Jottings on the "Jamaica" joke

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Mark Liberman's post on a recent xkcd strip unleashed a flurry of comments about jokes that follow the template, "X-er? I hardly know 'er!" (The strip used "supercollider" in the template, an apparent homage to "Futurama.") Commenters were also reminded of a somewhat similar bit of musty British humo(u)r:

A: My wife's gone to the West Indies!
B: Jamaica?
A: No, she went of her own accord!

The success of the joke, such as it is, requires being able to interpret [dʒə ˈmeɪkə] as a clipped form of "Did you make her?" As I discuss in the post "Pinker's almer mater," Led Zeppelin alluded to this joke by titling a reggae-influenced song, "D'yer Mak'er" (recorded in 1972, released the following year). This non-rhotic pronunciation spelling is utterly lost on most (rhotic) American fans, who would likely be puzzled by the original joke anyway.

David Eddyshaw recalled hearing the "Jamaica" joke in the mid-1960s and suggested it might go all the way back to the music-hall era. I did some poking around and discovered a couple of cinematic appearances. The first is in the 1955 film "The Colditz Story," about Allied POWs in World War II imprisoned in a German castle. The prisoners put on a musical revue, and two of them, played by Ian Carmichael and Richard Wattis, do a comedic routine with well-worn jokes about Venetian blinds and Greek urns. Through the magic of YouTube, here is the routine, with the "Jamaica" bit at the end:

The joke also shows up in "The Young Ones," a 1961 musical starring Cliff Richard. It's your basic "let's put on a show" movie in the tradition of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, and the "Jamaica" joke is told as part of the aptly titled production number, "What Do You Know We've Got a Show." Once again, YouTube comes to the rescue — the joke appears at the 3:00 mark:

Since both of these films pay homage to the "I say, I say" routines of music hall "double acts," the joke is no doubt rather ancient, as David Eddyshaw conjectures. How exactly this golden oldie relates historically to the "hardly know 'er" genre remains to be investigated.

[Update #1: In the comments, Ray Girvan uses Google Book Search to trace the joke back to 1914, appearing in The Railroad Telegrapher, house magazine of the Order of Railroad Telegraphers. It shows up in a number of technical magazines after that.]

[Update #2: Trumping Ray's find by a year, Google Book Search has an example from 1913, from The Medical Sentinel. And there's another 1914 example in The Spatula: A Magazine for Pharmacists.]

Also, Wilhelm Deussen notes its appearance in P.G. Wodehouse's Uncle Dynamite (1948).]

[Update #3: See this post for more on using Google Book Search (and now the Hathi Trust) for finding early examples.]


  1. Mark Seidenberg said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 1:27 am

    It's a very old knock knock joke.

    knock knock
    who's there?
    Jamaica who?
    Jamaica me crazy!!

    Always popular.

  2. Sam said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 2:49 am

    This "Jamaica" joke also appears in an episode of I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again, an old British radio show that was essentially the Pythons and Goodies before they were the Pythons and Goodies. It's used in the context of lampooning the European Common Market (the European Union before it was the European Union): the joke is "simultaneously" translated into French, German, and Italian—and it completely falls apart at the "she went of her own accord" punchline. There follows a song based on the "’allo, ’allo, who is your lady friend?" joke, which is also "simultaneously translated, and needless to say it doesn't quite work either.

    I've uploaded the audio here, the extract includes some of the set-up material and some of the stuff that comes afterwards. The linguistically interesting (or at least funny) bit starts at about 2'50".

  3. dr pepper said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 3:16 am

    Another old standard:

    Jamaica any money?

    No, Egypt me.

  4. Flick said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 4:33 am

    Then there's the response:
    "Where did *your* wife go?"
    "What, you mean you don't know?"

  5. L. said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 4:41 am

    There was also a second part of the joke I remember it from school involving DJakarta ("Did you cart her") and how she got there. And there was a third part involving "Alaska" (I'll ask her") now that I come to think of it.

  6. Ben K said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 5:10 am

    "Well-warmed"? I've never heard of that term, and Google doesn't have any results for it. Are you using it like "well-worn"?

  7. Chris said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 6:08 am

    Another joke of the same type:

    I took my wife on holiday to Indonesia.


    No, we both flew.

  8. Chris Clark said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 8:05 am

    As a joke that requires the audience to make sense of ambiguous mangled pronunciation it reminds me of the Scottish joke 'What's the difference between Bing Crosby and Walt Disney? Bing sings and Walt disnae.' which for many people who don't know the accent might bring a polite request to finish the joke – 'Yes? And Walt Disney what? Doesn't?'

    I wonder if such jokes are unfunny to people who don't hear the ambiguity from the other side as it were. That is, if someone's accent means they hears it as they way they would say 'did you make her' then they wouldn't hear the Jamaica as well, and so wouldn't understand why everyone else was laughing.

  9. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 8:21 am

    Hmm, I suppose "well-warmed" was an idiom blend, combining "well-worn" with "warmed over." Sorry about that.

