Chicago – Unintentional comedy is actually relatively easy to pull off. All you have to do is trip and fall.
Intentionally getting a laugh, on the other hand, takes practice. Especially in a second language. What’s funny in Japan may be different from what’s funny in other countries, but one common thread is that humor can be found in the way you wield the language — any language — not just ドタバタ喜劇 (dotabata kigeki, slapstick).
Knowing the funny words, so to speak, can give students of Japanese a leg up and, fortunately for us, in 2019 the online comedy site オモコロ (Omocoro) conducted an extremely “scientific” survey of 356 Japanese-speaking individuals on the internet to determine the funniest Japanese words. What it found suggests that there are certain patterns that make some words funnier than others in Japanese.
The first pattern of words the site examines makes logical sense: 言葉の響きが面白い (kotoba no hibiki ga omoshiroi, words with funny sounds). The sound of words alone are funny: 意味を知らなくても笑える (Imi o shiranakute mo waraeru, You can laugh [at them] even if you don’t know the meaning).
This category includes words like 毛むくじゃら (kemukujara, covered in hair), クルトン (kuruton, crouton), モヒート (mohīto, mojito), 一本糞 (ipponguso, a long strand of poop), パイナポー (painapō, pineapple), パンティ (panti, panties) and ウーピーゴルドバーグ (Ūpī Gorudobāgu, Whoopi Goldberg).
One interesting note is the strength of the パ行 (pagyō, syllables in the “pa” column of the Japanese syllabary). There’s something inherently funny about the 破裂音 (haretsuon, plosive sound) they make.
This could explain why Pikotaro’s “PPAP” became the comedic juggernaut that it did in 2016. Just look at all those plosives in ペンパイナポーアッポーペン (pen painapō appō pen, pen pineapple apple pen).
One thing Omocoro neglects to mention is that many of these words are 外来語 (gairaigo, words of foreign origin). Perhaps there’s something intrinsically funny about the unfamiliarity of these sounds to the Japanese?
Another category the site found was 言葉と意味のギャップ (kotoba to imi no gyappu, the gap between words and their meanings). This category proves that both 外来語 and native Japanese compounds can get laughs.
One funny word is 墓標 (bohyō, gravestone/grave marker). Omocoro explains the humor like this: 人が死んでるのに「ボヒョー！」はちょっと不謹慎でバカっぽいから (Hito ga shinderu no ni ‘bohyō’ wa chotto fukinshin de bakappoi kara, Somebody is dead, but the pronunciation bohyō is a bit silly and ridiculous).
There’s also a word in this category that almost everyone should be familiar with: 炊飯器 (suihanki, rice cooker). Omocoro provides this explanation for the humor: 音の弱々しさと、見た目のスマートさと、熱や重さの仰々しさと、炊きあがる米の優しさがちぐはぐだから (Oto no yowayowashisa to, mitame no sumātosa to, netsu ya omosa no gyōgyōshisa to, takiagaru kome no yasashisa ga chiguhagu dakara, [it’s funny] because the gentleness of the pronunciation, the sleekness of how a rice cooker looks, the grandiosity of its heat and weight, and the pleasantness of freshly steamed rice are all mismatched).
There’s 外来語 in this group as well: ユンボ (yunbo, backhoe/excavator). “Yumbo” is a brand of 油圧ショベル (yuatsu shoberu, literally “power shovel”) from France that was imported to Japan in 1955. The word itself is compact and sounds almost sweet, quite a contrast with the construction machinery it refers to.
Clearly the power of this word is widely recognized: The Japanese comedy duo Yumbo Dump use it in their name, and they’ve drawn international attention by appearing on the reality performance show “America’s Got Talent” and an equivalent show in France.
And, of course, there’s the more obvious, low-hanging fruit: The word most respondents listed as funniest was a certain part of the male anatomy — 金玉 (kintama, “balls”) — which is funny because of the fact that they have nothing to do with money but include the characters for gold (金) and jewels (玉).
Omocoro concludes its article with staff competing in a word game somewhat similar to Cards Against Humanity, giving the winner the chance to choose the funniest combination of words. The winner put together a plosive-laden 外来語 with a funny Japanese animal: パワータニシ (pawā tanishi). The translation is “power pond snail” and is actually quite funny in English as well, thanks in part to an accidental alliteration.
The website Quora has a more serious discussion of a similar topic: 一番おもしろい単語は何ですか？ (Ichiban omoshiroi tango wa nan desu ka, What is the funniest word?). Here the participants include words from foreign languages like “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “inflammable” and “пукать,” which is apparently pronounced プゥーカチ (pūkachi) and means “to fart” in Russian.
As far as Japanese words go, the responders do provide some physical comedy with words such as うんこ (unko, poop), おっぱい (oppai, boobs) and どや! (doya!, a sort of self-satisfied way to say “There ya go!”), but another person offers up 整備 (seibi, maintenance) because of the breadth of compounds it can be used in belies its simplicity: 環境整備 (kankyō seibi, environmental improvement), 法整備 (hōseibi, legislation), 整備士 (seibishi, mechanic), 施設整備 (shisetsu seibi, facilities maintenance), 道路整備 (dōro seibi, road maintenance), and 書類整備 (shorui seibi, document management).
I’d add one word of caution to all of these examples and to both articles referenced here: It can be easy to overuse many of these words, and relying too much on foreign-sounding vocabulary in particular can play into stereotypes.
Variety is a critical element of humor, so we should endeavor to expand our vocabulary and seek out new and interesting combinations to amuse and entertain. Being familiar with these patterns and strategies can help students develop an ear and an eye for what will make people laugh in Japanese. But it’s a relief to know that a well-timed fart will add a little levity, no matter where you are on the planet.
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