Booty more amusing than ass, according to first in-depth study of the funniness of English words

GettyImages-484958654.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

When I was at primary school, we used to type out the word “BOOBIES” using upside-down digits on our electronic calculators and we thought it was hilarious. This was an all-boys school in the late 80s, cut us some slack. And anyway, maybe we weren’t so daft. The word (although spelt differently as “Booby”) was among the top-three most funny words as identified in a new paper in Behaviour Research, which is the first in-depth investigation of the perceived funniness of individual English words.

Among the 5000 words that were studied, Booty was rated the funniest of all, scoring 4.32 on average on a scale from 1 (not funny at all) to 5 (most funny). The lowest scoring word was Rape with an average of 1.18. The researchers Tomas Engelthaler and Thomas Hills at the University of Warwick, England hope their findings will provide a useful resource, a “highly rudimentary ‘fruit fly’ version” of humour” for researchers studying the psychology of what makes us laugh.

The 821 participants for the study (average age 35; 58 per cent were female) were recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk online survey website. To ease them into the challenge, they each began by rating 11 “calibrator words” selected from pilot research because they’d attracted a wide range of funniness scores from high (Turd, scored at 3.78 in pilot research) to low (Drought, scored 1.13). After this, each participant rated the funniness of  approximately 200 more words selected at random from the 5000-word pool (taken from earlier studies into the subjective perception of English words). Participants were instructed to make their ratings based on their first and immediate reaction.

The 12 words to attract the highest funniness ratings were, in descending order from most funny:

Booty, Tit, Booby, Hooter, Nitwit, Twit, Waddle, Tinkle, Bebop, Egghead, Ass and Twerp

The 12 words to attract the lowest funniness ratings were, starting with the most humourless:

Rape, Torture, Torment, Gunshot, Death, Nightmare, War, Trauma, Rapist, Distrust, Deathbed, Pain

The researchers main objective was to create a useful data-set for future experiments into humour (similar to how others have created average ratings of concreteness, arousal, pleasantness and age-of-acquisition for other words), but they did perform a few comparisons with their findings.

For instance, the researchers looked at the words for which men and women most strongly differed in the funniness ratings they gave, including the following which were rated funnier on average by men than women:

Bondage, Birthmark, Orgy, Brand, Chauffeur, Doze, Buzzard, Czar, Weld, Prod, Corn, Raccoon

And the following words, which were rated as funnier by women than men:

Giggle, Beast, Circus, Grand, Juju, Humbug, Slicker, Sweat, Ennui, Holder, Momma, Sod

Meanwhile, the following words were those that attracted the most similar high funniness ratings across both sexes:

Chug, Fluff, Scrotum, Jabber, Joke, Buttocks, Boon, Yank, Tinker, Prance

Looking at the words that tended to attract high funniness ratings and seeing how they have scored for other dimensions in previous research, Engelthaler and Hills found that they tended to be less frequent and to take people longer to recognise as words. Another thing: whereas previous research has found that we tend to have a positive bias towards words, finding most of them to be positive in tone and meaning, the current research found that we have a bias toward seeing most words as more unfunny than funny.

Right, time for me to stop all this jabber, I’m going to waddle off for a tinkle.

Humor norms for 4,997 English words

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

10 thoughts on “Booty more amusing than ass, according to first in-depth study of the funniness of English words”

  1. Will someone consider the semantic (denotation/connotation) aspects and the phonetic (plosives/reduplication) or ‘phonaesthetic’ features of the words in question? Register also significant – some would be labelled ‘colloquial/slang/humorous’ for example in a dictionary. The gender differences in responses are very interesting. Will they be analysed further?

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