Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Funny words are the backbone of some of the most enjoyable stories in the English language. Whether it’s Roald Dahl’s frobscottle, Dr. Seuss’ thneeds, or even Douglas Adams’ Zaphod Beeblebrox, choosing the right word can win your story a permanent place in your readers’ hearts.
That’s not to say that funny words are only important for younger readers – sometimes you want to prompt immediate affection for a mentor (hello, Dumbledore), undermine a blowhard (goodbye, Bounderby), or just give your witty private eye a damn good quip (wait a second, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, we’ll get to you). Sometimes, you just need something to ‘cap’ a funny back-and-forth, as in Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (see? I told you).
Harry: You should try to get in touch with him. I got five bucks says you could still get him.
Perry: Really? That’s funny. I got a ten says, “Pass the pepper.” I got two quarters singing harmony on ‘Moonlight in Vermont’.
Perry: Talking money.
Harry: A talking monkey?
Perry: A talking monkey, yeah, yeah. Came here from the future. Ugly sucker. Only says ‘ficas’.
There are many occasions when a funny word can come in handy, but is it really possible to pull one out of the ether? Aren’t umpa-lumpas and nerds just the product of good luck, focus-testing, or uniquely inspired minds? (Really inspired, seeing as that second example was just one of several additions Dr. Seuss made to the dictionary.)
Nope! Or, at least, not entirely. In fact, through a mix of science and tried-and-tested wisdom, we know a lot of the rules that define which words your readers will find ‘funny’.
Can a word be inherently funny?
To many people, the idea of an inherently funny word is offensive. Isn’t it, after all, the context around the word and the skill with which it’s used that lends it humor?
These are certainly factors that can make a word more or less funny, but when I talk about ‘funny words’, I’m not talking about magic phrases that work on us for no discernible reason. Our language is, after all, an incredibly complex system, and by understanding that system, we can find a few reliable truths about the way people react to certain sounds and word structures.Frobscottle, snunkoople and wool – is there a science to funny words?Click To Tweet
Of course, some people aren’t amused by funny words, and personal taste is the constant X-factor in any artistic endeavor, but the theories below combine to inform authors in a way that’s far more reliable than you might expect.
A final warning – talking about why these words are funny is likely to rob them of their joy. In the words of E.B. White:
Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.
Assuming we are of a scientific mind, at least in the sense that we want to make our own ‘frogs’, remember to give the examples below a little leeway. In a story, they’d raise a chuckle, but we have far more academic purposes in mind.
It’s a common tip among spoken-word performers that plosives are the funniest sounds. What’s a plosive? It’s a sound made by blocking a particular part of the mouth; basically, a set of consonants that are all in the same ‘family’ of sounds.
Words with a prominent ‘p’, ‘b’, ‘t’, ‘d’, and ‘g’ are suggested as having an edge on other words for inherent humor, and many writers and performers hold the plosive ‘k’ in the highest regard of all.
Want something to sound funny? Drop in some plosive consonants.Click To Tweet
Words with a ‘K’ in it are funny. Alka-Seltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. All with a ‘K’. ‘L’s are not funny. ‘M’s are not funny.
– Neil Simon, The Sunshine Boys
In other words:
Would all be examples of words that gain a little humor from their plosives. Why are plosives more effective? Well, it could be that the explosive, popping sound grabs the attention, and it might even relate to incongruity-resolution theory (which we’ll touch on later).
Understanding plosives is the key to knowing which ‘random’ words will get a laugh and which won’t. You can see this at work in the title of Rob Delaney’s Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage. There’s humor in an apparent list of qualities revealing itself as a stream of nonsense, but don’t overlook how those seemingly random terms cram in as many plosives as possible.
Knowing about plosives is one of the simplest ways to make your writing funnier; often, in a funny scene, you’ll be able to swap a key word for a synonym that includes a plosive (or places stronger emphasis on its plosive). For example.
He threw a stone at my head! → He threw a pebble at my head!
Is this bus being driven by a monkey? → Is this bus being driven by a chimp?
Complete nonsense! → Utter rot!
You’ll notice this logic at work in the ‘ficas’ quote from earlier, in which the plosive ‘k’ (‘/k/’ if you’re fancy) brings the back-and-forth to a satisfying close. It’s not the first use of the plosive, though; the phrase ‘Ugly sucker’ is there to set you up for the punch.
Alliteration, assonance and consonance
Alliteration, assonance and consonance are different ways of repeating a sound multiple times in a sentence. We don’t really need to know the difference to use them, but a quick primer never hurt anybody:
Alliteration is the repetition of an initial sound at the start of each word: ‘Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.’
