Professor Chris Westbury may be a respected psychologist, but his latest research is nothing but nonsense. At the University of Alberta, Westbury has been exploring the connections between language difficulties and brain function, work that has also provided insights into the nature of humor. As part of his inquiry, Westbury presents patients suffering from aphasia—a condition in which the comprehension of words and speech is often impaired—with a string of letters and asks whether or not it constitutes a real English word. One day, a graduate student pointed out something curious: Certain nonsense words consistently made patients smile and sometimes even laugh out loud. “Particularly,” Westbury says, “snunkoople.”
He started checking with friends and colleagues to see whether they had the same reaction, and the response was nearly unanimous. Snunkoople was funny. But why? In a 2015 paper published in the Journal of Memory and Language, Westbury presents what he believes could be the answer: The inherent funniness of a word, or at least of stand-alone nonsense words, can be quantified. Just as fascinating: When it comes to inspiring a chuckle, not all nonsense is created equal.
According to Westbury, the less statistically likely it is for a certain collection of letters to form a real word in English, the funnier it is. (The playwright Neil Simon seemed to grasp this implicitly in his 1972 work The Sunshine Boys, in which an old vaudevillian tells his nephew, “If it doesn’t have a k, it’s not funny!”—k being one of the least frequently used letters in the alphabet.) Fluent English speakers, Westbury says, are accustomed to words sounding a particular way. So when they come across unusual clusters of letters or syllables, their expectations are violated. Laughter is the by-product of that violation.
To prove this, Westbury ran two studies. In the first, he presented participants with a computer-generated list of some 5,928 made-up words to see which ones they found comical. The ones that sounded rude shot straight to the top of the scale; four of the six funniest were whong, dongl, shart, and focky. Westbury decided that those quasi-vulgarities had to go because they triggered associative biases. He wanted nonsense in its purest form.
In the second study, the researchers made sure that the nonsuggestive nonwords were easily pronounceable and didn’t violate typical English spelling rules. Participants then ranked them on a scale of funny to, well, not funny. The results were clear: Participants consistently judged the same nonwords to be funny. Among the winners were hablump, jumemo, and finglysiv. And the less plausible the word sounded, the funnier the participants deemed it to be.
The results square intuitively with our everyday lives as English speakers. Many of the funniest fake food products from The Simpsons, for example—including Duff Beer and the intriguingly vague TUBBB!—would score high on Westbury’s scale of improbably funny constructions. Dr. Seuss elevated the creation of ridiculous words to an art: Even kids with a loose grasp of English understand that Wumbus and Yuzz-a-ma-Tuzz are meant to be laughed at. In fact, Westbury analyzed 65 of Dr. Seuss’s made-up words and confirmed that they, too, were reliably (and humorously) improbable.
This is all good for professional purveyors of nonsense, but what about the rest of us? Westbury sees his results as further proof that, like any other sense, our sense of humor might be an important survival adaptation. “One of the main functions of emotion is to alert us to unusual, dangerous, and unpredictable aspects of the world that might harm us,” he says. When we laugh at an unpredictable word, joke, or comedy routine, we may be alerting ourselves and others that something unusual is afoot but it isn’t a true threat to our safety.
Westbury isn’t sure if his research will lead to anything more substantial, but it’s fine if it doesn’t. He has created enough snunkoople to keep himself happy.