What Do Bouba & Kiki Mean On TikTok? The Terms, Explained
Once you see it, you can’t un-see it.
TikTok is where unheard-of terms go viral, and now, a linguistics concept is taking over the app: sound symbolism, which refers to a connection between sound and meaning. The bouba-kiki effect is one example of this theory, and TikTok cannot get enough of it.
So, what does the bouba-kiki effect entail? To sum it up, when people hear the word “bouba,” they associate it with a rounded shape. When they hear “kiki,” they associate it with a spiky shape. On TikTok, creators are applying this idea to celebrities — and some are taking it a step further, using the terms to explain why they’re only attracted to certain people.
In November 2021, TikTok creator Eileen Huang made a video to explain how they saw this theory come to life: “This applies to people, too. Some are kikis, and some are boubas.” Angelina Jolie = Kiki. Jennifer Lawrence = Bouba. Huang tells Elite Daily this has to do primarily with physical traits. “We associate people with sharper features with more consonants and sharper sounds, like kiki,” they explain. “People with softer features are more like boubas.”
The theory gained even more traction in March 2023, when TikTok creator Talia Lichtstein posted about kikis and boubas. In her video (which racked up over 1 million likes), Lichtstein explained how the kiki-bouba categorization lined up exactly with who was her type. “It's always been a thing that floats around whenever I'm talking to my friends about my taste in men,” she tells Elite Daily. “Whenever I see people talking about the new hot celebrity, I'm thinking, ‘Do I find this guy hot? Is he bouba or kiki?’” (She goes for boubas, BTW.)
Here’s how both creators lay it out in their videos.
Bouba & Kiki Is About Physical Traits, Mostly
The initial concept behind bouba and kiki is based entirely on looks, but TikTok has started applying it to vibes, too. For example, Jason Sudeikis might be kiki, but Ted Lasso feels like a bouba. You can transition from one to the other, too (no plastic surgery required). According to Lichtstein, Chris Pratt went from being bouba (during his Parks & Rec era) to kiki (now).
For Huang, this extension makes sense. “Someone can look like a kiki, but instead of having a really sharp personality, they might be a little bit softer,” they explain. The reverse is also true: Someone with really soft features can have an intense, edgy personality.
It’s Not *Really* Subjective — But Some See It That Way
The concept of bouba and kiki might seem pretty straightforward, but if you take a look at the TikTok comments, it’s clear people have mixed feelings about who fits in which classification. So, is there one right or wrong answer? Or is there any gray area?
Lichtstein doesn’t think it’s up to interpretation. “To me, the looks thing isn't subjective. I think it's very objective: Who has hard features versus soft?” But she’s aware that not everyone agrees. “If you could see my DMs right now... It's a dumpster fire of people asking, ‘Can you tell me if my boyfriend is bouba or kiki?’”
It’s all about what you see, and if this bouba-kiki classification doesn’t work for you, feel free to make it your own. “I gave such concrete examples,” Lichtstein says. “I feel like everybody should be equipped now to decide for themselves.”
Here’s to the boubas and the kikis — but particularly the bouba men (ahem, Pedro Pascal).