could they measure humor? But then one day he was reading a book by Arthur Shopenhauer.

Chris Westbury: Schopenhauer, who was a very kind of dreary German philosopher, a pre-existentialist who wrote a lot about how life was really terrible and all that.

Patrick Cox: Nina, is this a funny story that I’m not getting? A depressed German philosopher?!

Nina Porzucki: Patrick, just think dark humor here. Go with it! And Chris Westbury came upon a passage in this book that intrigued him.

Chris Westbury: He actually in the middle of his book wrote a theory that said basically the more unexpected something is the funnier it is. And when I read that the light went on in my head because that’s something that we could actually use.

Nina Porzucki: What Schopenhauer wrote about is an idea that several other philosophers have also touched upon: Incongruity. Sometimes called the Incongruity Resolution Theory, or sometimes just the Theory of Incongruity.

Patrick Cox: Oh, give me an example of incongruity.

Nina Porzucki: Comedians do this all of the time. But take the one-liner as an example. So back in the 1960s, the comedian Henny Youngman was the king of one-liners. Here he is on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1967.

Henny Youngman: Today ladies and gentlemen I’ve been happily married for 15 happy years. Fifteen out of 39 isn’t bad.

Nina Porzucki: Alright, so that’s an old-style joke that isn’t super funny but it’s a great example of incongruity. He flips your expectations there.

Chris Westbury: Cicero wrote the most common kind of joke is when we expect one thing and another set in which case our own disappointed expectation makes us laugh.

Nina Porzucki: Cicero, the Roman philosopher of course. I just want to emphasize, Patrick, that this is not a panacea. Incongruity is not always funny of course. But what Chris realized when that light bulb went off when he was reading Schopenhauer is that he could measure incongruity to see whether it truly does correlate to humor.

Chris Westbury: We measure how incongruous the word is by using statistics.

Nina Porzucki: So in his first paper, he just looked at non-words like..

Patrick Cox: That “Snun” thing?

Nina Porzucki: Snunkoople Yes, funnily enough he didn’t actually test snunkoople. But he tested a corpus of made-up, computer generated non-words.

Chris Westbury: We just started mathematically looking at them and we found out that we could explain which non-words people found funny based on basically the probability of the letters in the word is essentially what it comes down to.

Patrick Cox: Wait a minute, I don’t understand what that means: The “probability of the letters in the word.”

Nina Porzucki: What he’s saying here is that the more unusual the combination of letters, the more unexpected…

Chris Westbury: … the more incongruous it is, the weirder, the word is, and the funnier people find it with some constraints. If you make a really stupid word that has no vowels in it or something, people don’t find it funny. So there’s, there’s something in there, but if you make a reasonable word that’s made up of unusual letters and sounds, the more unusual the letters and sounds are the funnier people find it.

Patrick Cox: OK, I have to ask you this again now: Is he taking the sounds into consideration? Were the study participants judging the humor of these non-words by looking at the words or just hearing them? Or both?

Nina Porzucki: Actually, participants were just reading these made-up words. So sound doesn’t come into play. But as you heard Chris created a statistical model that was pretty good at predicting what people would read was funny. So he decided to take his research one step further and create a model for actual words, in English. More on that after the break.

Patrick Cox: I question for you, dear listener: Have you subscribed yet to Subtitle’s newsletter? If not please consider doing it. Every other week you’ll find a fun and informative little missive in your inbox. We pick out our favorite language-related stories in the news, we have sneak peeks of upcoming episodes, and we tell you about words from other languages we think really ought to be in English. English does have a lot of words but it could have so many more! We’d love it if you told us about your favorite non-English words. Each edition of our newsletter is a five-minute read. We will not waste your time! Subscribe at our website.

Joanna Hausmann: this is gonna sound stupid, but gazebo, like what, what a word for such an innocuous thing?

Nina Porzucki: That’s Joanna Hausmann, comedian, bilingual Spanish/English speaker, friend of the podcast. I asked her what she thought the funniest word was in English.

Joanna Hausmann: For the longest time, I have an American friend who thought it was pronounced “GAZ-y-boo.” I would prefer it to be pronounced “GAZ-y-boo.” But I just think the word gazebo doesn’t feel English. And what it’s used to describe is so like specific and dumb. I think I’ve said gazebo, maybe once in context. And it was at my rich friend’s house in Connecticut. Cause who else has a gazebo? You know, it’s special when you hear it. Cause you, when would you say it? It’s not like egg, which — egg is kind of funny, but like egg is just, oh, I say egg regularly. Or chair.