Assonance is the repetition of a vowel sound within multiple words: ‘Soft language issued from their spitless lips.’ (From James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.)
Consonance is the repetition of a consonant sound within multiple words: ‘And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain…’ (From Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven).Alliteration, assonance and consonance can elevate your writing.Click To Tweet
The human brain loves these patterns, and will find extra amusement in words that are part of an alliterative, assonant or consonant phrase. Rhyming has a similar effect, but is much more obvious on the page.
Remember, as well, that these tips can be combined. What’s funnier than regular assonance? Assonance with added plosives! For example:
Cooking duck, Uncle Duncan?
The Snunkoople Effect
So that was the obvious stuff, but let’s get a little weirder. Chris Westbury, a professor of psychology at the University of Alberta, has a surprising theory about what makes nonsense words, like those found in Dr. Seuss books, funny.
This began as a test of how quickly subjects could identify whether a string of letters was actually a ‘word’. During the testing, Westbury noticed that subjects laughed when they encountered the word ‘snunkoople’.
The resultant study isn’t presented in the clearest language, but in basic terms, Westbury found that once a subject understood a nonsense word as a word (rather than a random string of letters), the words they found funniest were those where the structure was most unusual. This unfamiliarity was labelled ‘informational entropy’, where the brain detects uncertainty within a signal (in this case, within a word), with stranger words seen to be lower in entropy.
Sound crazy? Well, it allowed a computer to reliably produce nonsense words that were rated as funny, such as ‘quingel’, ‘finglam’, and ‘subvick’, but that’s not all. The logic also worked retroactively – looking at nonsense words that were already considered funny showed the same relationship between the ‘entropy’ of a word and its humor.
This concept is something that the king of nonsense words – Dr. Seuss – seemed to intuitively understand. The researchers took 65 made-up words from Dr. Seuss’s books – like “wumbus” and “yuzz-a-ma-tuzz” – and ran them through the entropy formula. They found that Dr. Seuss’s made-up words were reliably lower in entropy than regular English words.
– Julie Beck, ‘The Secret to Dr. Seuss’s Made-Up Words’ from The Atlantic
So how is this useful for authors? Well, for a start, the more unusual the structure of a word, the funnier it will be to the reader. This relies on the reader’s ability to recognize it as a word, but even this can be gamed. Many comedians and writers sample languages other than English – writer Brian Michael Bendis, for example, has been known to draw on Yiddish phrases in his writing.
It’s a risky prospect, but since the reader recognizes the presence of language, but also finds individual word structure unusual, there’s humor to be mined. This can be especially effective when it’s used as an exclamation – one of many reasons behind the trope of the non-native-speaking character swearing in their first language.
It doesn’t stop there, though: the Snunkoople Effect is a great example of our old friend, incongruity-resolution theory
Since I’ve covered incongruity-resolution theory before, I won’t go into a deep explanation here, but it’s worth revisiting the explanation from Writing Funny Characters That Actually Make People Laugh:
[Incongruity-resolution theory] suggests that a humorous response is created in the moment we recognize the reality of a situation that we had previously perceived as strange or unfamiliar. In short, the moment we ‘get’ something that initially seemed odd.
With the Snunkoople Effect, this comes when a word that seemed to make some sort of sense is dismissed as actually being nonsense. The odder this word appeared initially, the bigger the relief, and the more humor, there is in that incongruity being resolved.
This theory applies to individual words, but it also applies to phrases. Westbury even claims that the entropy of a combination of words can make that combination funnier – the stranger they seem together, the bigger the laugh.
Westbury et al also noted that expectation-violating combinations of words can be very funny. Compare “existential llama” to “angry llama”. According to the authors, the first generates fewer than 100 results on Google, meaning it’s a low-entropy (highly unlikely) combination. The second is high-entropy – with more than 13,000 results.
– Julie Beck, ‘The Secret to Dr. Seuss’s Made-Up Words’ from The Atlantic
So how can this be used? Pretty simply, actually. As with the existential llama above, using a less common word can make a situation funnier. There’s also humor in a complex word/simple word or long word/short word combination.Why is an existential llama funnier than an angry llama? The answer will surprise you.Click To Tweet
Take the name ‘Ignatius Boo’ as an example. There’s humor in this name simple because ‘Ignatius’ is a more complex, less common name, while ‘Boo’ is short and immediately understood. The first word gets the reader into a particular mindset, and the second confounds their expectations. It’s an artificial moment of incongruity-resolution, as the reader makes sense of the minor trick that’s just been played on them.
