3,500-Year-Old Jokes Have Something to Say About Yo Mama

By Veronique Greenwood | January 27, 2012 2:14 pm

sargon“That’s what SHE said!”

The study of jokes and riddles written in ancient languages we barely understand is, well, a little tricky. But in a recent paper in the journal Iraq, Middle East scholars Michael Streck and Nathan Wasserman describe and interpret some thigh-slappers scrawled on a badly damaged tablet from Babylon, circa 1500 BC. The scribe’s cuneiform is on the sloppy side. The translations are uncertain, too—but no doubt the humor will still shine through. Here’s one riddle for your pleasure:

The deflowered (girl) did not become pregnant
The undeflowered (girl) became pregnant (-What is it?)

The answer is, of course, is “auxiliary forces.” That was your guess too, right? No? If it makes you feel better, Wasserman and Streck didn’t really get it, either.

Let’s do another one:

He gouged out the eye:
It is not the fate of a dead man.
He cut the throat: A dead man (-Who is it?)

The governor.

ROFL!! Streck and Wasserman write that this is referring to a governor’s hilarious power to sentence people to death.

Here’s one last riddle, whose beginning has been lost and whose translation is a bit uncertain:

… of your mother

is by the one who has intercourse (with her) (-What/who is it?)

The researchers aren’t sure what the solution is, as the answer’s been broken off.

Folks, I think we know the answer to this one. You want to help them out?

[via Livescience]

Image courtesy of *clairity* / flickr

  • Stephen T. Gordon

    Can’t be 100% sure, but that last joke sounds like most any episode of SNL’s Celebrity Jeopardy with fake Sean Connery ragging on fake Alex Trebec.

  • Anonymous

    There is either a lot lost in translation of those jokes- or they were written by the ancestors of modern Finland.

    • http://twitter.com/settostun Amos Zeeberg


  • Will

    Vince Vaughn

  • Sieben Stern

    ‘auxiliary forces’ – these days we say ‘ups’  XD

  • Guest

    “auxiliary forces” is clearly “somebody else has been messing around with your girl” or “she’s been lying”

  • Apples

    Riddles are not jokes.

    • Yo yo yo mammajamma!

      I’m afraid I must disagree: What do you get when you cross an elephant with a rhinoceros?  ‘Ell if I know!  

      This is a classic joke, but it looks like a riddle.  The same could be said for virtually *any* joke of the variety commonly referred to as “call and answer” humor.  

      • guest

        Old Mr. B! riddle-me-ree Flour of England,fruit of Spain,
        Met together in a shower of rain ;
        Put in a bag tied round with a string,
        If you’ll tell me this riddle,
        I’ll give you a ring ! ‘

        This isn’t a joke. It’s a riddle. There’s a difference.

        I’m guessing the first one might go something like this… what is it? A liar, of course (the undeflowered was sleeping around, and the deflowered aborted the baby or something quietly). But they write “auxiliary forces” as the answer.

        Roughly: What do you call someone who lies? George [Bush].

        • Anita Mitchell

          Regarding George Bus and his Texas:
          Question:  How do you tell when a Texan is lying?Ans:  His mouth is moving.Regarding Citizens United (The Supreme Court ruling which states corporations are people):”I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.”

        • Anonymous

          What do you call a charlatan, a liar, a con, a usurper, an
          interloper, a marauder?  

          Hussein Obama, aka Barry Sorento.


      • Old Rockin’ Dave

        “Auxiliary forces”? Some informal assistance? A little help from a friend? The husband couldn’t get it up on the wedding night so his best friend helped out? Sadly, we can’t say.
        Now, what do you get when you cross Rogaine and Viagra? don King.
        As old Don fades from public consciousness, the number of people who get that one is already diminishing. We can only imagine what they will make out of it in five hundred years.

  • Michelle M

    Most jokes have a cultural context. Without living in the culture, you can’t understand many of them.   And then there is the fact that translating a dead language is an iffy thing at best…if they only have an idea of how things were pronounced (and possibly a completely incorrect one, like when English speakers try to pronounce Latin)  they might be missing a whole layer of  humor that the jokes have. Certain expressions do not translate and are not really understood by people who have not experienced the culture.

  • Themaineones

    of your mother…is by the one who has intercourse.   Is this an old way of calling some one a mother fucker?  You know like the cerved index finger, is like of old kind of flipping someone the bird?

  • Wtte

    That last joke properly translated is “Your mother is a whore”

    • Old Rockin’ Dave

      You’re probably right. If you’ve ever tried to learn another language, you know the first things you learn are “hello”, “goodbye”, “how are you?”, “I am fine”, “where is…?”, “there is…”, and “your mother is a whore”.

      • Anonymous

        I am so embarrassed to admit that this is EXACTLY what I first learned in 3 of the languages I now speak. The” yo mama is a w***e” insult is the one statement that remains perfectly understood in every language.

  • Mark Drossman

    Not certain, but I think the punchline ends with “…and the camel you rode in on.”

  • Agnikan

    That’s what she said.

  • Swanta

    Thought the first one was Jesus or Mary

    • MG

      These tablets are over 3500 years old. I’m afraid that’s before Mary or Jesus.

      • Gitarzan

        Same Legend?

  • Need4news

    Those darn idioms.

  • Guest

    Still better than Mock The Week, to be fair

  • DamianK

    “Auxiliary forces” could be something like, say, “Government report”. They are so stupid / inefficient that they report that the virgin is pregnant and the girl who had sex is not.

  • Anonymous

    Förstår inte

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Williamson/1608880891 Michael Williamson

    Simple.  They’re saying the Auxiliary Forces (reserves) manage to get everything backward.  We tell jokes like that now, too.

    • Zach Hill

       Yup, full time Army make jokes like that about the National Guard every day.  I imagine someone’s telling one right now..

  • Anonymous

    The deflowered did not become pregnant,the undeflowered did.- Auxiliary Forces.I think Williamson is half right. The ‘humor’ must come from both ends of the joke – how ass-backwards the barbarian auxies are (especially if they had a Greekish reputation for manlove) and the simpler meaning of ‘helpers’ – abortionists and lovers.

  • Anonymous

    Left out the most accessible one:In your mouth and your piss,Constantly staring at you,The measure of your lord.What is it?-Beer.

  • Anonymous

    … of your motheris by the one who’s fucking [her].Folks, I think we know the answer to this one.

    Not another priest joke…

  • Ken Scherer

    I can see one of those old professors in an Indiana Jones movie laughing as if those are the best jokes he ever read.

  • CubeHeaD

    … I think the missing punch line might be … ‘the
    ugly camel’ …

    Q:… of your mother

    is by the one who has intercourse (with her) (-What/who is it?)




Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


Quirky, funny, and surprising science news from the edge of the known universe.

See More

Collapse bottom bar