Patrick Cox: I don’t know, I think the way Joanna says egg and chair makes me think they’re funny. She can turn any word into funny. Yes, gazebo is funny-weird but I don’t know, if you’re a certain type of comedian it seems to me like you can make any word sound funny.

Nina Porzucki: Well, I think there’s something to be said about saying a word over and over again until it becomes devoid of its meaning. Like if you said egg a thousand times, it would suddenly not feel like an egg, it would feel completely foreign. Do you know what I mean?

Patrick Cox: Plus also there’s the meaning side of it, an egg is kind of otherworldly. It’s one of the weirdest food items there is. It’s an embryo.

Nina Porzucki: It’s an embryo, God. I feel like anything Joanna says is funny. She’s just funny. But gazebo, the word is funny precisely because we don’t expect to hear the word gazebo on a regular basis.

So getting back to Chris Westbury’s research: After he was able to predict humor in non-words he turned his focus to single words. Could he predict which words are the funniest? He used two sets of predictors. First, he looked at Information Theoretic Predictors.

Patrick Cox: Information Theoretic Predictors? Did he get from Schopenhauer too?

Nina Porzucki: I know, it’s very jargony. But basically, how the word is constructed, starting with certain letters of the alphabet.

Chris Westbury: I met a comic when I was working on the first paper and he mentioned to me in passing that the letter K was considered funny by comics. I’d never heard — I shouldn’t say I’d never heard that before because I had seen the movie, The Sunshine Boys, but I saw it about 40 years ago.

Nina Porzucki: The Sunshine Boys was a play by Neil Simon and then a 1975 film starring Walter Mathau as an aging comic and Richard Benjamin as his nephew.

Chris Westbury: And in The Sunshine Boys, there’s a scene where one of the comics explains to his nephew that you should use words that have K in it.

Movie dialog: “You know, which words are funny and which words are not funny?” “You told me a hundred times, Uncle Willie. Words with a K in it are funny. I have to get to the office.” “Words with a K in it are funny. You didn’t know that, did you? I’ll tell you which words always get a laugh. Alka Seltzer’s funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny.”

Patrick Cox: I had no idea the letter “K” had a reputation for being funny. No idea.

Nina Porzucki: Neither did I. It’s common knowledge in the world of comedy, I don’t know if it’s common knowledge but I hadn’t heard that either. But funnily enough — pun intended — I was chatting with Filip Jeremic, he’s a comic and also a bilingual English and Serbian speaker and he told me that the funniest Serbian word he knows, according to him…

Filip Jeremic:…is Kikiriki.

Patrick Cox: Kikiriki. What does that mean?

Nina Porzucki: Peanuts.

Filip Jeremic: It’s very phonetic. It’s K-I-K-I-R-I-K-I. Kikiriki.

Patrick Cox: That’s funny in a cute way. I wonder if it sounds funny in Serbian too? Are K-words funny in other languages too?

Nina Porzucki: The short answer is I don’t know. So Filip is a bilingual speaker and likely his funny bone is influenced by English as well as Serbian. I don’t know if it’s funny in Serbian, to monolingual Serbian speakers. But in English, Chris Westbury actually proved that it’s true. People intrinsically find K funny. And not just K.

Chris Westbury: Later on we found out that words that have certain phonemes in them are also funny. P-L-E words, whereas the, an P-L-E in fact, any constant L-E and words that have oo in them are judged funnier.

Nina Porzucki: So the letter K, words with P-L-E and double O. My son Boris is not wrong when he thinks boot is funny. These are what Chris deemed Information Theoretic Predictors. And Patrick, just in case you’ve forgotten there’s also another set of predictors.

Patrick Cox: I had forgotten. Another hilarious name for this too I’m sure.

Nina Porzucki: Yes. The other set of predictors that Chris modeled were what he called Semantic Predictors.

Patrick Cox: That’s a little easier to get my head around. These predictors are about meaning? Like how funny a word is based on its meaning?

Nina Porzucki: Exactly.