Of course, ‘Boo’ is also funny because we recognize that it’s not a name, but something you shout at someone to scare them.
As I mentioned earlier, words don’t exist in a vacuum, and it doesn’t make sense to pretend they do. Some words are fun because of the association they bring to the table. Comedian Stewart Lee has written and spoken frequently about the dependability of the word ‘wool’ for making an audience laugh. One of his stand-up sets involves the following exchange (taken out of context, here):
‘Hello. I don’t know if you can help me. I’m interested in buying one of those iPods.’
‘I’m sorry, sir. I won’t be able to help you, on account of the fact that I am fashioned entirely from colorful wool.’
In How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian, Lee elaborates on this choice.
‘Wool’ is a brilliant, all-purpose funny word. Few things are not made funnier if one imagines them being made out of, or coated in, wool.
His comments elsewhere, however, suggest that even here, incongruity-resolution theory holds sway.
Wool [is the funniest word], according to the Australian standup comedian Greg Fleet. It has a damp, undramatic clamminess to it, and sits uneasily in any stream of words, the ultimate onomatopoeic dead end, free of connotations, meaningless, banal.
So is ‘wool’ funny because it conjures up an odd image, or because it’s a conceptual dead end that deliberately brings the reader up short? Happily, it can be both.
This also seems to be the case with words which sound like, or bring to mind, taboo words or phrases. In fact, Westbury had to remove certain words from his study, as it became clear that their proximity to taboo terminology was artificially increasing their ‘funny’ ranking.
Rudeness introduced a whole other set of complications – why we find words related to sex embarrassing, for example.
That meant that the database they tested had to be stripped of these gems:
– David Shariatmadari, ‘From Whong to Quingel: The Science of Funny Words’ from The Guardian
This is a great example of incongruity-resolution theory at work in a single word – the brain is tempted with the possibility of taboo, but brought up short into comforting nonsense. However it works, considering the contextual baggage attached to words (or just words that look similar) will often give you another avenue to invite laughter.
Putting it all together
The funniest words will come when you combine the methods described above, and the more you can get to co-exist, the better. One great example is an antagonist from Dan Slott’s Silver Surfer: New Dawn, known as ‘The Incredulous Zed’.
You may not be on the floor laughing (remember that dead frog), but Slott combines many of the techniques above in a seemingly effortless way. Notice, first, the plosive ‘d’, which is repeated for consonance (alongside the assonant ‘e’). A long word leads into a short and simple one, playing off incongruity-resolution theory by bringing the reader up short. There’s even a little association there, as using ‘Incredulous’ as a title invites the brain to skate close to ‘Incredible’, and then reflect on how and why this more expected term is not being used. Is there also a joke in someone claiming the mantle of ‘Zed’ proudly, considering its common context as ‘the last and worst’? You be the judge.
Choosing funny words
The examples above should serve to show how easily different components can work together, but they should also help to demystify the process. Above is the explanation of why ‘The Incredulous Zed’ works so well, but that doesn’t mean that funny words can only be found through rigorous academic study. A lot of choosing funny words is instinctual – we all know far more about how language works than we realize – and if you want to give those instincts a boost, the information above should help.
Above all, don’t get lost in the data. Imagine that the details above are tips on how to beat someone in a fight: he’s got a weak knee, his left hook is pathetic, and he turns slowly. Get stuck on using them all at once and you’ll be paralyzed, but consider them as the opportunity arises, or even one at a time, and you’ll take him apart in no time.
Begin with the plosives – our language is rich with synonyms, and there’ll almost always be a funnier synonym once you think about it. Alliteration, assonance and consonance await your further attention, and once you’ve made those choices, involving incongruity-resolution theory really isn’t much work. But maybe you won’t go that far – maybe some assonance and some plosives will be enough to make your reader snigger. I have to admit, I’m still enjoying ‘Cooking duck, Uncle Duncan?’ Of course, if you’ve got something better, let me know in the comments.
For more theories you can apply to your writing, check out Understanding Cultural Trends Can Help You Write A Bestseller. Or, if you’re really serious about this ‘being funny’ thing, check out Writing Funny Characters That Actually Make People Laugh and The 3 Types Of Humor Your Story Needs. Finally, if you’re really excited to start making up hilarious words, read Shakespeare Invented Words, Should You Do It Too?, where I’ll tell you exactly why you shouldn’t.