In the world of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, to hear the tale of the Lorax, you have pay the “Once-ler,” after which, whispering to you through a “snergelly” hose, he will paint you a word-picture of “truffula” trees, and “Bar-ba-loots” frolicking around, and the horrible garments called “thneeds” that started a path of environmental destruction.
Seuss is known for liberally peppering his stories with such nonsense words, which gave them their trademark silliness, and more opportunities for rhymes.
Chris Westbury, a professor of psychology at the University of Alberta, discovered a fairly Seuss-ian word himself when he and his colleagues were administering a lexical decision task (a test to see how quickly people can identify strings of letters as either words or non-words). They noticed that people always laughed when they saw the non-word “snunkoople.”
That got them wondering—was there something in particular about nonsense words that made them funny? If so, could it be measured?
Turns out there is and it can, according to a new study by Westbury and other researchers from the University of Alberta and the University of Tübingen in Germany.
“I was originally going to call the paper ‘The Snunkoople Effect,’” Westbury says. Instead, it’s called “Telling the world’s least funny jokes: On the quantification of humor as entropy.” (Whether nonsense words are indeed the least funny jokes possible is debatable.)