Pop quiz! Which word in each of these pairs is funnier: War or booty? Sectori or rembrob? Tomato or pickle?
If you chose the second option in those word pairings, you’re validating the research that’s been done on comedic words. But what makes the latter options funnier? There are a few theories on what makes a word inherently comical. Here, we’ll dive into three that attempt to find the source of humor in individual words.
Before we start, yes, dissecting comedy is sometimes deeply unfunny. Hopefully, we’ll avoid killing the joke completely.
An English-Focused Study Of Words
For the most direct answer to what the funniest English word is, we can look at a study that focused on that exact question. Researchers had participants rate the funniness of various words. The study was done in the United Kingdom, so it should be noted there may be differences between British and American humor, but the insights are still useful.
Here, presented to you, are the results for the 12 funniest words in the English language, in descending order of hilarity:
Alright, the words aren’t exactly a laugh riot on their own. From this list, you might think middle-school boys are at the peak of their comedy game. Many of these words are childish taboos, specifically parts of the female anatomy. Would booty be as funny if not for what it means? Probably not.
It’s worth noting that adults do get plenty of amusement out of the words on this list, however. Take, for example, Finnish comedian Ismo’s recent performance on Conan about the word “ass.”
If we look past the juvenile nature of some of the words here, there are other commonalities worth noting. In the analysis, researchers said the most reliable indicator was that the less common the word, the funnier people found it. There also are some significant commonalities in how the words sound. For example, “tit,” “twit” and “nitwit” all made the list, which suggests that English-speakers may find something funny about the similar sounds they make. The list has a lot more hard consonants like “b,” “p,” “g” and “t” than soft consonants like “m,” “l,” “s” and “f.” Is it possible that certain words just sound funnier than others, independent of what they mean? For that, we’ll have to descend into nonsense.
Hilarious Nonsense Words
To figure out how funny words are outside of any context, we have to look at nonsense words. People might laugh at “booty” just because they think butts are funny, but if they’re giggling at “plomble,” it has to be something else that’s causing the laughter.
To find out which nonsense words are funniest, one study took a bunch of non-words and asked participants how funny they were. What the study found is that the less similar a nonsense word is to a real word, the funnier it was. The option couldn’t be nothing like a real word, because something like “wqvzcxvjz” is just an unpronounceable pile of letters. Words like “snunkpool,” which are weird but not completely impossible, were the ones most likely to crack people up. This also corresponds with the study in the previous section, which used real words, but the funnier words were still the less common ones.
The researchers for this study believe nonsense words are funny when they’re a “benign violation.” The words are “benign” because they’re certainly not going to hurt anyone, but they’re a “violation” because they’re unexpected and break the rules of normal language. Why would that cause us to laugh? The evolutionary basis for laughter might be that people would laugh at a “violation” to signal that it was not a threat. If someone fell but wasn’t injured, people might laugh at the fall to show it was unexpected but not harmful. Not everyone agrees that this is an all-encompassing definition for comedy, but it’s one of the most useful ones we have today.
That nonsense words are funny at all suggests that the sounds of words must have some sort of meaning. The idea that sounds have meaning independent of word-meaning is called sound symbolism, and it’s a debated topic in the linguistics world. One example that supports sound symbolism is that there are several words relating to light that start with “gl-” that describe light in some way, like glitter, glance and gleam. In fact, 80 percent of English words that start with “gl-” are light-related. Not only that, but “gl-” words indicating light in some way has been noticed across many languages, suggesting there is just something about the sound of “gl-” that sounds like light to humans.
Still confused by how a word can “sound” like a feeling or an idea? Perhaps a better explanation comes from the examination of “woody” versus “tinny” words in Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
The Inherent Comedy Of The Letter K
If you think words like cackle, Kalamazoo and cuckoo are funny, you’re tapping into some old comedy wisdom from the days of Vaudeville. Here’s a quote from Neil Simon’s 1972 play The Sunshine Boys, in which a comedian gives advice to his nephew:
While folk wisdom is great, there hasn’t been much research into the humor of the letter “k.” One study was done by researcher Richard Wiseman, using several iterations of the same joke. The basic form of the joke was this: There were two [animal species] in a field. One said: “[typical animal noise]” The other one said: “I was going to say that!”
The “best version” of this joke according to the study was the one where the animal species was “ducks” and the animal noise was “Quack.” Wiseman claims that this shows that the “k” sound is indeed funniest, but this is far from a comprehensive analysis.
One thing that “k” does have going for it is that, like the “t,” “p” and “b” sounds that were prominent in the English funny word list, “k” is a hard stop. When you pronounce a “k,” you have to cut off the air coming out of your mouth. And with “k” being the stop farthest back in the mouth, it is, in fact, the harshest. That’s why “k” is the most common sound to appear in English swear words. Because they make a word more forceful and concise, hard stops apparently make for good cussing and good comedy.
And The Funniest Word Is…
Let’s review the qualities of a funny word that we’ve established with the research.
- It should be an uncommon word.
- It should ideally have some kind of humorous use in the native language.
- It should have hard stops, especially “k” sounds.
- It should be a benign violation.
Using these criteria, there are obviously a huge number of candidates. We could just go with “booty,” but we want to make the case for a better option: Cucumber.
Cucumber has two “k” sounds. The “yoo” sound is unexpected. It’s not that common outside of salad shops and produce stands. All in all, it’s just a very silly vegetable.
Sure, you could accuse us of a bias toward English words or for just picking a random word because there isn’t really a single “funniest,” but let us present our final case: