Wriggly, Squiffy, Lummox, and Boobs: What Makes Some Words Funny?

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Abstract

Theories of humor tend to be post hoc descriptions, suffering from insufficient operationalization and a subsequent inability to make predictions about what will be found humorous and to what extent. Here we build on the Engelthaler & Hills’ (2017) humor rating norms for 4,997 words, by analyzing the semantic, phonological, orthographic, and frequency factors that play a role in the judgments. We were able to predict the original humor rating norms and ratings for previously unrated words with greater reliability than the split half reliability in the original norms, as estimated from splitting those norms along gender or age lines. Our findings are consistent with several theories of humor, while suggesting that those theories are too narrow. In particular, they are consistent with incongruity theory, which suggests that experienced humor is proportional to the degree to which expectations are violated. We demonstrate that words are judged funnier if they are less common and have an improbable orthographic or phonological structure. We also describe and quantify the semantic attributes of words that are judged funny and show that they are partly compatible with the superiority theory of humor, which focuses on humor as scorn. Several other specific semantic attributes are also associated with humor.

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