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World's Oldest Joke?

Ancient History

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Edited: Aug 2, 2008, 8:18am Top

Okay, no groaning. It's Saturday and time for twaddle. Or at least semi-twaddle.


LONDON (Reuters Life!) - The world's oldest recorded joke has been traced back to 1900 BC and suggests that toilet humor was as popular with the ancients as it is today.

It is a saying of the Sumerians, who lived in what is now southern Iraq and goes: "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap."

It heads the world's oldest top 10 joke list published by the University of Wolverhampton on Thursday.

A 1600 BC gag about a pharaoh, said to be King Snofru, comes second -- "How do you entertain a bored pharaoh? You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish."

The oldest British joke dates back to the 10th Century and reveals the bawdy face of the Anglo-Saxons -- "What hangs at a man's thigh and wants to poke the hole that it's often poked before? Answer: A key."

"Jokes have varied over the years, with some taking the question and answer format while others are witty proverbs or riddles," said the report's writer Dr Paul McDonald, senior lecturer at the university.

"What they all share however, is a willingness to deal with taboos and a degree of rebellion. Modern puns, Essex girl jokes and toilet humor can all be traced back to the very earliest jokes identified in this research."

The study was commissioned by television channel Dave. The top 10 oldest jokes can be viewed at www.dave-tv.co.uk.

Aug 2, 2008, 9:56am Top

The whole Dave list is here.

It's very good to see that it has a more or less comprehensible citation. So, here it is in the ETCSL. (Almost certain it would be in Gordon's Sumerian Proverbs.)

I know we're not supposed to take this too seriously, but how would one decide that which one of the jokey proverbs is the oldest?

Aug 2, 2008, 3:58pm Top

I can't help feel that there must be some cave drawings they've left off telling us about. I don't believe humor is a recent development.

Aug 7, 2008, 2:33pm Top

I think you may be on to something there, ThePam. I've often wondered why venus statues are presumed to be related to fertility and religion.

Aug 7, 2008, 2:38pm Top

You may be onto something. Lascaux might have been the first "Evening at the Improv". Standing in front of the cave wall (in those pre-red brick days), Magoom the Hunter clears his throat:

"Didja ever notice how bad Mammoths smell? What the heck have they been rolling in?!"

Aug 10, 2008, 12:55am Top

"Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap."

May I ask if that's merely scatalogical or also sexual?

Aug 10, 2008, 7:12am Top

You've got me, Tim. I've been pondering what this implied since I first posted the link.

I wonder particularly whether the ancient phrase was translated accurately, or whether it was toned down.

You'd think one of our resident scholars would pipe up with an answer.

Aug 10, 2008, 11:58am Top

There is nothing more explicit in the original.

An ANE-2 thread is here.

You can get ePSD to bring up the text with a roll-over glossary like this. The links are a bit fussy, but it's enough to confirm the sense, and in particular še10 'dung' and dur2 'sit' (or = Akk. şarātu 'fart').

Edited: Aug 10, 2008, 1:11pm Top


You are wonderful :o))

The suggestion that this could be a proverb rather than a joke is interesting.

Thank you very much for the post.

Aug 11, 2008, 9:01pm Top

I can only wonder if Sumerian women ate a lot of beans or something prior to the lap-sitting ....

Edited: Aug 12, 2008, 6:50am Top

Good question Garp83.

Along the same lines I was reading an article about cursing in early colonial Canada: "Thieving Buggers" and "Stupid Sluts": Insults and Popular Culture in New France".

It was the author's (Moogk) contention that what insults people hurl at one another says something about their culture; what they find offensive, what they loath and fear.

I'm having a hard time putting 'farting' in the proper fearsome perspective. Even with the beans.

Aug 12, 2008, 3:06pm Top

so am i to take it then that "What's better than roses on your piano?" is NOT the world's oldest joke after all?


Aug 12, 2008, 10:40pm Top

I wonder if Tim might be on to something -- perhaps there was something sexual involved. As it stands, it doesn't seem all that funny, does it? Unless the farting upon the spouse was so common that in fact this single occurance of not farting ... well, you know what I mean ...

Aug 13, 2008, 12:02am Top

Was there a lot of lap-sitting in ancient Sumeria. In what context?

Aug 13, 2008, 1:57am Top

Oh come on, guys, just admit that you don't get the world's oldest joke ;-)

Aug 13, 2008, 2:59am Top

I'm glad it's not just me... I've been wondering what's funny about it too :)

Aug 13, 2008, 3:12am Top

I see four potential sources of humor:

1. "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial" sets up the expectation that the rest of the sentence will be high-toned and dignified. It is not. Classification error.

2. Women are funny and gross. They can't control their farting. It's funny to be reminded of another instance of this truism.

3. It's funny because it's true; it's happened to you, like "you know how when you change to the fast lane and then it turns out to be the slow lane and the one you were in is the fast lane?"

4. Let's write something unfunny down and think of the unfunny scholars who will have to make sense of it.

Edited: Aug 13, 2008, 8:25am Top

Good analysis. But it stills leaves an open question about what the women were doing in their husband's laps.