    I see from Google Book Search that the "Jakarta" elaboration on the "Jamaica" joke appears in Susan Hill's 1975 radio play "Cold Country." There's a colonial parallelism there: "My aunt's gone to the West Indies" and then "My aunt's gone to the East Indies."

  10. Tim M said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 8:31 am

    There's also a tanning place (I believe) nearby called "Jamaican Me Tan".

  11. Bobbie said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 9:22 am

    Old family in-joke: When leaviing, the first person said "Abyssinia" (as in I'll be seein' ya). The second person answered, "Ethiopia" (which is the modern name for Abyssinia).

  12. Ray Girvan said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 10:03 am

    Re the age of the "Jamaica" joke, Google Books tracks it as far back as 1914, when it turns up in The Railroad Telegrapher (apparently house mag of the Order of Railroad Telegraphers). It appears to have been circulated on the US techie magazine circuit around that time, as it also turns up in The Railway Clerk in 1914, and The Railway Conductor and The Michigan Technic in 1922.

  13. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 10:22 am

    Thanks, Ray! Great finds.

  14. David Eddyshaw said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 10:34 am

    Re "Abyssinia":

    I just a few days ago discovered the Japanese word 空耳 "soramimi" for phrases in one language which sound like phrases in another (I was vainly trying to puzzle out the lyrics to the opening song of the anime series Azumanga Daioh). Judging by the Wikipedia entry it seems to be quite a phenomenon in Japan.

  15. Ray Girvan said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 10:48 am

    phrases in one language which sound like phrases in another

    See the previous post by Mark Liberman, Autour-du-mondegreens: bunkum unbound.

  16. David Eddyshaw said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 10:54 am

    Indeed – the definitive reference. Thanks.

  17. Jonathan Lundell said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 11:45 am

    Re "American fans, who would likely be puzzled by the original joke anyway", I think we'd hear it as urban northeast, a NYC taxi driver kind of things (from the movie days of NYC-native taxi drivers, that is).

  18. dr pepper said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 2:25 pm

    @ David Eddyshaw said,

    > I just a few days ago discovered the Japanese word 空耳 "soramimi"
    > for phrases in one language which sound like phrases in another

    They're called "false friends" in french.

  19. GAC said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 2:50 pm

    "They're called "false friends" in french."

    And in Spanish … though there sometimes they are called "cognados falsos/false cognates", which is a bit of a misnomer as some of the terms actually are cognate (actual vs actual), just with very different meanings. (Of course, the most famous one "embarassed/embarazada" is really a false cognate.)

  20. Cavity Lee said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 3:02 pm

    That Zeppelin song's title was recently the crux of a Hold Steady song:

    The lyrics are just oblique enough that the reference would probably stay unclear to anyone who didn't already get it, if the internet weren't the bane of obscure references.

  21. Michael Roberts said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 4:23 pm

    In re soramimi:

    Et qui rit des curés d'Oc?
    De Meuse raines, houp! de cloques.
    De quelles loques ce turque coin.
    Et ne d'anes ni rennes,
    Ecuries des curés d'Oc.

    (I do so love the post-Google world; I saw this in the Whole Earth Catalog in a previous life and now I can find it in seconds.)

  22. Limely said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 5:15 pm

    I always heard the 'Alaska' bit as part of a trio of state name jokes:

    What did Tennessee?
    She saw what Arkansas.

    What did Delaware?
    She wore her New Jersey.

    Where has Oregon?
    I don't know, but Alaska.

  23. Martyn Cornell said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 5:53 pm

    My wife's gone to Samoa.


    Much …

  24. David Eddyshaw said,

    September 14, 2008 @ 6:17 pm

    I don't think "soramimi" is quite the same thing as "false friends", though there's obviously some resemblance between the two.

    As I understand it (and there are doubtless LL readers who understand it much better) "soramimi" is basically cross-linguistic mondegreens. It involves mishearing and is funny when unravelled. In a formal context nobody would be taken in by it. I don't know if the word can also apply to similar mishearings within Japanese itself, i.e. to ordinary Japanese mondegreens. I bet there are readers who do …

    False friends are foreign words misinterpreted by analogy with real or apparent cognates in one's own language. Generations of unhappy anglophones learning French have not found them funny at all. What damage!

  25. Ray Girvan said,

    September 15, 2008 @ 6:18 am

    "Your wife might be interested in the new mink coats in Harrods."
    "Oh, mustela."

  26. Edith Mawell said,

    September 15, 2008 @ 8:06 am

    Speaking of Last Whole Earth Catalog, one of my favorite running stories was that of Ladel Rat Rotten Hut (Little Red Riding Hood), which does the same thing with English on English (and can be found here: You have to read it out loud and ignore the real meanings. It starts "Wants pawn term, dare worsted ladle gull…" who goes to visit her "groin murder." Extremely entertaining. I continue to use some of the reworks to this day, for example, "effervescent fur" for "if it wasn't for."

  27. Karl Weber said,

    September 15, 2008 @ 4:10 pm

    "I spent last winter in Switzerland."


    "No, I nearly froze."

