Kumquates. Or maybe rhutabaga. The jury is still out.

Posted on June 21, 2015


I’ve always found something funny about the word kumquat. And apparently, so do most people in the English speaking world. Yet despite this near unanimity, none of us can say why.

Kumquat is just an inherently funny word.

The same is true of rutabaga.

They’re funny words. If I tell you that a dog overturned a basket of apples in the market you may smile at best. (Unless you own the apple stand.) But if I tell you that a dog overturned a basket of kumquats you’re going to … well, you’re probably going to smile at best either way. But if I say “kumquates” I think the smile will be a bit broader than if I say “apples.”

According to David J. Parker and Samuel Stoddard in their paper, “How to be Funny,” the same is also true of: “Caccitore. Oleo. Zwieback. Quintillion. Frump. Weasel. Chintzy. Stroganoff. Talcum. Gesundheit. Kazoo. Exsanguinate. Chinchilla. Quiche. Intrinsic. Zyzzyva. Angst. Kibitz. Aardvark.”

In a sub-section called Intrinsic Humour, in which they explore inherently funny words, Parker and Stoddard quote Neil Simon’s play, The Sunshine Boys.

Words with a ‘k’ in it are funny. Alkaseltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. All with a ‘k’. ‘L’s are not funny. ‘M’s are not funny. Cupcake is funny. Tomatoes is not funny. Lettuce is not funny. Cucumber’s funny. Cab is funny. Cockroach is funny — not if you get ’em, only if you say ’em.

Of course, this is not an ironclad rule, and the authors point to exceptions such as hydrangea and linoleum.

I first ran across the concept through an episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show in which Buddy explains the comedic value of numbers.  According to Wikipedia, this would have been “The Curious Thing About Women.” A comedy skit Buddy and the gang are working on revolves around a package. While figuring out how much this fictional package should weigh, Buddy insists on 32 pounds rather than 15, because “32 has always been a funnier number. I hear 32, I get hysterical!”

The same Wikipedia article quotes “Weird Al” Yankovic as preferring the number 27 because “twenty-seven is a funny number”.

Numbers I’m not so sure of, but certainly some words are just plain funny, and I guess numbers are really words. Personally, however, I don’t find any comedic preference in numbers, although I’ll admit to having got the occasional chuckle from seven thousand, three hundred and fifty-four.

At Zazzle.ca (and anyone who doesn’t immediately recognize the “zazzle” reference can just keep on walking. Seriously. Nothing to see here. They gone? Good.

At Zazzle.ca you can order your very own rutabagas vs kumquats pin, proudly showing the public that even you don’t know which word is funnier, but you can’t help laughing at them both. (They also have buttons for other equally momentous issues as “going for a ride” buttons, “penguins in sweaters” buttons and “convolution of eternity” buttons.

The point, however, is that when you can buy buttons for something, then that something is a real Thing. (Even if the company selling the buttons also sells “giraffe head man” buttons and “silly hat pinback” buttons.)

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