Wriggly, lummox and boobs: What makes some words funny

Laughter is often called the best medicine. But take our word for it: not every hilarious prescription is created equal.



Is it funnier to “heave” or to “upchuck”? Would you rather “giggle” or “laugh”? And would you do so more at a “boobie” or a “breast”?

According to a new study by psychology experts at the University of Alberta, “upchuck”, “giggle” and “boobie” are among the ten funniest words in the English language.

How did they come to this revelation? They looked at certain words and tried to figure out what it was that made them funnier than others: was it what they meant, how they sounded rolling off the tongue or something entirely different?

“Nobody has really done a good job at predicting humour in advance,” said Chris Westbury, one of the psychologists leading the investigation. “One of the reasons is they haven’t been willing to go low enough.”

The paper, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology is entitled, “Wriggly, Squiffy, Lummox and Boobs: What makes some words funny”.

“Humour is, of course, still personal,” explained Westbury. However, he continued, “here, we get at the elements of humour that aren’t personal; things that are universally funny.”

Westbury and his collaborator Geoff Hollis, from the Department of Computing Science, looked at a study which had people rate the humorousness of almost 5,000 words. It showed there were two types of things that made things funny: form and semantics. Form relates to length, letters and the way the word sounds. For some reason, the letter “k” and the sound “oo” are more likely to be found in funny words than non-funny words.

Also on The Big Smoke

Semantic predictors, on the other hand, compare how the word relates to different emotions along with six categories of things that are universally funny: sex (obvs); bodily function (standard); insults (no s**t); swear words (f**k yeah); partying (okay); and animals (hippopotamus. What? It’s a funny word).

They compared these 5,000 words against three billion words on Google. “It turns out,” said Westbury, “that the best predictor of funniness is not distance from one of those six categories, but rather average distance from all six categories. This makes sense, because lots of words that people find funny fall into more than one category, like sex and bodily functions–like boobs.”

The study was pretty extensive. The 27 page paper essentially is a 2,500-year review of everyone from Plato and Aristotle to Neil Simon.

Giving teenage boys way more credit than they deserve, the study found that age and gender made basically no difference to what people thought was funny. But culture and background did. “I have an Iranian grad student who didn’t really find the words we found funny to be funny,” Westbury noted.

So what words made the final cut? Here, in no particular order, are apparently the ten funniest words in the English language:

  • Upchuck
  • Bubby
  • Boff
  • Wriggly
  • Yaps
  • Giggle
  • Cooch
  • Guffaw
  • Puffball
  • Jiggly

I mean, cooch, sure. But wriggly? I think we can do better. Let’s remember this study was led by Canadians – among the nicest, most polite people on the planet. And old mate Chris Westbury was concerned people hadn’t previously gone “low enough” in an effort to find funny words until he stepped up… I’m pretty sure if Aussie scientists were involved, we’d be hitting rock bottom and then tunnelling straight towards the earth’s core in search of hilarious filth.

So with that in mind, here is my compilation of entirely Australian words that I think are funnier. There’s nothing scientific about it unless you count “writing down things my grandpa used to say when he was drunk” as science.

  • Bum-Nuts. Because I’m a 14-year-old boy at heart.
  • Esky. Because it sounds nothing like what it is.
  • Sook. Because it sounds exactly how it means.
  • Chook. Because why would you have a chicken when you could have a chook?
  • Goose. Because they are very silly birds and you never want to be one.
  • Strewth. Doesn’t matter if it’s said by Alf Stewart or your crazy aunt. It’s funny.
  • Coit. I dunno why it’s funny either. But it is.
  • A***wipe. Just a damn good insult.
  • Gronk. It’s like if drunk got grotty. And then more drunk.
  • Prawn. No reason. It’s just a very weird word.


Share via