  28. david said,

    September 15, 2008 @ 4:40 pm

    These are known (at least by me and my friend) as Jokations.

    There are lots here, and you can add your own:

  29. Tom said,

    September 15, 2008 @ 8:19 pm

    These jokes are a staple of conversation between me and my friends, after a memorable five hours once spent round a bonfire doing nothing but coming up with them. The more tortuous the pun and ludicrous the setup, the better, which is why we had destinations included Thessaloniki, Des Moines, East Wittering and Kuala Lumpur. (And the jokes would frequently start with phrases like "My husband, who is also an insect…")

    Personal favourites:

    My wife went on a plane to America recently.
    No, she passenger.

    My wife's band recently went on tour in South East Asia.
    Yeah, and the bassist's crap too.

  30. Tom said,

    September 16, 2008 @ 1:58 am

    See also "Increasingly obscure variations on the "Jamaica?" joke":

  31. Ray Girvan said,

    September 16, 2008 @ 5:02 am

    The more tortuous the pun and ludicrous the setup, the better

    Lemme guess….

    My friend just went bird-watching on the Sussex coast.East Wittering?No, but the birds are.

  32. Tom said,

    September 16, 2008 @ 11:08 am

    Close! We had two alternatives, actually – either "My husband recently went mad and started believing he was a bird in a small town on the Sussex coast" or "My husband's on holiday on the Sussex coast, but he's keeping me updated using a popular microblogging service"…

    "Thessaloniki" involved a famous British female javelin thrower of the 80s helping my wife get back into her hotel room in Greece after she locked herself out.

  33. Wilhelm Deussen said,

    September 16, 2008 @ 1:55 pm

    Just for completeness' sake: I believe this joke also appears in P.G. Wodehouse's "Uncle Dynamite" from 1948.

  34. Γριφεγ said,

    September 16, 2008 @ 2:10 pm

    Just interested, how is Jamaica pronounced in Jamaica itself?

    My guess is Yahmeeyah or maybe it's Dzhủmeeyah?

  35. Ray Girvan said,

    September 16, 2008 @ 2:35 pm

    I believe this joke also appears in …

    It does indeed.

  36. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    September 16, 2008 @ 5:44 pm

    See this post for more on using Google Book Search (and now the Hathi Trust) for finding early examples.

  37. Sam Clements said,

    September 16, 2008 @ 7:07 pm

    To add to the original Jamaica joke info:(Of course, you have to tweak that damned search engine more than Humphrey Bogart did the engine on the African Queen).

    It appears in a Newspaperarchive hit 4 Dec. 1913.

    Both there and in the next few months in other newspapers, it's attributed to "The Orange Peel." By using Google Books, I think _The Orange Peel_ was a student newspaper from Gamma Phi Beta(Sorority). (first hit)

    As to whether they stole the joke from something even earlier, I'll leave that to others.

  38. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    September 16, 2008 @ 8:23 pm

    Interesting… the example from The Medical Sentinel (see Update 2 above) is also from December 1913, credited to The Orange Peel. I guess we've pinpointed the initial memetic explosion, at least in the US.

  39. Ron Lee said,

    September 17, 2008 @ 9:49 am

    Twist of Orange Peel found in Punch

    Within three months of its appearance in the US, across the Atlantic, a version of the joke provided dialogue for a cartoon in Punch (page 12), from February 25, 1914:

    MacBull. "I shall be a gay grass widower for the next two months–wife's gone for a holiday to the West Indies."

    O'Bear. "Jamaica?"

    MacBull. "No, it was her own idea."

    That quickly drew criticism from The Edinburgh Review (page 321), of January–April 1914:

    Certainly more emphasis might well be laid on the teaching of correct pronunciation in schools. Cultivated English ladies have been heard to pronounce both tower and tire as tah. They were well-to-do men whose conversation ' Punch ' recently reported as follows : A. — ' I shall be a gay grass- ' widower for the next two months — wife's gone for a holiday ' to the West Indies.' B.—' Jamaica ?' A.—' No, it was ', her own idea.' It ought to be the duty of the schools to prevent corrupt and negligent pronunciations like these.

  40. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    September 17, 2008 @ 2:46 pm

    The Punch version is also mentioned in the 1914 book The Sounds of Spoken English by British phonetician Walter Ripman, according to Google Books. Odd to think that the joke spread in the US before it got to the UK (or at least spread contemporaneously). But I guess it worked better Stateside back when a larger portion of the population was non-rhotic…

  41. Jonathan Lundell said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 1:39 am

    Subtitle tonight on a Palin-related segment of Keith Olberman's Countdown: "She won't answer, but Alaska".

  42. Rajj said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 10:18 am

    This Jamaican joke is the funniest i read ever. But i didn't get this line
    David Eddyshaw recalled hearing the "Jamaica" joke in the mid-1960s and suggested it might go all the way back to the music-hall era… Can somebody make me understand this plz…

  43. Jakartan said,

    April 30, 2011 @ 6:18 am

    From Wikipedia, our ever useful friend :- Music Hall is a type of British theatrical entertainment which was popular between 1850 and 1960.

    See here for more details

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