This entered into my awareness a few weeks back. Of course I’ve lost where I got it from. But the headline is of natural interest to me. Kristy Condon’s “Researchers establish the world’s first mathematical theory of humor” describes the results of an interesting paper studying the phenomenon of funny words.
The original paper is by Chris Westbury, Cyrus Shaoul, Gail Moroschan, and Michael Ramscar, titled “Telling the world’s least funny jokes: On the quantification of humor as entropy”. It appeared in The Journal of Memory and Language. The thing studied was whether it’s possible to predict how funny people are likely to find a made-up non-word.
As anyone who tries to be funny knows, some words just are funnier than others. Or at least they sound funnier. (This brings us into the problem of whether something is actually funny or whether we just think it is.) Westbury, Shaoul, Moroschan, and Ramscar try testing whether a common measure of how unpredictable something is — the entropy, a cornerstone of information theory — can tell us how funny a word might be.
We’ve encountered entropy in these parts before. I used it in that series earlier this year about how interesting a basketball tournament was. Entropy, in this context, is low if something is predictable. It gets higher the more unpredictable the thing being studied is. You see this at work in auto-completion: if you have typed in ‘th’, it’s likely your next letter is going to be an ‘e’. This reflects the low entropy of ‘the’ as an english word. It’s rather unlikely the next letter will be ‘j’, because English has few contexts that need ‘thj’ to be written out. So it will suggest words that start ‘the’ (and ‘tha’, and maybe even ‘thi’), while giving ‘thj’ and ‘thq’ and ‘thd’ a pass.
Westbury, Shaoul, Moroschan, and Ramscar found that the entropy of a word, how unlikely that collection of letters is to appear in an English word, matches quite well how funny people unfamiliar with it find it. This fits well with one of the more respectable theories of comedy, Arthur Schopenhauer’s theory that humor comes about from violating expectations. That matches well with unpredictability.
Of course it isn’t just entropy that makes words funny. Anyone trying to be funny learns that soon enough, since a string of perfect nonsense is also boring. But this is one of the things that can be measured and that does have an influence.
(I doubt there is any one explanation for why things are funny. My sense is that there are many different kinds of humor, not all of them perfectly compatible. It would be bizarre if any one thing could explain them all. But explanations for pieces of them are plausible enough.)
Anyway, I recommend looking at the Kristy Condon report. It explains the paper and the research in some more detail. And if you feel up to reading an academic paper, try Westbury, Shaoul, Moroschan, and Ramscar’s report. I thought it readable, even though so much of it is outside my field. And if all else fails there’s a list of two hundred made-up words used in field tests for funniness. Some of them look pretty solid to me.