Episode 112: June 20, 2008
Grammar Girl here.
Today's topic is words that sound funny. Funny ha ha, not funny weird.
And now, on to funny words. Guest writer Kevin Cummings, of the Shortcomings Audio podcast, writes,
I had my first comedy hit with the phrase “itty-bitty kidneys.” Of course, the audience was my eight-month-old son, so it wasn’t much of a hit, but every time I uttered those magic words he’d laugh until he couldn’t breathe. Similar phrases (including “itty-bitty fingers,” “itty-bitty toes,” and the rarely amusing “itty-bitty latissimus dorsi”) never had the same comic effect. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was employing some powerful tools for verbal comedy.
Here’s the first one. Words with the ‘k’ sound--like ‘kidneys’--are inherently funny.
The humor potential of the letter ‘k’ has been part of comic lore for years. In the Neil Simon play The Sunshine Boys, the character Willy explains it to his nephew: “Fifty-seven years in this business, you learn a few things. You know what words are funny and which words are not funny. Alka Seltzer is funny. You say "Alka Seltzer," you get a laugh . . . Words with "k" in them are funny. Casey Stengel, that's a funny name. Robert Taylor is not funny.”
So the names Squiggly and Aardvark both have great comedy potential because they both contain the ‘k’ sound. It masquerades as a ‘qu’ in Squiggly and it lurks at the end of Aardvark.
Scientist and researcher Richard Wiseman put the ‘k is funny’ theory to the test during his LaughLab research in 2001. Although the main focus of the research was finding the funniest joke, Wiseman also performed a “mini-experiment” to see if the letter ‘k’ actually gets more laughs.
The experiment was built around a simple joke:
There were two cows in a field. One said, “Moo.” The other one said, “I was going to say that.”
During the experiment, people were invited to visit the LaughLab website and rate jokes pulled at random from a database. In addition to the cow joke, Wiseman and his colleagues put several variations in the database including mice that went “eek,” tigers that said “grrr,” and birds going “cheep.” The winning variation which had the most ''k's was this joke:
There were two ducks on a pond. One said, “Quack” and the other said, “I was going to say that.”
There are other verbal techniques you can use to elicit a chuckle, guffaw, or belly laugh. All of them have their roots in poetry. Humor and poetry often make use of the same literary techniques, except that humor doesn’t know how to behave for company.
The technique of alliteration uses the repetition of the initial consonants in words to drive a point home or make someone laugh.
Consider the sentence
Squiggly was bamboozeld by a bum at the buffet
as compared to
Squiggly was deceived by the tramp in the smörgåsbord.
The first sentence is lighter, has better rhythm, and is more likely to bring a smile.
Cowboy poet and humorist Baxter Black used alliteration in a recent column about post-election television.
...Television producers are already dreading the post-presidential election blues, anticipating plunging plunder, pundit prostration, and poor-house paranoia.
There may have been a simpler way for him to make his point, but it wouldn’t have been as funny.
Closely related to alliteration are assonance and consonance. Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds within words in a sentence or phrase. The internal assonance in the name Aardvark makes it sound funnier than anteater or antbear. Building on the assonant sound it’s simple to construct a funny-sounding sentence such as
Aardvark parked his cart in the dark.
In the immortal phrase “itty-bitty kidneys” the short ‘i’ sound added assonance to the already-funny ‘k.’ The final piece of the comic puzzle was consonance.
Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds other than at the beginning of a word. For example,
Squiggly put the jack, the pack, and the bucket on the cart.
The hard ‘k’--there’s that darned comedic ‘k’ again--is repeated in three of the words in the sentence. Two of the words actually rhyme, but all three have the same consonant sound embedded in them.
In the phrase “itty-bitty kidneys,” the first two words rhyme in a consonant fashion while the third plays more loosely with the long ‘e’ sound in what’s called a half or slant rhyme.
Speaking Versus Writing
Remember, these techniques are primarily verbal, that is, they are funnier out-loud than they are on the page. If you’re writing something to be read aloud and it needs a bit of humor--a company presentation, a graduation speech, or your acceptance speech for the office of President--just remember alliteration, assonance, consonance, and the hard ‘k’ sound, and you’ll have them rolling in the aisles.