Here’s something I didn’t expect to say today: Preteen boys may actually deserve a little credit for their preteen-boy senses of humor. A study recently published in the journal Behavior Research Methods and highlighted by Christian Jarrett at BPS Research Digest analyzed the funniest words in the English language, and it turns out that even grown adults still think butts and boobs are hilarious.
For the study, a team of researchers from the University of Warwick in the U.K. recruited more than 800 online volunteers to each rate words on a scale from one (not funny at all) to five (funny), going entirely off their first instinct rather than taking any time to think it through. As a first step, the study authors had all their subjects rate the same set of 11 “calibrator words,” picked from a previous experiment to represent the full spectrum of funniness (most humorous: turd; least: drought). Once they’d gone through that introductory round, the participants each rated an additional 200 words (not everyone got the same set — in total, the volunteers covered around 5,000 words).
The winner? Booty. Rounding out the top ten were tit, booby, hooter, nitwit, twit, waddle, tinkle, bebop, egghead. The least humorous was rape, followed by torture, torment, gunshot, death, nightmare, war, trauma, rapist, and distrust.
So what can we learn from this? For one thing, it seems that unfamiliarity is key. As Jarrett explained, the most humorous words all had one thing in common, besides a healthy distance from the morbid connotations of the least-funny group: All “tended to be less frequent and to take people longer to recognize as words.”
On a broader level, the study authors also hope that analyzing what’s funny on such a nitty-gritty level can be helpful for researchers tackling the psychology of humor. “The database we present here offers a basis for studying humor in perhaps a highly rudimentary ‘fruit fly’ version, at the level of a single word,” they wrote. “If single words have reliable humor ratings, they provide humor in miniature, allowing us to investigate humor in relation to the many existing lexical norms.” And, as Jarrett noted, they also provide an excuse to be a little less embarrassed about all the time your middle-school self spent writing “8008S” on a calculator.