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Nonsense Words: Scientists Have Quantified What Writers Always Knew

While researching yesterday’s Dr. Seuss post, I came across an interesting article from The Atlantic called “The Secret to Dr. Seuss’s Made-up Words.” The main idea is that people find nonsense words funny and that how funny people find the words depends on how uncommon the letters and letter arrangements are in the English language.

I’ll be honest, as interesting as that was, I had a bit of an arrogant git moment and thought, “Duh.”

I feel a little guilty about it, but the way they attribute the humor of Dr. Seuss’ nonsense words to an “intuitive understanding” of what made them funny seems insulting to Dr. Seuss’ intelligence. It’s not as if Dr. Seuss had never been exposed to nonsense words before in his life. Nursery rhymes, folk songs, and even the way we talk to babies and pets is full of made-up syllables and sounds. In fact, nonsense words are commonly used to cause humor (and have been for centuries). More likely, Dr. Seuss noticed a pattern to people’s reactions and adjusted his writing accordingly.

Because that’s how writing works.

That’s also how nonsense words work. The made-up words that are closer to real words (and thereby less inherently funny according to the study) tend to carry with them some of the meaning of the affixes. To get rid of those associations, you have to avoid regular affixes: in other words, you’d have to use uncommon letters and letter arrangements. Anyone with a decent knowledge of English (like a writer) would know that.

Add the observation of people’s reactions and the knowledge of English together, and you get a picture that is more scientific and logical than intuitive. But it’s still cool that the scientists have more or less proven that writers were right.

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  1. […] rhythmic stories rely on fun made-up words more than perhaps any other author’s works (AKA nonsense words). I finally settled on a thneed by deciding that people and places wouldn’t be included in […]

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