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Finally There’s a Scientific Theory for Why Some Words are Funny

The science behind Dr. Seuss

smithsonian.com

Does the word “quingel” make you giggle? How about “finglam? Or “rembrob?” Don’t worry about reaching for the dictionary. These are all nonsense words generated by a computer. But if you think they look or sound funny, you’re not alone. According to a new study published in the Journal of Memory and Language, there’s a scientific reason why made-up words like these might get you to chuckle.

Chris Westbury, a psychology professor at the University of Alberta, didn’t set out to study what makes people laugh at nonsense words worthy of Dr. Seuss.  He was initially conducting a study to see whether people with a speech and language disorder called aphasia could distinguish between real and fake words. But Westbury found that every time his subjects saw the word “snunkoople” they cracked up, Sarah Kaplan reports for the Washington Post.

So Westbury and a group of linguists from the University of Tübingen in Germany came up with a list of nonsense words to see which ones got the biggest laughs.

“Some non-words are funny, and they’re weird when they are,” Westbury says in a video produced by the University of Alberta. “But there’s actually a consistent relationship between how funny they are and how weird they are.”

Westbury and his colleagues discovered that the more unusual a word looks or sounds, the funnier it is. As it turns out, there’s a kind of “Goldilocks Zone” of nonsense words: A word like  “anotain” got fewer laughs because it looks more like a real word, while “pranomp” got more because it looks just silly enough, David Shariatmadari writes for The Guardian.

"They’re going on their gut feeling, going 'It feels funny to me,'" Westbury says in the video. "And we’re showing that feeling is actually a kind of probability calculation. … Emotion is helping us compute the probabilities in the world."

This isn't a new idea: The 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer proposed the "incongruity theory," which suggests that the basis of humor lies in violated expectations, like when a parade of clowns gets out of a tiny car, writes Kaplan.

So when a word diverges greatly from what sounds like a real word, people more often find the nonsense word funny. Using this idea, Westbury has devised a mathematical model to explain humor, reports Kaplan.

It’s possible that our ancestors evolved to think things were funny to show when surprises aren't threats. If that rustling in nearby bushes, turned out to be a rabbit instead of a sabre-toothed tiger, laughter could alert others to the innocuous critter, Kaplan writes.

As psychologist Peter McGraw told Joel Warner for Wired, a laugh is a “signal to the world that a violation is indeed OK." 

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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