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Words that Sound Funny

Use verbal tricks to get a laugh.

By
Kevin Cummings, read by Mignon Fogarty,
June 20, 2008
Episode #112

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.

K-Words

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.

Alliteration

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.

Assonance

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

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.

Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

Remember, Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing is available now. It's a great reference for anyone, whether you are a grammar enthusiast, a student, or just want to improve your writing.

Questions or comments can be e-mailed to feedback@quickanddirtytips.com or sent via Facebook and Twitter.

Shortcomings Audio

Finally, thanks to today's guest-writer, Kevin Cummings, the author of My Favorite Shortcomings which is only available at his website, http://shortcummingsaudio.libsyn.com. He's one of my favorite podcasters and I'm honored that he would take the time to contribute to my show.

References

Black, B. (2008, June 5). Campaign Spinoffs. Baxter Black website. Retrieved June 5, 2008. http://www.baxterblack.com/t-readcolumn.aspx

Simon, N. . The Sunshine Boys: A Play in Two Acts. Samuel French, Inc. New York, New York. 1973

Wiseman, R. (2007, April 21). The truth about lying and laughing. Guardian UK website. Retrieved June 8, 2008 http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2007/apr/21/weekendmagazine

Wikipedia. (2008, May 20). Inherently Funny Words. Wikipedia. Retrieved June 9, 2008. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inherently_funny_word

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