Chris Westbury: The weird thing about language is it has so many expectations built into it. There’s so many ways for work to be expected or unexpected that it gets really complicated. So when we switched from looking at non-words to words, suddenly there was all kinds of incongruity.

Nina Porzucki: All kinds of other incongruity because unlike non-words, real words have meanings. I could say a non-word like doopity-doop to you and that might be funny but when I say poop.

Patrick Cox: It’s funny in a different way — only a slightly different way from doopity-doop. But yeah, no it’s that extra funny way because there’s a meaning and your head goes to a certain place.

Nina Porzucki: Right. So what if I said poop in an unlikely setting, like at a job interview?

Patrick Cox: That would be awkward, and funny.

Nina Porzucki: Or on a date. That would be really really awkward too.

Chris Westbury: You don’t expect certain kinds of words to appear in certain situations. And when they do people laugh, you see this in, in stand-up comedy all the time. Stand-up comics often use language that would normally not be used in a public situation, right. They swear a lot. And, uh, they often talk about, uh, really personal incidents that normally you would not talk about to a group of people. Both of those are playing on incongruity, right?

Nina Porzucki: One of my favorite comics Maria Bamford is the master of incongruity.

Maria Bamford: This is my anxiety song: If I keep the ice tray filled then no one will die. As long as I clench my fist at odd intervals then the darkness within me won’t force me to do anything violent or sexual during dinner parties.

Nina Porzucki: See what she does there. Singing about anxiety, murder, you name it.

Patrick Cox: It’s almost like meta semantic incongruity because — oh, there I go with some jargon if my own– she’s blurting out kind of personal, inappropriate thoughts in front of an audience of strangers, presumably. And she’s telling that audience about how she tries not to blurt out those same thoughts in other settings. Whoa.

Nina Porzucki: She’s singing them so there’s something added there. I love her, she’s so great. So getting back to Chris’ study, he determined six semantic categories: Sex, bodily functions, insults, swear words, partying, and my very favorite, animals.

Chris Westbury: Those categories were — we made them up by observation and then we quantified them in a way that would be very tedious to explain. You probably don’t want to know, but we actually can tell how far away each word is from those categories. We have these really nice computational models that allow us to do that.

Nina Porzucki: So he actually applied his nice computational model to a corpus of over 45,000 words.

Patrick Cox: 45,000 words! So many. OK, Out of those 45,000 what is the very funniest word?

Nina Porzucki: Oh gosh, I’m sorry to disappoint you Patrick, but there’s not one frontrunner. Things are statistically close. But the top ten words estimated to be the funniest were: upchuck, bubby, boff, wriggly, yaps, giggle, cooch, guffaw, puffball and jiggly.

Patrick Cox: Wow. I’m really struggling with those as the top ten funniest words.

Nina Porzucki: What, jiggly isn’t’ funny to you. Jiggly is really funny. Puffball? Very funny.

Patrick Cox: Yeah puffball is funny.

Nina Porzucki: Puffball is really funny. Boff. I don’t know what that means, but it looks funny. Chris created a list of more than 200 of the funniest words.

Patrick Cox: You got any favorites among that larger list?

Nina Porzucki: Of course I do, Patrick. So I guess my favorite would be snogging. To be honest, I don’t even know what it means but it looks and sounds really funny. Snogging.

Patrick Cox: Well, I do know what snogging means. It’s totally cute-sounding. I do know what it means and I can’t really divorce my knowledge of what it means from the sound of it. I think the semantics trumps the sound for me.

Nina Porzucki: So what does it mean?

Patrick Cox: It means kissing. And it’s something you learn when you are quite young. And growing up, I used the word snogging at least until I was about 20. So my entire childhood.

Nina Porzucki: So you can’t snog as an adult. It’s a teenager kissing kind of a deal. No snogging as an adult? No snogging anymore?

Patrick Cox: No, you just talk about other people snogging.

Nina Porzucki: You’re snickering about other people snogging?

Patrick Cox: That’s right. You wouldn’t say to your romantic partner, “Oh, let’s have a snog.” That just doesn’t sound good.

Nina Porzucki: It sounds so sweet. “Let’s have a snog with some egg-nog.”

Patrick Cox: Oh no!

Nina Porzucki: It’s the double G that gets me. It’s a really cute-looking word. But the thing is, Patrick, let’s be honest here: Poop is just the funniest word. Boris is not wrong. Poop is just super funny.

