From joke to farce: comedy words and where they come from
‘That joke is so old,’ you complain, when your Christmas cracker yet again asks, ‘why didn’t the skeleton go to the ball?’ as if you didn’t already know. But how old is joke itself in the English language, and what about other words in our comedic vocabulary?
The word joke, or rather ‘joque’, first appeared in the second half of the 17th century and seems to have originally been slang, entering the English language via the Latin jocus (meaning jest or joke).
The Oxford English Dictionary quotes John Eachard using the word in 1670: ‘To have the right knack of letting off a Joque, and of pleasing the Humsters,’ while other sources around that time mention ‘jocs’ and ‘joaks’. For example, the prefatory epistle to John Pordage’s Theologica Mystica, a treatise on the ‘mystic divinity of the eternal invisibles’, talks about ‘Jocs, or Witticisms, Railleries and Drolleries, Quirks and Quillets’.
By the mid-eighteenth century, the quirks and quillets of the word’s spelling appear to have been ironed out, with today’s joke becoming the accepted variant, as used by the likes of pioneering novelist Samuel Richardson.
You’d be right to assume that gag is a slightly more contemporary slang term for a joke, but it can still be traced back to the theatre scene of the 1860s. It seems to have arisen from a slightly earlier meaning of gag that referred to ad-libbing by actors, though the precise origin of this theatrical usage is unclear.
Gag could also be related to an even earlier slang term, meaning ‘a “made-up” story or a deception’. We’re alluding here to the more physical sense of gag – figuratively testing someone’s ability to ‘swallow’ a tall tale.
A joke or gag needs a punchline – it’s the part that delivers the actual humour, the pay-off after the joke’s set-up. If the punchline’s wrong, the joke doesn’t work, as evidenced by my small niece’s attempt: ‘Why did the skeleton go to the ball? Because he needed the toilet!’
A good joke has a ‘striking’ final line that packs a comedy punch, and that’s how the term punchline came about. According to the OED, the first record of punchline comes from 1916 in the USA, but the joke sadly had not hit the mark (perhaps the comedian tried ‘he had no body to go with’!).
Punchline has also come to have a bit of a wider meaning outside the world of comedy. You might use it when talking about a particularly striking outcome or conclusion that isn’t funny at all: ‘And here’s the punchline… they voted to make you all redundant.’
Some comedy relies heavily on catchphrases. The BBC’s Fast Show in the 1990s was a prime example of this on British TV – some recurring sketches featured nothing but a character’s single catchphrase line (‘This week, I have been mostly eating… taramasalata!’).
Usually associated with a single famous person or character, it’s not always funny, but is always a catchy phrase – one that catches in the mind through repetition.
The term catch-phrase seems to date back to at least the 1850s; in 1856, political theorist Patrick Edward Dove proclaimed that certain catchphrases were only ‘sufficient to satisfy the simple’.
There are some types of comedy that aren’t quite so popular nowadays. It could be that most of us are a bit too cynical for slapstick – a physical type of comedy that relies on the humour of exaggerated clumsy actions like people falling over, hitting each other with objects, and accidentally breaking things.
However, you can see from the popularity of Punch and Judy puppet shows that it was once all the rage. Punch hasn’t deviated much from his 17th century hobby of hitting people with his slap stick.
The original slap stick was a prop that produced an early sort of special effect in the 16th century Italian commedia dell’arte. Two thin, flexible pieces of wood were connected at one end, so that the stick made a loud noise when Harlequin (a comic character) whacked another actor with it. Comedy fight scenes were thus made more entertaining without anybody getting hurt. Over time, the word slapstick became synonymous with this sort of physical comedy.
The pratfall is usually an important part of slapstick comedy. There seems to be something universally funny about somebody suddenly falling over. Defined as ‘a fall on to the buttocks’, you might think a pratfall means falling over like… well… a prat.
But prat in fact meant ‘a buttocke’ in the 16th century, and later came to mean both buttocks or the backside. It was only in the 20th century that prat came to be used as an insult. You or I doing an accidental pratfall on the street might feel like prats, but a comedian falling on their behind is using a well-rehearsed comedy technique.
The farce is another classic form of comedy that still crops up in more or less exaggerated forms. (Miranda Hart is one British comedian who recently dared to bring back the farce with her ‘Miranda’ TV series – complete with pratfalls.)
Defined as ‘a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations’, farce is French for ‘stuffing’. Although the word originally referred to the sort of stuffing that goes in your chicken, it began to be used for comic interludes that were ‘stuffed’ into the texts of religious plays for a little 16th century light relief – before we even had joques in English.