Sunday, 9 November 2014

Search for the Oldest Joke

In writing about the origins of place names I often come across examples of names clearly transferred from elsewhere around the world. Among the most common are Botany Bay, New Zealand, California and even World’s End. Clearly these cannot have been named before the more famous examples and were probably suggested as those places were in the news at the time.

These are known as remoteness names, not a direct reference to the other side of the world (as in the case of Botany Bay) but a name coined for the far corner of the parish. In times when virtually everyone earned their living from the land, there were times when that patch of land at the extremity of the parish required tilling, sowing or reaping, and some unfortunate fellow had to walk there and back each day. He would have joked about it being at the other side of the world and eventually the name stuck.

There are also streets named Zig Zag Lane and similar. Whilst some do indeed have significant bends there examples where the road is as straight as any Roman road and, once again, this has been named by some wit who thought it quite inappropriate.

Doubtless these examples will have been the source of great guffaws of laughter at one time. Today they might raise a small smile at best. The question of why is undoubtedly because humour changes over time, and a remarkably short period of time, too.

The examples of place name humour is only about three hundred years old at most. More recently our grandparents or perhaps great-grandparents will have found Charlie Chaplin and similar silent screen stars hilarious – yet this slapstick will hardly amuse anyone today. When the talkies arrived it meant humour did not have to be visual. In the classic musical Singing in the Rain we see how a silent movie star’s voice ruined her career when the audience could really hear her rather than read her words on screen.

Later radio shows saw comedy actors play regular roles and the development of the catchphrase. We also saw some apparently ‘classic’ comedy routines on the big screen, thereafter television introduced other forms of comedy including Monty Python, The Young Ones and Morecambe and Wise.

From a personal viewpoint I never have understood just why Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on first” routine was amusing. I’m sure Charlie Drake and Dickie Henderson must have amused many during the 1960s, although I never met anyone who admitted such. Mike Yarwood’s impressions were once primetime television in the UK. And remember that ‘bear’ on The Andy Williams Show always demanding milk and cookies? Did you laugh? I didn’t.

Having said that I still find reruns of The Goons and Round the Horne on radio compulsive listening. The improvisational talents of Colin Mochrie and Ryan Styles are still of great amusement. While messrs Merton, Fry, Edmondson, Carrott, Connolly, Atkinson, et al can always be relied upon.

Hence clearly what is funny depends upon one’s era (there is also the cultural factor but that complicates things far too much). All this had me thinking about the earliest jokes. Would they be funny? Clearly these would have to be in written form. But would we even recognise these as a joke?

A little research uncovered three absolutely hilarious witticisms. Prepare to split your sides:

From the 1st century BC comes this little gem featuring Emperor Augustus who is touring a small part of his empire when he meets a man who bears an amazing likeness to himself. The emperor asks if his mother was ever in service at the palace? He replies “No, but my father was.”

From 1600BC and another from around the Mediterranean, this time it is the pharaohs of Egypt who are the target of the joke when the comedian asked “How do you entertain a bored pharaoh?” And answered himself with “Sail a boat full of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile – and urge the pharaoh to go fishing.”

Wet yourself yet? Thought not. Then perhaps the oldest known joke in the world, which must surely merit it being considered a classic through age alone, will have us all rolling in the aisles. It is not much earlier than the Egyptian offering, dating from around 1900 BC, and a Sumerian gag which is recorded thus: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.” You’d think we would have heard that as it is approaching 4,000 years old, although it is easy to see why we haven’t.

I also managed to find the oldest British joke. Found in a 10th-century book of Saxon poetry in Exeter Cathedral known as the Codex Exoniensis, the joke is in the form of a question and reads “What hangs at a man’s thigh and wants to poke the hole it’s often poked before?” The answer is, of course, “A key.”

Perhaps it’s the way I tell them.


  1. Latin joke "Casta est quam nemo rogavit" - I wonder whether they actually said that?

    1. Never heard that before Cat, the copyright is clearly yours!
      Weirdly, it is actually funnier in Latin than it is when translated.