The jokes found inside Christmas crackers are famous for making the family groan as well as laugh. Good Christmas cracker jokes are terrible jokes, but are also innocent. It is said that this brings the family together and is a good leveller. Political jokes such as: “Why was Theresa May sacked as Nativity Manager? … She couldn’t run a stable government” are funny – but they don’t work around the Christmas table. If you have to say to the seven-year-old “I’ll explain when you’re older”, you should have bought different crackers.
Most cracker jokes are question-answer pairs: “Q: Why did the pony have to gargle? A: Because it was a little horse.” Adjacency pairs like this are the bedrock of conversation, so the structure of the joke precipitates family interaction. In other words, it is pretty impossible to read a cracker joke silently, or to hear the first part of the joke without trying to supply the second part.
Most cracker jokes are puns. They depend on words having different meanings (“Why are Christmas trees very bad at knitting? Because they always drop their needles”) or on two words or combinations of words sounding rather alike (“What is good King Wenceslas’ favourite pizza? One that’s deep-pan, crisp and even”) or on invented words that sound like real ones (“What do Santa’s little helpers learn at school? The elf-abet”).
Q: When is a joke not a joke?
The puns work as jokes because of what we know about ambiguity. As John Sinclair famously noted, many words have several meanings but we rarely encounter ambiguity in real life. When someone says: “Can I give you a lift?” we do not have difficulty deciding whether we are being offered a present of an elevator or assistance in getting home. Although “lift” has several meanings, “Can I give you a lift?” has only one.
Michael Hoey noted that when a phrase is regularly used with one meaning, speakers appear to avoid using it with other meanings. So even if someone did want to make an offer of a free elevator, they would be unlikely to say: “Can I give you a lift?” in precisely those words.
Christmas cracker jokes exploit this difference between a word (many meanings) and a phrase (one meaning) by bringing together two sets of phrases, forcing us to reinterpret the question and answer, which we find funny. Here’s an example:
Q: What is the best Christmas present?
A: A broken drum. You can’t beat it!
A: When it’s unpunny
The humour arises from the ambiguity of “you can’t beat it”. That ambiguity is manipulated by the joke, however, and is not natural. Taken as a single phrase, “you can’t beat it” always means “it is the best example of its kind” – all 32 instances in the 400m word Bank of English corpus, one of the largest collections of spoken and written English.
Normally, hearing the phrase, the literal meaning of “beat” just never occurs to us. But “drum” and “beat” also co-occur frequently. In the Bank of English, it is the eighth most significant collocate of “drum”, using the t-score measure (the measure of the likelihood that two words will occur together in language). The collocation of “drum” and “beat” clashes with the phraseology of “you can’t beat it”, and that clash makes us laugh.
What’s more, once we have accessed the meaning of “can’t beat the drum”, we then have to go back and reinterpret the question – the first part of the adjacency pair. The first interpretation of “best Christmas present” is that it is the best from the point of view of the receiver. Again the Bank of English confirms this – all 22 instances have this meaning. But a drum that cannot be played is not the best for the (child) receiver but for the (adult) giver, who is spared the noise of drumming.
We end up in a round of reinterpretations, making unfamiliar connections between words and acknowledging we have been fooled. And all by a sequence of simple words. No wonder we groan as well as laugh.