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When the news of the world is too depressing--not just because of wars, death and famine, but the fact that some people insist on living in their own version of reality that has nothing to do with the real thing--I have a place to retreat to in my mind.

No, not kitten yoga (and I'm still mad that I wasn't able to go to a session this past weekend because of an IBS flare-up), or the endless puns a friend "tortures" me with on my blog (it's no torture, really). Even Monty Python falls short, though some of its sketches do come close.

What is it? Words that are fun to say.

Longtime readers know of my love of "persnickety," "bumfuzzle," "tump," and the like. It's almost impossible for me to say or hear these words without smiling. They're a bright spot in a day when you might be dealing with inane tweetstorms, world leaders threatening other nations (or their own people), and assorted other miseries.

My mom reminded me of the joy found in our language when she mentioned fluffernutter cookies. How can anybody stay in a bad mood when confronted with the goofiness that is "fluffernutter"?

OK, yeah, there's always that one guy who finds no humor anywhere. Let's ignore that guy.

When I was a kid, there was a period when I loved saying "triskaidekaphobia" (fear of the number 13) for no reason other than it amused me. Probably didn't amuse everyone around me, though.

Maybe my love for that word had something to do with the "k" sounds in it. You know that old saw: Words with a "k" sound are inherently funny. Sure, some "k-sound" words aren't (carrot isn't), but some of my favorites--like amok--are (especially when repeated in the movie Hocus Pocus).

Words don't even have to be inherently funny for me to love saying them. For instance, I can't resist saying "puppy" every time I see a dog of any age (and I'm not even a dog person).

I've often wondered just why some words amuse me more than others. So, of course, I have to bring science into it because I'm never nerdy enough.

Psychology professor Chris Westbury of the University of Alberta, while conducting a study on whether people with aphasia could tell the difference between real and fake words, found that his subjects laughed every time they saw or heard the nonsense word "snunkoople" (there's that "k" sound). He then got together with linguists to come up with a list of nonsense words and find which ones evoked the most laughter.

They found that the more unusual a word looks or sounds, the funnier it is. Westbury theorized that it's because of the word's entropy, a mathematical measure of how predictable it is. The university reported that entropy as a predictor of humor ultimately comes from 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who suggested that humor comes from violated expectations (I'm suddenly remembering Monty Python's "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition" bit, or maybe a bunch of clowns coming out of a tiny car).

In a video produced by the university, Westbury said, "[Subjects are] going on their gut feeling, going, 'It feels funny to me.' And we're showing that feeling is actually a kind of probability calculation. ... Emotion is helping us compute the probabilities in the world."

Non-words with uncommon combinations of letters have low entropy, and are more likely to result in chuckles. Theodor Geisel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss, was a master at this.

"We did show, for example, that Dr. Seuss--who makes funny non-words--made non-words that were predictably lower in entropy. He was intuitively making lower-entropy words when he was making his non-words," Westbury reported. "It essentially comes down to the probability of the individual letters. So if you look at a Seuss word like yuzz-a-ma-tuzz and calculate its entropy, you would find it is a low-entropy word because it has improbable letters like 'z'."

Using all the information they'd gathered, Westbury and his fellow researchers set out to predict mathematically, based on entropy, what non-words people would find humorous, and they were able to do so with high rates of accuracy. Thus they were able to quantify an abstract concept, and test Schopenhauer's hypothesis made nearly 200 years ago.

Trust scientists to boil a form of humor down to numbers. Now just add a "k" sound, and you'll be unstoppable.

Just a reminder: As always, we need your letters. If you haven't had a letter published in the past 30 days, drop us a line, please; this page only works when you contribute. Details on how to submit letters, as well as some rules, are in the box at the bottom of this page.

Beginning next month, I'll start recognizing a "Letter of the Month," which will be chosen from letters published in the previous month. While the final choice will be made by opinion staff, I welcome nominations of stellar letters (and, of course, your own great letters for publication and possible selection as the next month's Letter of the Month).

There's no prize, really, but hey, if your letter is picked, you'll have bragging rights for the month and your letter republished under that designation (which doesn't count against your 30 days).

That'll show all those people who said you'd never make it.


Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Read her blog at Email her at

Editorial on 04/25/2018

Print Headline: It is to laugh

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