We frequently feasted on the juicy, orange “awara,” pale nutty “korio” and oval, thin-fleshed “kokerit” fruits from far flung palm trees. Brought to the coast for consumption these were common at certain times of the year. Since the languages of the indigenous peoples left many such words in the rich Guyanese lexicon, we practised the names of the tropical timbers also from the Amazonian rainforest, used by our father in his occupation as a builder. Mora, simarupa, tauronira, wamara, silverballi, kabukalli, wallaba rolled off our tongues with the smoothness of the seeds we savoured.
Looking out for the leaf cutting “acoushi” ants on farm jaunts, we feared the “labaria” snake as much as the huge, hairy, Yeti-like creature, the “massacooraman” with a yen for human flesh and mayhem, believed to dwell near deep, lonely waterways.
Buoyed by the reassuring presence of noisy kit and kin, we enjoyed the bounty of the smaller rivers in the form of the wolf fish or “haimara,” the glossy black “patwa” cichlid and the colourful spotted peacock version, the “lukanani.” In our simple household, we boldly pronounced our Sindhi-derived “kinnah” or intense dislike more of other foods, than of obnoxious people, such as the pungent “kowa” and curried “cuirass.” The first whiff of the former, a massive ripe jackfruit promisingly presented by our farming aunt, made our heads spin. Overwhelmed by the sight and stench of the thick yellow gummy insides, we took one taste, gagged and uncharacteristically declined any other helpings, causing our parents to frown in concern as we rushed outside to gulp lifesaving fresh air.
Some days not content with potting around in “putta putta” or soft mud, much like the small trench loving “cuirass,” we indulged in other catfish meals of hallowed “hassar” and the giant golden “gilbacker.” Later, heeding the ubiquitous warning of “all skin teeth nah laugh” we listened keenly as the gossiping adults “steupsed” in unison about the quiet, hapless villager whose wife had just given birth to another baby which the entire community, including him, knew was not his. Yet, the greying husband could be soon seen on morning walks cooing to the precious bundle.
“He is a real koonomoonoo!” one neighbour finally declared in disgust, her face contorted over the cuckolding, as the group convulsed with laughter. Subsequently, in the face of sheer male stupidity for which no single English word could suffice or surpass, we pulled our new acquisition with a flourish. Without a female equivalent, expressions such as “phagla” and “phaglee” from the Hindi “pagal” for “crazy” proved as piercing.
When I first encountered the strange, burnt, brown carcasses offered for sale at the road corners in Trinidad, I was perplexed fearing I was going all “phaglee.” Hanging from their tails by the handfuls, I warily eyed the poor creatures besides the stoic, tied up beautiful young iguanas, hurriedly wound up the car windows and asked privately about the big, gutted rats. My husband howled, reminding me that while we may pronounce our words differently, Trinis eat the opossum during “open season,” call it “manicou” and term it sweet, while others far south with pronounced distaste, impaired tongues and poor eyesight dismiss it as the pungent Guyanese scavenger the “uwarie” and decidedly unpalatable.
He happily regaled me with the popularity of the red-rumped “agouti” or the “accouri,” and the striped “paca” or Guyanese “labba” named “gibnut” in Belize. Supposedly bound to summon you back, when consumed with creek water, it became a delicacy and dish fit for a Queen when it appeared on the menu of a State Banquet for Elizabeth the Second. Relishing the extended story, he pointed out that she did not proclaim like James Cagney, “You dirty rat! You dirty rat!” but the shocked British newspapers said it for her.
I remembered the faint nausea brought on by the “kowa” and the sight of dead and soon-to-be-slaughtered wildlife, as I looked over the latest top ten funniest words in the English language. The first “upchuck” is the American version of how I felt, be it heave, spew, retch or chunder.
Next on the list from the University of Alberta, is “bubby” not the colloquial term for the upper part of the female anatomy but the familiar term of address for a boy. Other words range from “boff” for a hearty laugh or a gag that produces such a reaction, to wriggly as moving in a twisting or snake-like or wormlike fashion.; yaps for a short, sharp bark; giggle, guffaw, puffball for the spherical fungus, and jiggly as in Jell-O.
The researchers determined that there are two main kinds of ‘funniness predictor’ in words: those related to the form of the word and those related to its meaning. Professor in the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Science, Chris Westbury said, “we get at the elements of humour that aren’t personal; things that are universally funny.”
Westbury and his collaborator Geoff Hollis, from the Department of Computing Science, began their work based on a 2017 study from the University of Warwick, which had some 800 participants rate nearly 5,000 English words. Scored highly by most people and given the top mean humour rating was the word “booty” probably in greater reference to the invaluable part of the body that Jennifer Lopez sits on, rather than the lucrative spoils of war.
Modelling these ratings statistically, the Alberta University pair were able to forecast which words participants would find funny and to what extent, based on predictors of form and semantics. Form predictors have nothing to do with the meaning of the word, but rather measure elements such as length, letter and sound probabilities, and how similar it is to others in sound and writing. For example, the study found that the letter ‘k’ and the sound ‘oo’ as in ‘boot’ are significantly more likely to occur in funny words, Science Daily reported.
Semantic predictors were taken from a computational model of language and measure how related each word is to different emotions, as well as to six categories of funny words: sex, bodily functions, insults, swear words, partying, and animals.
Westbury said, “It turns out that the best predictor of funniness is not distance from one of those six categories, but rather average distance from all six categories. This makes sense, because lots of words that people find funny fall into more than one category, like sex and bodily functions…”
Cracking the science of humour one word at a time, Warwick University’s catalogue therefore includes tit, booby, hooter, nitwit, twit, waddle, tinkle, bebop, egghead and twerp.
In earlier research, Westbury noticed that participants with aphasia – the language impairment caused by brain injury, affecting speech and the ability to read or write – would laugh when they heard some of the made-up non-words, like the Dutch sounding ‘snunkoople.’ He hypothesized that the answer lay in the word’s entropy, a mathematical measure of how ordered or predictable it is. Non-words like ‘finglam’ with uncommon letter combinations, are lower in entropy than other non-words like ‘clester’ with more probable combinations of letters and higher entropy.
The idea of entropy as a predictor of humour aligns with a 19th-century theory from the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who proposed that humour is a result of an expectation violation, as opposed to a previously held theory that humour is based just on improbability.
ID cringes at the world’s funniest joke. Two hunters are out in the woods when one collapses. The other panics and calls the emergency services. The operator answers, “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is silence; then a gunshot. Back on the phone, the hunter asks, “OK, now what?”