Geddit? Jokes in English

Posted on June 29, 2012

Have you ever told a joke that just didn’t translate? People of course have different definitions of what they find funny within and across cultures. In France for example, people often appreciate the value of punning more than in the UK. I find Beavis and Butthead’s Cornholio sketch hilarious, although I can’t quite put my finger on why. When conducting an English  lesson in Japan on the theme of jokes I found that I had to establish a code with the students. If you’re not laughing is it because you don’t get it or because you don’t find it funny?  Some jokes work perfectly across languages while some are just lost in linguistic or cultural translation.

Jokes that Work Across Languages

Jokes that rely on irony or funny situations can often work cross linguistically. A couple of years ago readers of The Telegraph voted for the best ever joke.  Tommy Cooper featured heavily in the top 100 and won with this one:

  • A woman gets on a bus with her baby. The bus driver says: “Ugh, that’s the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen!” The woman walks to the rear of the bus and sits down, fuming. She says to a man next to her: “The driver just insulted me!” The man says: “You go up there and tell him off. Go on, I’ll hold your monkey for you.”

Did Cooper deserve the award? How about this one:

  • I went to buy some camouflage trousers the other day but I couldn’t find any.

One all the way from Japan:

  • “What’s the best way to use a “sensu” or fan while keeping it from wearing out? You move your head in front of the fan”

Here is my absolute favourite of the cross-linguistic ones:

  • A police officer stops at a ranch in Texas, and tells the rancher, “I need to inspect your ranch for drugs.” The rancher says, “Okay, but do not go in that field over there,” and points out the location. The police officer explodes saying, “Mister, I have the authority of the Federal Government with me.” Reaching into his rear pants pocket, he removes his badge and proudly displays it to the rancher. “See this badge? This badge means I am allowed to go wherever I wish, on any land, no questions asked. Have I made myself clear? ” The rancher nods politely, apologizes, and goes about his chores.  A short time later, the old rancher hears loud screams and sees the police officer running for his life chased by the rancher’s enormous Santa Gertrudis bull!  With every step the bull is gaining ground on the officer, and it seems likely that he’ll get gored before he reaches safety. The officer is clearly terrified. The rancher throws down his tools, runs to the fence and yells at the top of his lungs: “Your badge… Show him your badge!!”

English-Specific Jokes

Not all jokes however can be translated into other languages easily, if at all. The first is my favourite from this category:

  • As Alexander the Great led his troops into Persia, his soothsayers urged him to cease from conquest and reign content as king of all Greece. The divine Alexander, in his pride, was wont to brush these warnings aside, until one day, lightning struck from a clear sky and completely destroyed his royal bivouac.  “A portent!” cried the priests. “Whaddya want,” said Alexander, “we get them at cost.”
  • A mushroom walks into a bar and the bartender says, “Hey, didn’t you read the sign? It says ‘No mushrooms!'” The mushroom replies, “C’mon man, I’m a fungi!”

Here the word sounds exactly like another set of words and makes sense either way.

Having recently finished my linguistics degree I was delighted to see a festival t-shirt in Bristol with the slogan: “Camping is in Tents”. This is an example of elision: if three consonants occur in sequence one will often be elided for ease of pronunciation. In this case the plosive /t/ sound is elided, making it homophonous with the word “intense”.

  • A man walks into a restaurant and sits down at a table. The waiter walks up to take the order and asks the man, “Would you like a soup or salad?” The man replies, “What’s a super salad?”

Grammatical function words like “or” often don’t carry a great deal of sentence stress, the stress occurs on the words that are being contrasted. In the sentence “Did you buy a book or a DVD?”  the word “or” holds almost no sentence stress and could sound like a schwa, the weak “ar” in “popular” the “er” sound in “finger” or, in this case, “super”.

  • What did the mamma tomato say to the baby tomato? “Catch up!!!

  • A man said to his friend, “Want to hear a joke about butter?” His friend said, “Sure.” The man said, “Nah, I’d butter not tell you. You might spread it.”

These are both quite the eye-roller, playing on similar sounding words. The second rather economically uses a second pun, exploiting the fact that the word “spread” can be figurative or physical.

  • There are two fish in a tank, and one says to the other; “How do you drive this thing?”

I find this one funnier, we are tricked into thinking we know what “tank” it is but we don’t. Here are some accent-specific jokes, from a Christmas cracker near you:

  • Knock knock! Who’s there? Luke. Luke who? Look through the keyhole and see.
  • In which US state can you find small Pepsis? Minnesota.

If you thought some of the above were bad, it’s time to really brace yourself for these British golden oldies…

  • A man walks into a bar with a roll of tarmac under his arm and says: “Pint please, and one for the road.”
  • I met a Dutch girl with inflatable shoes last week, phoned her up to arrange a date but unfortunately she’d popped her clogs.

Here you need a knowledge of English idioms to get the double meaning.

Well I hope that at least some of the jokes I chose made you laugh rather than groan. I have included a key for those you may not have “got” – after all not everyone is familiar with the Liverpool accent!


Didn’t get ‘em all?

“Portent” sounds the same as “poor tent”.

“Fungi” sounds the same as “fun guy”.

“Catch up” sounds like “ketchup”.

“Better” sounds like “butter”.

“Tank” can be a container for pet fish, or an army vehicle.

“Look” and “Luke” are pronounced the same in some accents eg Liverpool.

“Minnesota” sounds like “mini soda” in an American accent.

“One for the road” refers to the custom of having a drink to relax before driving home. Before the days of drink-driving regulations.

“To pop one’s clogs” is a casual idiom for dying.

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