Words as the building blocks of humour

Derek Burrows feels the word 'mugwump' is applicable to NZ First leader Winston Peters due to his direction after an ...

Derek Burrows feels the word 'mugwump' is applicable to NZ First leader Winston Peters due to his direction after an election being up in the air until the results are out.

OPINION: Scientists are wonderful people. Why, only last week we got the final update of a marvellous space mission to Saturn that has produced some wonderful images of the planet's rings.

In the same week, there was news of yet another possible breakthrough in the treatment of cancer.

These researchers are dedicated people who are constantly breaking down momentous barriers but, as the old proverb says, "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy", so I'm pleased to hear scientists sometimes also have a lighter side to their work.

For instance, psychologists from the University of Warwick in England have been carrying out a series of studies to determine what makes us laugh. Or, more to the point in this case, which words we find most amusing.


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They analysed 5000 randomly selected words and asked 800 volunteers to rate how humorous they found them. The researchers hope their findings will help future studies better understand the foundations of humour.

Dr Tomas Engelthaler, who led the study, said: "The research initially came about as a result of our curiosity.

"We were wondering if certain words are perceived as funnier, even when read on their own. It turns out that indeed is the case."

The words the participants found the funniest were: booty, tit, booby, hooter, and nitwit.

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You may have noticed a bit of a trend there. The choice of so many words with sexual connotations made me wonder if the volunteers were all young lads recruited from the university's latest intake. But no, the recruits were of both genders and of varying ages and education.

Other words the group found amusing were twit, waddle, tinkle, bebop, egghead, ass and twerp.

You probably won't be surprised that men and women differed in the words they found the funniest.

Sex was obviously on the minds of the men who sniggered at words such as orgy and bondage, although you do suspect that might have been due to some deep-seated secret longing rather than the hilarity of the word themselves.

To be fair the men also found words such as brand, chauffeur, czar, buzzard, doze and raccoon amusing.

Women giggled at, well, giggle, appropriately enough. They also found beast, circus, sweat and humbug amusing.

Age also played a part in what the volunteers found funny. Younger participants were amused by goatee, joint and gangster but older participants (aged 33-78) raised a smile at squint, burlesque and pong.

Dr Engelthaler admitted the study didn't reveal just why we find certain words funnier than others but said that as humour was an everyday aspect of our lives he hoped the university's data would help future researchers better understand its foundations.

So, I decided to put myself to the test and see which words I find particularly amusing.

The first one to come to mind was "codswallop", which sounds like either the name of a village in England's West Country, or a fish that packs a punch.

Cantankerous is another fascinating word. I immediately imagine an irate retired army general driving an armoured vehicle at someone who has interrupted his nap after an afternoon G and T.

I always find the word argie-bargie amusing – probably because some years ago an inspired sub-editor on the Sun newspaper used it as a lead heading on a story on the outbreak of the Falkland Islands conflict between Britain and Argentina.

Gazump is another wonderful word - you can almost feel the energy of someone beating someone else to the draw in a buying contest.

The word gobbledegook speaks for itself. It reeks of nonsense or bureaucratic legalese.

Skulduggery is another picturesque word that always brings a smile to my face. Whenever I hear it I immediately think of Burke and Hare excavating graves to furnish medical students with bodies for their studies.

One word we do not use much these days but is delightfully comical is mugwump, which means an independent politician who does not follow a particular political party.

With the election so close it's tempting to apply this term to NZ First leader Winston Peters because who knows which way he will jump once the votes are counted.

Whichever party he chooses to back, the odds are the disappointed leader, either Bill English or Jacinda Ardern, will feel they have been well and truly gazumped.

But, as usual, dear old Winnie will have the last word and the dissatisfied party leader concerned probably won't find it a funny one.


 - Stuff


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