EDMONTON — Ever wondered why some words can make you snort milk through your nose or why little kids love to run around yelling certain others?
A pair of University of Alberta researchers say they've analyzed what it is that make some words intrinsically funny.
"Nobody has really done a good job at predicting humour in advance," said University of Alberta psychologist Chris Westbury. "One of the reasons is they haven't been willing to go low enough."
Westbury is co-author of a recently published paper entitled "Wriggly, Squiffy, Lummox, and Boobs: What Makes Some Words Funny" in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. His research may be the first to break down what makes us break down.
Like all great science, it builds on previous research.
Under the previous federal government, Westbury said a drought in science funding left him free to do something wacky.
"I thought people would think I was wasting their money if I did this on their dime."
He'd noticed that people often laugh at silly-sounding non-words, so he went looking for patterns. Garble like "snunkoople," for example, was more apt to draw a smile than something like "x-attack."
"We could do surprisingly well at predicting which words people find funny," Westbury said.
On the strength of that research, he was sent a British paper to review that used statistical analysis to rank the funniness of nearly 5,000 words. Cutting-edge stuff, thought Westbury, but why were those words funny?
Some of western civilization's finest minds have asked that same question.
Sex, bodily functions, good times, animals and insults
Plato and Aristotle, Westbury writes, argued that humour is denigration and that all jokes have a butt. Roman statesman Cicero said laughs lie in incongruity — the gag gift, for example.
Westerbury's 27-page paper presents a 2,500-year literature review of philosophical attempts to get the joke. It may be the only academic paper that cites both Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, author of the book "Fear and Trembling," and Broadway playwright Neil Simon, who gave us "The Odd Couple."
But nobody has really succeeded, Westbury holds.
"None of those theories are really theories. They're explanations."
He wanted to be able to predict what people would find funny. To do that, he and colleague Geoff Hollis decided to focus on the most basic kind of humour.
"Single words? It's not really that funny, but even though it's not that funny, it's really complex."
What makes a word funny, he found, is a combination of two factors — sound and meaning.
Using sophisticated statistical analysis of three billion words worth of prose on Google, they found words likely to get a laugh tend to be associated with sex, bodily functions, good times, animals and insults.
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But that's not enough. They have to sound funny, too.
If they've got the "oo" sound, found in 17.4 per cent of the words judged most funny, that's good. So is a hard "kay" or an ending in "le." Double letters are also funny.
Westbury confirmed his findings by using them to predict how funny people would find a given word.
"I was amazed at how well we were able to predict judgments."
Interestingly, age and gender made almost no difference in what people found amusing. Culture, however, did.
"I have an Iranian grad student who didn't really find the words we found funny to be funny.
"She said, 'I find these a bit rude.' I said, 'Sorry, that's the culture you're in now.'"
'We study the things that matter to us'
Westbury knows that his analysis says little about irony, satire, or more sophisticated yuks. But he said any light shed on laughter sheds light on what it means to be human.
Humour may even have evolutionary value. Westbury said some scientists theorize that the endorphin buzz that comes from a good laugh is a reward for thinking out of the box and being creative.
"We study the things that matter to us."
The 10 funniest words in English from a sample of nearly 45,000?
Upchuck, bubby, boff, wriggly, yaps, giggle, cooch, guffaw, puffball and jiggly.
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