Scientists and philosophers have long sought to understand humor. Charles Darwin likened it to a “tickling of the mind,” and Thomas Hobbes described it as a feeling of “sudden glory.” Theories about what makes something funny have ranged the gamut, with some positing that there’s humor in correcting errors or detecting faulty logic; others like Sigmund Freud have suggested it reduces “excessive arousal.” One recent interesting theory suggests that “benign violations,” which break norms in a harmless way, make us laugh.
But what about the individual words that make up jokes, or enliven our everyday discussions?
A group of researchers from Britain’s University of Warwick set out to discover which words are the funniest, in an effort they say adds to humor studies. To find out, they first amassed a list of 5,00 words, chosen at random. Then, they asked more than 800 people to rate the “humor value” of these words via Mechanical Turk, an online crowdsourcing tool.
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"Booty" is one of the funniest words in the English language, according to a new study.
Here are the top 12 funniest words, with the funniest first: booty, tit, booby, hooter, nitwit, twit, waddle, tinkle, bebop, egghead, ass and twerp. All respondents were asked to rate words on a scale of one to five, with one being unfunny and five being hilarious. Booty received a score of 4.32, while twerp came in at 3.92.
The scientists are dead serious about their findings. While humor results from peculiarities of syntax and delivery, words also matter, and better understanding how these single units add to the whole will be useful to the field, the authors write in the study, published in the journal Behavior Research Methods. “If single words have reliable humor ratings, they provide humor in miniature, allowing us to investigate humor in relation to the many existing lexical norms,” they write.
There were some general differences in what the respondents found funny. Women were more amused than men by giggle, beast and circus. Giggle, for example, was rated an average of nearly two points higher by women than men, which is equivalent to a 40 percent difference. Men, on the other hands, laughed most at bondage, birthmark and orgy. Younger respondents between the ages of 18 and 32 were tickled by the words goatee, hunchback and frock. Older participants, between ages 32 and 78, chuckled at burlesque, pixie and, perplexingly, willow. Women and men were in strong agreement that these three words are funny: chug, fluff and scrotum, with less than a 1 percent difference in humor values between genders.
On the other end of the scale, the researchers also assessed the least funny words. The respondents rated these the lowest: rape, torture, torment, gunshot and death.
This last word has been applied to studies of humor before. As E.B. White once said, taking apart humor is like dissecting a frog: It can be done, but the thing dies in the process.