Selections from Legman's Rationale of the Dirty Joke
FAST-US-7 United States Popular Culture (Hopkins)
Department of Translation Studies, University of Tampere
The following is from Gershon Legman's classic Rationale of the Dirty
Joke (An Analysis of Sexual Humor), Secaucus, NJ, Castle Books (in
cooperation with Grove Press), 1968. As noted in the introduction,
"...this analytic study of erotic humor is based on 30 years of collecting
in America and abroad ... over 2000 jokes and folktales are ...
authentically transcribed in all their innocent and sometimes violent
unexpurgaiety ... [with a] socio-analytic discussion of what these jokes
mean to the people who tell them, and to the people who listen and
laugh." These excerpts are from section VI. Foreigners,
p. 163 >.
(p. 164. Swedes and Chinamen)...One of the most ancient human
prejudices is that against the foreigner ... Sexual vilification of the
foreigner is the natural accompaniment of the desire for his women when in
his country, and the desire to prevent him for competing for one's own
women when he is here. Thus it is humorously believed in America ... that
practically all Englishmen are homosexuals, and that all Frenchmen prefer
oral sexual relations with their women. The birth rate in both countries
is presumably kept up by visiting Americans, who are all gloriously
...The standard guise for the xenophobic urge is to displace the
hostility upon ... the foreigner's foreign-ness: his clothes, his accent,
his misunderstandings of national customs and speech ... The English have
the Welsh and Irish ... and the Americans have the English and
others... The typical butts of anti-national humor in America have almost
entirely ceased to be 'inferiors,' and in fool jokes ... the concentration
is all on the deposed authority-figure of the Englishman. In the
Mid-west, from Minnesota on out, the Swede or Polack is the local butt,
and a few relics of the anti-Chinese era of the 19th century are still to
A couple are applying for a marriage license. "Your name?" "Ole
Oleson." "And yours?" "Lena Oleson." "Any connection?" The bride
blushes. "Only vunce. He yumped me." (Memorabilia, 1910).
Abie wants to marry his Irish Rose, and the rabbi agrees to officiate
only if he can be assured that Rose has "a little Jew in her." "Oh, I
do," she says. "Abie couldn't wait." (1943).
Butler, to the new chauffeur: "Yes, these Jewish people have very
quaint customs. For instance, on Rosh Hashanah they blow the shofar."
"What a wonderful way to treat the help!" (N.Y. 1952).
Mrs. Johnson's Swedish maid refuses to be vaccinated on the grounds
that she has been already. "How many times?" asks her mistress. "Tvice.
Vunce in the kitchen and vunce in the voodshed." "What doctor?" "No
doctor! Vas Mr. Yohnson." (Idaho, 1918, obviously stemming from the World
War I epidemics).
...In the period following the mass importation and exploitation of
the Chinese in building the railroads of the American west, a good deal of
anti-Chinese feeling was carefully generated. The comedy 'Chinaman,' as
the foolish foreigner, appears in only a few jokes nowadays, and there
only in the capacity of laundryman or other body servant.
A woman who keeps a Chinese servant is embarrassed by his walking into
her bedroom while she is undressed, and insists that he knock before
entering. He never again embarrasses her, but he also never knocks. She
asks how. "Velly simple. Beflore come in, me look thlough keyhole. If
you no dlessed, me no come in." An army officer's wife has come to
visit him in the Orient where he has been for several years. In the
morning his Chinese valet wakes her by slapping her on the buttocks, and
says, "All light, missy, time fo' bleakfast, then you go home." (N.Y.
1948). Cf. Tough movie-actress, phoning the laundry: "I don't want any
more of your nonsense. Get that laundry up here, and licketysplit."
"Bling laundly o.k. lady. No licketysplit." (N.Y. 1942).
(p. 167, Bloody Englishmen)...While national butts are usually
chosen from among groups of inferior strength and subjected status
Negroes, women, Jews, the Irish and the immigrant Swedish and Chinese come
immediately to mind ... the English are, far and away, considered a
superior group and of commanding authority in America on every other level
but that of jokes.... It is the Englishman's authority position, as
arbiter of elegance, speech, literature, etc., that makes him so awesome
to certain Americans and so infuriating to others.
(p. 169)...Most silly-ass Englishmen jokes concern the haughty
English character as the American sees it... [though some jokes also] turn
on English pronunciation ... or phraseology, e.g. The champion speller
of London loses the match. "Now 'ow was I supposed to know 'ow to spell
'auspices'?" (N.Y. 1953) An English man is confused by the American
prostitute. "We went upstairs," he says, "and had a bit of old narsty, and
she looked up at me and said, 'Are you through?' not meaning was I through
to the other side, but simply had I finished. Haw!" (Minnesota, 1946)
The humor here may be obscure to most Americans, being based on British
telephone etiquette, in which 'Some quick-witted hello girls ... go so far
now as to tell a Yank "Here's your party," rather than "You're through,
sir."' (Quoted from Yank, October 7, 1942)
The marrow of the anti-British joke is in its view of the British
character, particularly in its objection to British reserve and
understatement. The American immediately senses in these habits the
notion of superiority, though he is seldom able to see, in his own
opposite habits of flamboyance and overstatement, an anxious uncertainty
as to whether he might not actually be inferior. The interplay of the
caricatured British and American characters is the real point of all these
A young English nobleman is being fellated by a male prostitute in his
parlor, when a friend is ushered in. They engage in animated conversation
as to who has been invited to Lady Windemere's party and who has been
snubbed. The male prostitute interrupts. "I beg pardon, your Ludship
[sic], but you've come." "Why so I have, so I have. Here's a shilling
for you, my good man." (N.Y. 1940). [Related to this is the] Englishman,
to a prostitute who has just given him a moist tongue-kiss: "Now, I say,
don't get personal, Miss, or I jolly well shan't fawk you!"
A drunk on an English train scandalizes the compartment passengers by
picking his nose, scraping the fur off his tongue and putting it under the
seat, reaching into his fly and elaborately adjusting his genitals, etc.
(All gestures being acted out [in telling the joke]). An Englishman has
been watching him coldly from the seat facing, and finally says, "Do you
suppose, old chap, that you could conclude the entertainment with a
rousing good fart?" (N.Y. 1953).
An Englishman in a locked compartment on a train without a toilet asks
his American seat-companion's permission to relieve himself on a spread
newspaper, which he then folds up and flings out the window. The American,
who cannot avoid watching the entire procedure, lights up a long black
cigar to cover some of the fecal odor. "I say!" says the Englishman, "you
know, this isn't a smoking compartment!"
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Last Updated 09 February 2010