Yes-- there's the obvious. But is there artwork to support this assumption. I googled about a bit and couldn't find anything Sumerian.

Later on there's a nice piece with Ariadne on Dionysus' lap. Could the joke have some underlying 'drinking/drunkenness' theme?

Alas, still doesn't make the joke funny.

Aug 13, 2008, 8:43am Top

Ran across an alternative interpretation:

"Never has a woman sat in her husbands lap and then farted".

I have to admit that's funnier. Kudo's to the amateur transliteration.

(and yeah, I have too much time on my hands)

Aug 13, 2008, 8:01pm Top

In response to #19 - that alternative reading makes a lot more sense - particularly if the unspoken implication is that guys can't seem to avoid spoiling a romantic cuddle.

How does Akkadian handle double negatives? Does 'not since time immemorial' + 'a young women did not' = 'young woman never' or 'young woman always'?

Aug 15, 2008, 1:14pm Top

Not to be irreverent, but the whole thing seems to me to testify to the old adage, "If you have to explain a joke, it isn't funny." :D

Aug 15, 2008, 2:30pm Top

I just think it means "You got a good thing going, and something has to come along and spoil it."

The kind of thing you have to be a curmudgeon to get, I suppose.

Aug 16, 2008, 12:08pm Top

Pam (#19) -- that makes more sense, but perhaps as an adage rather than an actual joke. I wonder if we'll ever find out ....

Aug 19, 2008, 9:53pm Top

Here's 45 ancient jokes:


worth reading

Aug 20, 2008, 6:30am Top

Most excellent, Garp83. And some of them ARE funny.

Edited: Aug 20, 2008, 7:48am Top

Basic sense of humour seems to be timeless. Although, there are bits of Petronius that I still don't get...

Aug 20, 2008, 8:22am Top

I must admit I unexpectedly laughed out loud at this one ... omg!

#251. The lady of a house had a simple-minded slave. But when she got a peek at just how thick his other head was also, she lusted after him. She put a mask over her face so that he wouldn't recognize her, and played around with him. Joining her game, he had sex with her. Then, grinning as he usually did, he reported to his master: "Sir, sir, I fucked the dancer and the mistress was inside!"

Aug 20, 2008, 6:09pm Top

That's excellent! It brightened up my morning!

Aug 25, 2008, 11:45am Top

Stevia, since you prefer the Roman period you'll probably like this one (I did):

Augustus was touring his empire and noticed a man in the crowd who bore a striking resemblance to himself. Intrigued he asked: "Was your mother at one time in service at the palace?" "No your Highness," he replied, "but my father was." -- 63 BC to 29 AD, credited to the Emperor Augustus

Aug 25, 2008, 12:32pm Top

Do you know where that joke comes from—where it's preserved?

Edited: Aug 25, 2008, 12:44pm Top

> 30 That was #8 back in the Dave list (see #2).
Macrobius Saturnalia II.4.20.

Aug 25, 2008, 12:54pm Top

Oh, 5c. Too bad.

Aug 25, 2008, 2:40pm Top

sorry if "re-post" ...

Aug 26, 2008, 4:16am Top

#29, That is very good Garp! I shall inflict it upon my fellow Classics students. Here's another bad joke (not ancient, but related)

A Roman walks into a bar and says, "I'll have a martinus, thanks." The bar tender asks, "Don't you mean a 'martini?'" To which the Roman replied, "If I wanted two, I would have asked for two!"

Aug 26, 2008, 5:14am Top


Aug 26, 2008, 5:43am Top

LOL Stevia!

Aug 28, 2008, 3:05am Top

>34 Stevia:

Better: "If I wanted a double, I would have asked for it."

Mar 27, 2009, 7:10pm Top

Special thanks to Harmlessted for finding this:


I thought we should resurrect this thread by dropping the link here, as well. Maybe we can tie it in with the other ancient jokes, though I wonder if the Romans made jokes about women farting in their laps also?

Mar 27, 2009, 9:42pm Top

I love it.

Jan 20, 2012, 3:13pm Top

Is that a club in your hands, or are you just glad to see me ;)

Jan 20, 2012, 10:23pm Top

Adam and Eve walk into a garden-themed bar, and the bartender hisses, "Appletini anyone?"

Jan 21, 2012, 8:25pm Top

So there's this penguin who drops his car off with the mechanic ...

. . . uhhh, I don't think I can tell that joke here without getting in trouble ...

Jan 25, 2012, 12:01pm Top

Wasn't sure whether to post this here on in history in the news, but since it's humor...


Pick an era and browse the Facebook History of the World.

Jan 25, 2012, 12:40pm Top

#43 AWESOME!!!

Jan 26, 2012, 1:31am Top


Jan 28, 2012, 6:21pm Top


Feb 12, 2012, 3:10pm Top

Haha awesome

Feb 12, 2012, 8:37pm Top

This joke was originally told to Moses by an annoying Hebrew who kept bothering him while he was cleaning his tablet ...


It has been retold a number of times since then ...

Group: Ancient History

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