June 06, 2002
Life Imitates Fiction

During my pre-blog years, I often thought, and sometimes told friends, that a good compromise between the demands of politeness and the urges of wit would be to tell ethnic jokes only about extinct ethnic groups. That would provide all the enjoyment of trashing a whole nation without actually offending anyone in a position to be offended. Of course, groups that were direct ancestors of modern groups or occupied the same territory would not do: Etruscan jokes would probably annoy modern Tuscans, and Galatian or Cappadocian jokes might possibly annoy the Turks who now occupy Galatia and Cappadocia. We would therefore need to restrict our jokes to groups that are not only extinct but moved around a lot, so they are not clearly associated with any single modern place or people. Specific examples included jokes beginning "There was a Vandal who was so dumb . . ." and "Did you hear the one about the Ostrogoth and the Visigoth?" Not that I ever finished the jokes -- I just always gave these two prologues as examples of what could be done.

Little did I know how far the demands of Political Correctness would one day extend. Today's Best of the Web reports:

The Whine Spectator
Thomas Schwink of Indianola, Iowa, is sick of vandalism. Not the act but the word, which, in a letter to the Des Moines register, he says is insensitive:

In the May 30 Register, there is another story about the actions of "vandals," ("Chemical Mixture Dumped at Water Station").

The racial epithet "vandals" is used too often. True Vandals were exterminated in 533, so real Vandals cannot defend themselves against these racial slurs.

The names of most other serious crimes, such as murder and rape, are not racial epithets. Non-racial names can certainly be coined to replace vandals and vandalism. If a racial or nationality name is essential, you could use something like Americanism, since what you refer to as vandalism in this country is done by Americans, not by the long-extinct Vandals.

If I'm not mistaken, the Vandals were a Germanic tribe, like the Ostrogoths and Visigoths, so it may not be a coincidence that the complainant is named 'Schwink'.

On a related topic:

A Hungarian once asked me: "Do you know the one about the Hungarian who moved to Poland and raised the average IQ of both countries?" I told him: "No, but I've heard the one about the Scotsman who moved to London." I wonder how many other nations tell exactly the same joke with different names. Fifty or more, I would guess. I also wonder why the Hungarians pick on the Poles: the two countries don't even have a common border. Finally, I wonder how many other generic ethnic jokes there are, that is, jokes that just about any ethnic group can apply to one or more others. This one would work with an Ostrogoth and a Visigoth, though it would lose some (all?) of its edge.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at June 06, 2002 08:11 PM

I'm always amazed that people don't realize that Polack jokes are made up by Polish people. At least the good ones are. The rest are just retreads of dumb Italian jokes.

I've only slugged one person because of a Polack joke, and only because he was being a dick about it.

Posted by: PBR on June 7, 2002 12:34 AM

I'm a bit surprised that Hungarians would be telling Polish jokes because traditionally Poland and Hungary were friends and allies. They shared a border until the Partitions of Poland in the late eighteenth century, and in the Middle Ages, the great Louis the Hungarian was king of both countries (1370-82). Hungarians were also elected to the Polish throne later on in the 15th and 16th centuries, including the Transylvanian prince Stephen Bathory, often regarded as the most successful king in Polish history. This friendship led to the following couplet, which many people can still quote (apparently):
Wegier, Polak, dwa bratanki,
Tak do szabli jak do szklanki.
(or Hungarian:)
Magyar es lengyel jo barat,
Karddal s pohar kozt egyarant.
which translates as:
The Pole and the Magyar like brothers stand
Whether with sword or with tankard in hand.
(Information from Norman Davies: God's Playground: A History of Poland)
The Poles tend to tell jokes about the Czechs. One reason is because their languages are so close, so Czech sounds like a funny, distorted version of Polish - a bit like our 'double Dutch'.

Posted by: Murti Bing on June 7, 2002 04:15 AM

By the way, did you hear the one about the Vandal who so dumb that he bought a burlap bag so he could sack Rome?

Posted by: John "Akatsukami" Braue on June 7, 2002 12:34 PM

Great work, Doc W, as always.

Just one thing regarding those extinct peoples jokes... they don't let you historians out much, do they?


Posted by: Stephen Green on June 7, 2002 12:41 PM

I liked how this was done in one of the Larry games, where you would enter the name of a people, and it would be used in a generic, ethnically insensitive joke. That's the compromise you're looking for - safe, rude _and_ customizable!

Posted by: Bjørn Stærk on June 7, 2002 12:56 PM

Yet more pedantry. There was in fact a Germanic people that the Goths enjoyed insulting, called the Gepids. According to the Gothic historian, Jordanes (6th century):
“… in the beginning … the Goths went forth from the bosom of the island of Scandza (i.e. Scandinavia) with Berig, their king, sailing in only three ships toward the hither shore of Ocean, namely to Gothiscandza (?Germany). One of these three ships proved to be slower than the others, as is usually the case, and thus is said to have given the tribe their name, for in their language gepanta means slow. Hence it came to pass that gradually and by corruption the name Gepidae was coined for them by way of reproach. For undoubtedly they too trace their origin from the stock of the Goths, but because, as I have said, gepanta means something slow and stolid, the word Gepidae arose as a gratuitous name of reproach. I do not believe this is very far wrong, for they are slow of thought and too sluggish for quick movement of their bodies.” ("Getica", Chapter 17 , trans. Charles C. Mierow)
The Gepids never amounted to much. They tried to set up a kingdom in Hungary but were hammered by the Lombards then completely destroyed by the Avars in 567 AD.

Posted by: Murti Bing on June 7, 2002 02:11 PM

Believe it or not, that gag was actually told by the Prime Minister of New Zealand, on Robert "Piggy" Muldoon.

Can't tell who the joke is on, except to say that one fifth of the entire population on New Zealand now live in Australia. Most of the next door to me.

Posted by: Paul Wright on June 9, 2002 04:32 AM

I am a College student taking a mass media course and we are discussing racial streotypes in Vaudeville. Could someone please explain to me what the double dutch stereotype is? Thanks

Posted by: Michelle Byers on September 25, 2004 07:57 AM