Patrick Cox: You just really wanted to say Poop on this podcast right?

Nina Porzucki: Oh, totally, totally.

Patrick Cox: I think I’m with you and Boris. It’s probably the best of the lot.

Nina Porzucki: Moving on, Chris Westbury, he did go on to study funny word pairs, so he went from non-words to words, and then he was like, “Ah, I’ll test out some funny word pairs.” And he liked to present his research to different audiences and get their reactions to word pairs like…

Chris Westbury: Cocky cooch. I think it is again, I don’t know if you can say it on your podcast, but I started dissecting the many reasons why cocky cooch is funny.And the audience started cracking up, not because cockie cooch is so funny. But it was hilarious to break down the ten reasons why cocky cooch is so incongruous.So, they were laughing not with me but at me by the time I was finished.

Nina Porzucki: Chris was actually presenting his research at his local bar for a Nerd Night. He’s a pretty funny guy. And what he found was that just adding another word to the mix makes things extraordinarily complicated. He was much less successful at predicting which word pairs would be the funniest.

Chris Westbury: Once you have two words, you have to double all of the properties of each word. Plus you have to think about the properties that are about the combination of the two words, and it’s really, really complicated.

Nina Porzucki: The short answer: Incongruity is complicated. And thank God.

Patrick Cox: Yes indeed. Because otherwise it’s a bit worrying to imagine that humor can just simply be predicted by computational models. What’s to stop people who may not be genuine comedians just drawing on a list of funny words and trying to make people laugh?

Nina Porzucki: Well, I don’t think someone who isn’t funny could ever just draw on the words and make people laugh. There’s magic in comedy that remains unstudied, or maybe unstudyable. Humor is still very much in the realm of the mysterious. And even Chris would agree with that.

Chris Westbury: The scientific study of humor, as I’ve done it, is not destroying humor but showing why humor is going to remain outside of the range of scientific study, because there’s just too many ways that we can violate incongruity. There’s too many ways to be funny. We did quantify humor. But in quantifying it, we also showed it’s really, really getting complicated, even when you’re telling really stupid, terrible jokes.

Patrick Cox: Well Nina, it’s been an absolute pleasure having you on the podcast and talking about poop.

Nina Porzucki: It’s always a pleasure, Patrick. Anytime you want to talk about bodily functions, dirty words, animals, I’m here for you.

Patrick Cox: Many thanks to Nina Porzucki. She’ll be back soon with another episode — another take on humor and language. Tina Tobey is our sound designer. Allison Shao manages our newsletter and social media. Thanks also to Joanna Hausmann who’s a great supporter of the podcast and more to the point, and a truly funny comedian. And thanks, as always to Alyson Reed and everyone at the Linguistic Society of America.

A quick note on Arthur Schopenhauer, that depressed German philosopher. I confess 100% ignorance here, if you haven’t already guessed. I have never read a word he wrote. But like people I do know he made the German team in the Philosophers’ football match. That’s a Monty Python sketch. He played alongside Hegel and Wittgenstein against Greece, and its stars, Plato, Aristotle, Socrates. Had the Romans had fielded a team, I’m certain Cicero would have been in goal. And he’d have kept a clean sheet. I’ll post a link to all that silliness. I’ll also post a link to Chris Westbury’s study of funny words. They’ll be in the show notes and also at our digital home.

Subtitle is a member of the Hub and Spoke podcast collective. We’re a bunch of podcasters who are all dedicated to telling stories about stuff that you’re not going to come across most anywhere else. Here’s one of the other Hub and Spoke podcasts: Soonish. Host Wade Rousch brings you stories and conversations about technology with an eye on the future, and how we might improve it, if we weren’t so dumb and petty. That’s my editorial aside, that last bit. Wade is less jaded than me. I loved the recent Soonish episode about time zones. I can’t quite figure why I love this episode so much– maybe it’s because it’s both scientifically rigorous and lyrical at the same time. It’s also full of info and history that I just had no idea about, and it tells a wonderful story.

OK, that’s it for this episode. Please rate and review Subtitle wherever you listen. It’s great to get feedback — and those ratings and reviews help others find us. If you want to send me feedback directly by the way, I’m on Twitter. We’ll be back in a couple of weeks. Thanks for listening.

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

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A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod

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A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod

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