pets.chickens mailing list is a central repository for chicken fanciers. The moderation team prides itself on fostering an inclusive and diverse space where we can enjoy discussing our feathered friends. Unfortunately, over the past few years we have observed a steadily escalating pattern of harsh disagreement and general discussion derailment, often triggered by interjections that follow a familiar pattern of so-called “humor” (or “humour” for our international members).
Many subscribers reached out and tearfully shared their experiences encountering these discussions, which are often needlessly morbid and cruel in nature, especially in a discussion forum devoted to celebrating our noble chicken companions. Should you see anyone mention the joke (we shall refer to it in this manner for the sake of brevity, irrespective of its actual comedic value), please cite this thread and discontinue any further engagement with the topic. Failure to do so will result in swift moderator intervention up to and including bans.
As we are all exhaustively familiar, the joke takes the following form:
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road? A: To get to the other side.
In the remainder of this document, we will seek to definitively pin down the meaning of the joke and thus remove any need for its further discussion.
On a surface reading, these two sentences are a literal statement of facts. Small animals (including our beloved chickens) frequently do cross roads and arrive at the opposite side. It is reasonable to conclude from a hypothetical chicken’s actions that this behavior was elicited by a motivation. Perhaps the chicken seeks a food source, or a mate. Perhaps a mother hen is reuniting herself with a chick, or vice-versa, acting out a heartwarming scene many of us have observed time and time again. The above sentences do not specify such details, but nonetheless the answer logically follows from the question.
This is, simply, not a joke.
Many are unsatisfied with (0). The question-and-answer format, in addition to the usual framing of the two sentences as “a joke”, strongly suggests that it should be interpreted as one. The question,
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
primes the reader to imagine a fanciful, amusing explanation. Perhaps the chicken was competing with another chicken to catch a snail on the opposite shoulder of the road? Perhaps the chicken was late for an important meeting? The mind reels. Alas, the answer shatters our expectations with its mundanity:
A: To get to the other side.
The subversion of expectations, however, is itself a pillar of humor! The joke can be interpreted as a wry, pithy skewering of the twist ending implied by the question-and-answer format.
With this interpretation, the specific inclusion of chickens seems quite arbitrary, which undermines the argument that the joke is appropriate for this audience.
Another popular reading is that the joke should be interpreted not literally as a joke, but as a shorthand convention within a broader cultural context.
Computer programmers occasionally use so-called “meta-syntactic variable names” like
g_str_szAcctNmAndAddr_temp to indicate to a reader that a name in a fragment of “source-code” is an arbitrary example, and does not imply any specific semantic attachment for the name. In the same way, the joke could be used as a placeholder that invites the reader to substitute any particular joke they might find funny. In this way, the surrounding text adapts to its audience, and articulates the author’s subtextual intent:
Dear reader, please think of something that amuses you. Now, as I was saying...
Consider, for example, a harried television writer loosely sketching a scene which is meant to convey that one character is sharp-witted and entertaining. In a first draft, he (or she, or otherwise) could tell the joke to another character. In a later editorial pass, another writer can easily recognize the joke as a placeholder, “punch it up” with something more topical and original, and retain the intended structure of the scene.
Subscribers attempting, unsuccessfully, to employ a similar strategy for composing their emails are strongly encouraged to consider a more appropriate venue for “workshopping” such material, such as
With the preceding groundwork laid, we can now arrive at an interpretation that many (though clearly not all) of our members believe was the original intent of the joke: a dual-meaning in the answer:
A: To get to the other side.
It is necessary for the reader to recognize that “the other side” is, in some contexts, a colloquial phrase referencing the notion of an “afterlife”. The implication, thus, is that our unfortunate fowl, upon crossing the road, reaches its untimely demise. It is this interpretation which ultimately has caused our subscribers a tremendous degree of unnecessary distress. Those of a sensitive nature may wish to stop reading at this point, for the remainder of this explanation will unavoidably involve the discussion of various types of potential chicken harm.
In combination with the interpretation from (0), the dual meanings of the answer map to two plausible real-world outcomes of the situation presented in the question:
The duality of these meanings- both factually resonant and believable- inhabiting a single sentence is the basis of the joke’s humor, and it is indeed a rewarding morsel for the philosophically inclined.
This interpretation hinges upon “the other side” possessing the intended metaphysical reference, and there are several ways this might fail for a given reader. Modern readers may find this turn of phrase unfamiliar, and thus focus entirely on the literal meaning of the words. A particularly staunch atheist or materialist might reject the premise of any continuity whatsoever for a deceased galliform, rendering the notion of it reaching a non-corporeal “other side” utter nonsense. Similarly, adherents of many religious sects would reject as heretical the premise that chickens, being inhuman, possess immortal souls which can transcend their earthly existence. I must stress that debates regarding religion (or its absence) are not topical for this mailing list!
