Shut up, ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ isn’t about the afterlife

There is a joke.

You probably know the joke, because it is a fairly famous joke.

It goes like this:

Question: Why did the chicken cross the road?

Answer: To get to the other side!

The mechanism of the joke is this: the listener, on hearing a question about a chicken crossing a road, will naturally assume that a humorous punchline is about to follow. Especially if the question is preceded by the questioner saying something like ‘Would you like to hear an extremely funny joke?’

The actual joke part of the joke is that there is no humorous punchline. You have been tricked. Your expectations have been confounded, assuming you have not already heard the joke, which is, at this point in human history, unlikely. Unless you’re a child or your memory’s broken or you’re from somewhere foreign and have an equivalent joke about an elephant crossing a railway line or something.

Anyway, lately I keep seeing the suggestion that it’s not a trick at all: the meaning of the punchline has been misconstrued, and it is in fact a play on words.

Here’s the earliest example I could find on Twitter of someone making this ‘realisation’, in 2011:

And in 2009 someone asked Yahoo Answers to settle a debate she was having with her daughter:

(From her Yahoo Answers history we can tell her daughter was 15 years old at the time, by the way. Her husband is an alcoholic, and her aunt had a vaginal cyst. Learning sure is fun with Yahoo Answers! Bing it!)

So the idea is that the chicken, having considered all available options, decides to end its life by crossing the road. This activity, presumed to be fatal, will allow it to get to ‘the other side’, i.e. the afterlife.

This reading of the joke makes sense in linguistic terms, but it does rely on the chicken being able to understand concepts like death, and the afterlife, and also to understand enough about road traffic to pick the moment where the probability of road death is highest.

You could make this claim about the more standard reading, vis-à-vis chickens even understanding what roads are, but I don’t think we really need to assign much knowledge to chicken. It is here, it wants to go there – it may not particularly matter to the chicken that ‘here’ is one side of the road, and that ‘there’ is the other.

(Given the fairly strict stance of many religions on suicide, one could also question the wisdom of using it as a mechanism to reach the other side. Is there a chicken hell?)

The oldest recorded printing of the ‘joke’, according to Wikipedia, which is never wrong, appeared in a New York Magazine called The Knickerbocker. The March 1847 issue contained the following, excellent, version:

There are ‘quips and quillets’ which seem actual conundrums, but yet are none. Of such is this:‘Why does a chicken cross the street?’
Are you ‘out of town?’
Do you ‘give it up?’
Well, then: ‘Because it wants to get on the other side!’

I don’t know much about road safety in 1847, but I’m going take a punt and say that roads were probably quite a lot less dangerous than they are today. Maybe the chicken would be at risk of being trampled by a horse. But if I was a mid-nineteenth century suicidal chicken, I’d have to consider other options if I was looking for an efficient death.

The chicken joke is one people learn early in their lives. For some, it may be the first time they learn that life doesn’t necessarily make sense. But it’s okay. We’re grown-ups now. Look yourself hard in the mirror. Then go outside and, carefully, cross the road. For no other reason than to get to the other side.

Are you ‘out of town?’? Do you ‘give it up?’?

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