A group of researchers at the University of Alberta have developed what may be the first mathematical theory of humor, all thanks to a funny-sounding nonsense word: snunkoople.

Psychology professor Chris Westbury was studying people with aphasia, a disorder affecting language comprehension, when he noticed something strange. Subjects were asked to read strings of letters and identify whether they were real words. After a while, Westbury noticed subjects seemed to laugh at certain nonsense words—snunkoople in particular. 

Intrigued, Westbury quickly got to work on a theory of humor: He hypothesized that nonsense words with unpredictable letter combinations would generally be considered funnier than those with predictable letter combinations. Translating this theory into mathematical terms, Westbury argued that lower entropy words (uncommon letter combinations) were seen as funnier than higher entropy words (predictable letter combinations). The low entropy non-word finglam is funnier than the high entropy non-word clester, for instance. 

“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 explained in a statement. “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.”

Westbury put his theory to the test, asking subjects first to select the funnier of two non-words, and second to rank non-words on a scale of 1 to 100. He found that it was easy to predict which words would be considered the funniest. In general, subjects tended to choose lower entropy words as the most humorous, and in one case, a subject chose “correctly” 92 percent of the time.

"The further the non-word is from being a word, the funnier it is," Westbury explains in the video below. "It shows that people are doing an unconscious calculation, and the way they're doing that unconscious probability calculation is using emotion. When people say, 'This word is funny,' they're going on their gut feeling, going, 'It feels funny to me.' And we're showing that that feeling is a kind of probability calculation."

While Westbury’s funny word formula is certainly fascinating, he himself admits it’s a little bit limited. The theory explains one aspect of what makes nonsense words humorous and reveals what seems to be an underlying law behind one form of humor. However, it misses other forms of phonological humor (alliteration, rhymes within words, and so on) and, of course, has little to say about more sophisticated semantic forms of humor like puns and wordplay. Westbury says, “Humour is not one thing. Once you start thinking about it in terms of probability, then you start to understand how we find so many different things funny. And the many ways in which things can be funny.”

[h/t: Science Daily]