Some quibble at the suggestion that roads automatically imply the presence of vehicles or other moving objects which could, in principle, kill a chicken, as a potential mortal hazard posed to the chicken is a hard requirement for interpretation (3). The specific phrasing choice of a road, rather than a path, sidewalk, brook, bridge, or other liminal junction, carries with it at least the potential for vehicles traveling on paths which intersect those of the chicken. Additionally, one can conjure a variety of ways a road itself might kill a chicken, such as a road hundreds of meters wide, in a sunny area, achieving a surface temperature and exposure period sufficient to overheat the chicken, or a road coated in an unstated chicken-targeting contact poison, cunningly exploiting the tendency of chickens to travel barefoot.
At least three subscribers (assuming, perhaps too generously, that they indeed originate from separate individuals) have raised the theory that a second double-entendre in fact lies in the question:
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Rather than “crossing” the road, as in moving from one side to the other, this reading suggests the chicken “crosses” the road in the sense of betraying the road’s trust. Thus, via combinatorial expansion in combination with (3), up to four simultaneous meanings of the joke can be read:
This interpretation is frankly ridiculous, and I refuse to expound upon it further.
Several readers have delved further into the premises outlined in (3), by observing that the the chicken’s journey to a world beyond our own contains stark parallels to a variety of stories from ancient myth, and have taken it upon themselves to produce a voluminous and ever-expanding bibliography of such parallels.
For example, one might conclude that the road is an oblique allusion to the river Styx which fictionally separates the world of the living from the world of the dead. Employing the aid of the ferryman Charon, our chicken (perhaps representing Orpheus), crosses this metaphorical road. It would thus be as true to say that the chicken crossed the road to reach the other side as it is to say that the chicken crossed the road in hopes of rescuing its personal Eurydice, be she another chicken or perhaps an alluring insect or piece of corn. Taking this interpretation,
> Q: Why did the chicken cross the road? > A: To get to the other side. (Thinking: Aha! Orpheus must be prepared for Charon's fee!)
One could attempt to cleverly riposte with a followup comment which refers to the same presumed subtext, re-encoded to fit the original scheme:
I hope that chicken brought enough seeds to pay the car!
However, it is equally possible that the original poster intended the chicken of the joke as an allusion to forum favorite Billina the hen, Dorothy Gale’s stalwart companion in L. Frank Baum’s Ozma of Oz with the road rather straightforwardly representing the yellow-brick road leading to the city of Oz, rendering this reply utterly nonsensical!
Terminally inaccessible obfuscation of this nature is truly a disease of the mind, and this semantic anarchy will not be tolerated in
pets.chickens. You will not be warned again, Kevin.
Yet another particularly abstruse interpretation views question and answer as a system of rules governing the behavior of a hypothetical chicken, rather than a description of a single event. Given the joke, we can conclude that:
To get to the other side, The chicken crosses the road.
Which can be further reinterpreted as
If there is an other side, The chicken will cross the road.
Furthermore, we can conclude from the phrasing “Why did the chicken cross the road” that this has occurred at least once. The joke imposes no constraints upon how many times the chicken might cross the road, and, indeed, no matter which side of the road the chicken reaches, an other side always remains available, excluding the possibility of non-Euclidean roads or a chicken trapped on a Möbius strip. The chicken may thus oscillate between roadsides indefinitely. One is reminded of the dangerously unbounded instructions “Lather, Rinse, and Repeat” on many shampoo bottles.
From a certain point of view, the futility of this hypothetical situation does contain a kernel of humor, but as stated in the joke it is severely underdeveloped and inadequately explored, foisting an unreasonable burden of interpretation upon the would-be humor recipient.
A pet theory (if you’ll forgive the pun) I have harbored for some time is that we might read the answer of the joke:
A: To get to the other side.
With “get to” interpreted as needling subversion, and “the other side” as some force or group opposing the chicken. The chicken has crossed the road- be it physical or metaphorical- as an act of defiance! Anti-chicken groups (perhaps
alt.food.fried?) have drawn a road in the sand- so to speak- but our birds are undeterred. As chicken fanciers, I think we can all appreciate that the common stereotype of chickens as fearful, feckless creatures is profoundly incorrect (except in situations involving large blankets or surprising colors) and that’s why this interpretation is so appealing.
However, given that instances of the joke are often initiated by posters who have not established themselves as part of the chickening community, this reading is likely far too generous. For those with the necessary background knowledge to conceptualize such a “joke” without undertones of sarcasm, there are far more direct ways to voice one’s enthusiasm for Gallus Domesticus.
Despite its brevity and superficially correct grammatical structure, the joke is impossibly vague and open to a variety of interpretations and misapprehensions. Of these interpretations, only (1) and (3) are plausibly a genuine attempt at humor. Interpretation (1) is off-topic, and (3) hinges upon implied chicken cruelty, rendering it grossly inappropriate for this venue.
I hope that with this matter thus settled, we can all turn our attention to far more productive discussions of our wattled warblers, eager eggers, and carefree chooks. Happy chickening.