We have all heard the label “comic genius” applied to our foremost creators of humor. But genius has little to do with what is amusing. The successful humorist simply recognizes funny words and uses them.
Neil Simon adroitly addresses this issue in his stage play and film, “The Sunshine Boys.” In a memorable scene from that show, one of the old gentlemen asserts the funniest words start with the letters p or k. “Pickle,” he offers, is very funny. Students of humor have been preoccupied with funny words, and doubtless would agree with Simon that there are numerous risible appellations opening with p. “Portly,” for instance, is much funnier than its common synonym, “stout.” “Protuberance” is comical, and so is “prestidigitation.”
“Peevish” is somewhat ticklish, and a far cry from the rather bilious “splenetic.” “Pounce” induces jollity, but “trounce” does not. And when the pensive humorist writes about a horse, she refers to the beast as a “piebald,” not a dapple or a roan. P is also the letter than begins our most jocular color: “puce.”
Some readers still chortle upon encountering “poppycock,” which despite beginning with p has lost its ability to effectuate mirth. The contemporary humorist does well to replace it with “flapdoodle.”
While no one would postulate that physical ailments might be laughable, reference to “psittacosis” often brings smiles to the lips of readers, despite its silent p.
‘Didjeridoo’: hard to work into an essay
Only one musical instrument is apt to begat chuckles, but the Australian didjeridoo is difficult to work into a story or essay. Not one concerto grosso or a single scherzo has been composed for the didjeridoo. And the instrument is almost completely eschewed by rock bands.
Otherwise, the letter d has a few notables. In one of his film shorts the late humorist Robert Benchley salvaged a scene by referring to “dromedary denizens of the desert,” instead of the prosaic “camels.”
Neil Simon notwithstanding, there are few funny words that begin with k. If Simon had spent time noodling with s, however, he’d have found such gems as “salubrious, “scofflaw,” and “soupcon.”
Some writers have regaled readers by referring to the bird family “sapsuckers.” But discriminating perusers find the “goatsucker” — also a fowl family — more laughable than sapsucker, which appears to have exhausted itself as a comical name despite its promising initial letter.
The letter i begins several whimsical words, the most common being “indubitably.” However, contemporary humorists employ “insouciant” and “imbroglio” to worthy effect. A few literati find “inimical” funny, but it isn’t unless an author mistakenly used it when he meant “inimitable.” Or vice-versa.
Words ending in v-i-u-m are routinely funny. To wit: “alluvium” — which exceeds the more common “exudation” in hilarity — and “effluvium.”
Consider “tatterdemalion” — a splendid substitute for the rather doleful “guttersnipe.” Another pleasing t word is “termagant.” Few of its synonyms, including “harridan” and “virago” hold humorous potential.
Some readers are beguiled by the almost archaic term “wrought,” thinking it wryly jocose. But “wrought” is more perplexing than amusing, especially when one attempts to ascertain its present tense. Try it; “wreat” — “writ” — “wraight.” You can spend an entire evening on this, and end up out of sorts for your effort. To be serious about humor is to forget about “wrought.”
Forget numbers, but try place names
Most readers agree that the word “nefarious,” is funny, while the similar sounding “notorious” is not. “Vituperous” amuses but “vitreous” doesn’t. And numbers are utterly void of jocularity.
However, some locations have funny names. There’s Owyhee County, in Idaho, and Chillicothe (chill-i-cothee ) in Ohio. Pennsylvania’s Delaware Water Gap pleases mainly because its high-school football cheer — “Give me a D! Give me an E! Give me an L! …” has been known to consume almost an entire quarter. Pennsylvania is also home to another community named by jesters: Punxsutawney. Punxsutawney not only sounds funny, but a groundhog fetish besets that town. The Mississippi cities of Yalobusha and Yazoo can’t be neglected either.
For too long humor has been treated as subjective — open to individual interpretation. Now, however, even the most monkeyshines-challenged can discern raillery by applying one simple rule of thumb: A story is funny if it contains funny words.
Michael Fedo is the author of “The Lynchings in Duluth,” “The Man From Lake Wobegon” and other books.
Want to add your voice?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion by writing a Community Voices article, email Susan Albright at salbright [at] minnpost [dot] com.