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Willy Sords: What makes banana and rutabaga silly?

A quick Google search for “silly words” brings up haphazard jumbles of vowels and consonants that look like a cat walked across the keyboard. While pronouncing these words is amusing, their real humorous impact is limited because they are rarely said. Most entertaining are the inherently silly words that add a smile to an otherwise normal (or mostly normal) conversation.

What Makes a Word Silly?

     1. Word entropy and incongruity theory

According to psychology professor Chris Westbury’s research, words with unusual letter combinations or an unusual length make people laugh because they deviate from the expectations for an average English word. Westbury’s theory of humor quantifies silliness by amount of word entropy, which is a measure of the disorder within a word. The more disordered the word, the more it baffles people’s expectations, much like jokes or irony, and makes them laugh. 

Example: the word “hippopotamus” is long and contains an odd sequence of letters in the middle. Its end syllable, -mus, is uncommon in both sound and spelling.

Similar silly words:     aardvark     squeegee     rutabaga     conglomeration

     2. The way the word rolls off the tongue

Certain words are fun to say quickly, likely because of a more balanced proportion of vowels to consonants and/or a repeated sound within a long word.

Example: try saying the word “indubitably” out loud. During the “-dubitably” part, the lips repeat similar shapes to make the d, b and t consonant sounds.

Similar silly words:     banana     onomatopoeia     lackadaisical     potato

     3. Specific vowel and consonant sounds 

Some vowel and consonant sounds, like long o’s, long e’s, “-gle” and “-ickle,” seem to make a word sound less serious, or even hysterical.

Example: the word “google” both sounds and looks silly with its double-o vowel and -gle final syllable.

Similar silly words:     pickle     moose     gurgle     poodle

     4. The meaning of the word

For whatever reason, many food and animal words sound silly. Do people find foods and animals particularly funny? Or does the English language just give these common nouns weird names?

Example: the word “squirrel” has silly consonant sounds and also brings to mind little animals with fluffy tails scurrying around, chattering at people and trying to raid bird feeders.

Similar silly words:     chicken     ketchup     turkey     eggplant

Graphic by Erin Lee

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