For the past several decades, British sociologist and preeminent humor scholar Christie Davies has been collecting examples of an odd phenomenon: Nearly every culture has its own version of the Polish joke. That is, every country likes to make fun of people who’ve been labeled as simpletons and, often, outsiders.
In this country, we mock the poor, put-upon Poles: “How many Polish guys does it take to screw in a light bulb? Five: One to hold the bulb and four to turn the chair.” (Polish-Americans became the butt of jokes after millions fled persecution in their own country in the 18th and 19th centuries, often taking up menial jobs in their new American home.) But that’s just one example of what Davies calls the “stupidity joke.” People all over the world and throughout history have differentiated themselves from those they see as inferior and foreign by making fun of them. Take the oldest-known joke book in the world: Philogelos, Greek for “The Laughter Lover,” compiled from several manuscripts dating from the 11th to 15th centuries but believed to have been penned in the 4th century A.D. by the otherwise unknown scribes Hierokles and Philagrios. Of the 265 jokes in the book, nearly a quarter concern people from cities renowned for their idiocy, like Cyme in modern-day Turkey and Abdera in Thrace. Later, in medieval England, people cracked jokes about the dunces who lived in the village of Gotham. (New York’s nickname, “Gotham,” doesn’t sound so impressive when you learn that author Washington Irving coined it to suggest the place was a city of fools.)