Here’s why phrases like “rowdy bowels” and “moose ooze” seem funny

By Emma Young

Which is funnier:

Sell bargain — or nymph piss?

Roof darkness — or gravy orgy?

Large small — or moose ooze?

If you went for the second each time, you’d be in good company. In a new study, participants gave word pairs in the second set the highest humour ratings, while those in the first languished near the bottom. One very obvious difference is that those in the second set reference sex or bodily excretions, while the others don’t. But Cynthia S. Q. Siew at the National University of Singapore, along with Tomas Engelthaler and Thomas T. Hills at the University of Warwick, also identified broader factors at play. In their paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, they argue that these factors explain why gangster pasta, for example, is funnier than insult nickname.

In a 2018 study on 4,977 individual English words, Engelthaler and Hills found that words that are encountered less frequently in English, such as humbug or czar, tended to be rated as funnier. Work published the following year by a separate group built on this finding. It revealed that words with a less common structure (with relatively rare letter sequences, for example — think talc vs code) tended to be deemed funnier than those with more familiar, predictable structures.

The findings from both these earlier studies on single words are consistent with a popular theory of humour that holds that the more something violates our expectations — but at the same time is not threatening — the funnier it is.

In the new paper, Siew and her colleagues looked instead at how humorous people find pairs of words. “Now,” the team writes, “instead of facing our participants with the task of rating individual words, like cage (which is not particularly funny on its own) or cabbage (only mildly funnier), our participants are faced with rating the humour of cabbage cage, which is arguably funnier than either word alone. But why?”.

The first online study was open to anyone who accessed the researchers’ web app. These participants were presented with a series of word pairs made up from individual words used in the 2018 study. Each time, they had to choose whether the word pair was “humorous” or “humourless”.

Participants rated as many pairs as they wanted. After about two and a half years, the team had gathered a total of 55,100 ratings from 597 unique sessions. (In theory, the same person could access the app multiple times, so they don’t know the number of unique participants).

They found that word pairs participants considered funny tended to contain individual words that were emotionally arousing; that were concrete (referring to something easily visualised, like gravy, vs something abstract, like nifty); that were less dominating (less threatening); and that were less frequently encountered in English. But relationships between the two words were also important in determining how funny the phrase was.

Pairs made up of individual words with completely unrelated meanings were more likely to be found funny (crab ghetto vs insult nickname, for example). The results also showed that pairs of more similar-sounding words (like moose ooze) were also more likely to be deemed funny.  But overall, when the 2018 data and the new data were compared, the meaning was more important in determining whether a word pair was funny, while other factors (such as how frequently the word is encountered in English and the presence of particular sounds or letters) was more important in determining whether a single word was funny.

The team then ran a second study using 732 fresh word pairs. A total of 32 online participants viewed each of these pairs in sets of four. Each time, they had to pick the funniest and the least funny.                         

The top ten most humorous were:

  • Polka hooker
  • Playboy parrot 
  • Penis weasel
  • Turnip tramp
  • Funk fungus
  • Spam scrotum
  • Gnome bone
  • Stripper hippo
  • Rowdy bowels
  • Pansy panties

while the least humorous were:

  • Sell bargain                                                      
  • Conserve health                                             
  • Power influence                                            
  • Will stay                                                             
  • Schedule year                                                 
  • Insult nickname                                              
  • Life friend                                                         
  • Trouble mention                                            
  • Workman call                                                   
  • Large small     

Clearly, pairs containing sex- and excretion-related words scored highly. Again, though, the analysis showed that other meaning-related variables, including concreteness, dominance and level of induced emotional arousal had an effect. As in the first study, words that sounded similar also tended to be rated as funnier, though this time the team did not find a significant link between the relatedness of the meaning of the individual words and humour ratings.

What does all of this mean for our understanding of what makes something funny?

The team thinks that the findings fit with the expectation-violation theory of humour. “Given our prior experience of language, word pairs that contain semantic leaps (such as ‘knapsack rapist’) as well as word pairs that are phonological tongue twisters (such as ‘moose ooze’) are surprising and (benignly) violate our own experience with language and multiword phrases,” the team explains. However, there’s nothing surprising (in terms of meaning) about the single word backpack, for example — and this explains why meaning is less important for the humorousness, or otherwise, of single words.  

The team also point to the “rule of three” in comedy writing, in which the first two items set up context and expectations, which are then violated by a humorous punchline. Perhaps, they write, the funniest comedy writers are those who are best at exploiting and integrating both general language-based and context-specific violations “to create multiple pathways to humour.”

Nymph piss and gravy orgies: Local and global contrast effects in relational humor.

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

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