From ancient Roman mosaics to Silicon Valley’s boner math, people have always laughed at penises.
Don’t believe anyone who says the world is crasser than ever. They might speak of a “gentler time,” extolling the values of things like “polite company” and “G-rated films” and “salads that were 50 percent mayo.” But that gentler time never really existed. Sure, there are times in our history when people pretended that things like boners and poop weren’t funny. But at our core, humans are filthy animals, and our bodies — pensises definitely included — have always been funny.
Now, I’m not here to debate the merits of dick jokes; there are plenty of funny ones, and plenty of lazy and inappropriate ones. My purpose is purely historical. And oh, what a history the dick joke has. In fact, professor John R. Clarke found so many examples of dick jokes when working on his book about sexuality in Roman art that he wrote an additional book called Looking at Laughter: Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250. It is, I am guessing, one of the few scholarly volumes with a giant cumming dick on the front.
Romans didn’t just have dick jokes — they had dick jokes with a purpose. Clarke notes that humorous art was often used to “safeguard the guest” from evil in Roman entryways. So that’s how a house in Antioch ended up with one of humanity’s first examples of a dick joke: a mosaic of a leg-sized penis pointing at the evil eye alongside the inscription Kai Su (“The same to you.”)
And what of the first written dick jokes? Some believe that the first is in Philolegos, a Greek text from around 500 A.D. that’s credited as the world’s oldest surviving joke book. The possible dick joke in question reads: “An egghead asked his father how much a five-liter flask holds.” In his book Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes, Jim Holt writes that the joke “may have come across to an ancient audience as a double entendre, since some scholars believe that the Greek word for ‘flask,’ lekythos, was slang for ‘penis’ in Aristophanes.”
The next written example of a dick joke doesn’t appear for several centuries — but remember that this is pre-printing press, and jokes (especially dirty ones) have always been part of the oral tradition. In 2008, a brief study on the world’s oldest jokes concluded that the oldest joke from the UK was from the Exeter Book, a 10th-century collection of poetry that UNESCO has called “one of the world’s principal cultural artefacts”:
A curiosity hangs by the thigh of a man, under its master’s cloak. It is pierced through in the front; it is stiff and hard and it has a good standing-place. When the man pulls up his own robe above his knee, he means to poke with the head of his hanging thing that familiar hole of matching length which he has often filled before.
The answer is “a key,” obviously. Get your heads out of the gutter, 10th-century people, and go back to living in darkness and fear! LOL.
The Dark Ages were also a dark time for written boner jokes (it’s probably harder to laugh at erections when the Black Plague is swelling the lymph nodes around your junk). So we’ll skip ahead to some dick jokes you’ve probably read before without realizing. Shakespeare, it turns out, loved a dick joke. Take, for example, this bit from The Taming of the Shrew:
LADY: I hope this reason stands for my excuse.
BEGGAR: I, it stands so that I may hardly tarry so long.
It’s easy to see why you might’ve missed that dick joke in school. Here’s an explanation from writer Nathalie Lagerfield, in her piece “You’re Missing All of Shakespeare’s Best, Most Sophisticated Boner Jokes”: “In Elizabethan times, the ‘ea’ in ‘reason’ would have been pronounced like the ‘ai’ in ‘raising,’ yielding a dirty joke: the beggar is joking that he can’t tarry because he has a boner (a ‘raising’) to attend to.” High five, Shakespeare.
The 1700s were when things really started to get interesting; the century is in a sweet spot because joke books had become more readily available, but publishing hadn’t turned prudish yet. Here’s one from the 1739 edition of Joe Miller’s Jests:
A certain Lady, to excuse herself for a Frailty she had lately fallen into, said to an intimate Friend of hers, “Lord, how is it possible for a Woman to keep her Cabinet unpickt, when every Fellow has got a Key to it.”
Sure, it’s a different approach, but it’s basically the “a dick is a key” joke again from the 10th century. In Looking at Laughter, Holt notes, “Really new jokes, especially of the coarser variety, are supposed to be a rarity. While the claim may be exaggerated, there is more truth to it than one might think.” It makes sense. Other than the recent advent of penis pills, it’s not like boners have suddenly started doing something new.
Not all of the dick jokes in the 1700s were about keys or even sex, though. As this joke from 1790’s The Banquet of Wit shows, laughing at the size of a man’s penis has always been in vogue:
A gentleman happening to make water against a house, did not see too young ladies looking out of a window close by, till hearing them giggling, when looking towards them, he asked, what made them so merry, “O lord,” said one of them, “a very little thing will make us laugh.”
Unfortunately, the decorum train known as the Victorian era soon chugged in, and many of the joke books from the era are filled with yawn-worthy bon mots. But that doesn’t mean that people stopped telling dick jokes. If you have any doubts, you only need to look to 1968’s Rationale of the Dirty Joke: An Analysis of Sexual Humor, by Gershon Legman. The book is filled with prodigious examples, some of which come from the 1800s and earlier. There are also several from the first half of the 20th century, if you want to hear your grandparents’ dick jokes. Take, for example, this joke from 1943:
An undertaker is laying out the body of a man with an extremely long penis. He calls in a friend and shows it to him. “That’s just like mine,” says the friend. “What?” says the undertaker; “you mean to say you’ve got one that long?” “Well, not exactly, but it’s just as dead.”
So what of the dick jokes of tomorrow? After all, we have been making the same dick jokes for literally thousands of years (keep that in mind when you complain about hipster jokes because you’ve been hearing them since 2005). Technology does give us little gleams of something new, though. People flipped shit for Silicon Valley’s mathematical dick joke, for example, which was so funny partially just because it was a fresh take on a flaccid topic.
The real question is: When all of our keys become digital, what will we compare our penises to? Truly the future holds untold wonders.
Meg Favreau is a Los Angeles–based writer of funny, sad, and strange things. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Table Matters, Someecards, a sketch comedy show for Vine stars and her website, megfavreau.com.
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