Inherently funny word

From Academic Kids

Some influential comedians have long regarded certain words in the English language as being inherently funny and have used these to enhance the humour of their comic routines.

The radio panel game I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue includes an occasional round called "Straight Face", in which the panelists take turns to say a single word each. A player is eliminated from the game if anyone in the audience laughs at their word ("even the merest titter"). The winner is the last player standing. The fact that this game works, and that it is possible to predict more or less accurately which words are safe to use and which are unsafe, can be construed as evidence that the phenomenon is real. (The word titter in the instructions for the game achieves a comic effect: it may have a claim to be itself an inherently funny word.)

As a generalization, words deemed inherently funny for their sound (rather than meaning or potential misinterpretation) often have a tendency to either vaguely resemble a baby's babbling or to have very strongly defined syllables.

Some words, such as aardvark, badger, kumquat, rutabaga, and bassoon refer to unusual items for some people, which adds to their surprise, strangeness or humour potential. Conversely, other words gain humour by being completely ordinary, such as spoon, cow, or potato. Others acquire "naughty" humour by being or being similar to sexual terms (knickers, Phuket, mastication, titter...etc.).

Yiddish and German words often seem funny to American English speakers, in particular those that begin with the /ʃ/ ("sh") sound, spelled sch- (or sometimes sh- in Yiddish, as in the derisive prefix shm-/schm-: "Oedipus schmoedipus!"). Texts in Dutch often seem comical to English-speaking readers, in part because much written Dutch is partially intelligible, but curiously spelled from an English-language point of view.

By propagating the meme that the words used are funny, comedy routines may increase the comedy potential of the words by adding another level of comic association.

Contents

Examples of references to the concept

Answering the question "What is funny?"

Determining whether a word is inherently funny, some say, is subjective and based on context. Therefore, there can never be a consensus on the answer of "What is funny?", or many other questions explaining the nature of such an abstract concept.

It is part of the mythology of actors and writers that the consonant plosives (so called because they start suddenly or "explosively"); that is: p, b, t, d, k, and g are the funniest sounds in the English language - particularly when found in short words since these "create the greatest tension" (tension being a key to comedy). Shorter words are held to "create tension" because separating words from the normal flow of speech is very difficult cognitively, and it's more difficult to discern whether a short word has ended or not. Now look again at that list of funniest words. Duck is not only admirably short but both starts and ends in a plosive, and the other plosives are legion.

Unresolved questions about inherently funny words include:

  • Are there any known physiological or linguistic reasons for why these words are funny?
  • Are the funny sounds the same in other languages?

Sources

  • Barry, Dave (1991), Dave Barry Talks Back, 1st edn., New York: Crown. ISBN 0-517-58546-4.
  • The Power of the Plosive, Tips & Tactics, 1st Quarter 1999, The Naming Newsletter, Rivkin and Associates [2] (http://www.namingnewsletter.com/article.asp?id=39)

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