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Gallows humor

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Title: Gallows humor  
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Gallows humor

Gallows humor is humor about very unpleasant, serious, or painful circumstances. Any humor that treats serious matters, such as death, war, disease, and crime, in a light, silly or satirical fashion is considered gallows humor.[1][2] Gallows humor has been described as a witticism in response to a hopeless situation.[3] It arises from stressful, traumatic, or life-threatening situations, often in circumstances such that death is perceived as impending and unavoidable.


  • Nature and functions 1
  • Examples 2
  • In culture 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6

Nature and functions

Jewish humor book - "Motke Chabad"

Sigmund Freud in his 1927 essay Humour (Der Humor) puts forth the following theory of the gallows humor: "The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure." Some other sociologists elaborated this concept further. At the same time, Paul Lewis warns that this "relieving" aspect of gallows jokes depends on the context of the joke: whether the joke is being told by the threatened person themselves or by someone else.[4]

Gallows humor has the social effect of strengthening the morale of the oppressed and undermines the morale of the oppressors.[5][6] According to Wylie Sypher, "to be able to laugh at evil and error means we have surmounted them."[7]

Gallows humor is a natural human instinct and examples of it can be found in stories from antiquity. Its use was widespread in middle Europe, from where it was imported to the United States as part of Jewish humor.[3] It is rendered with the German expression Galgenhumor. The concept of gallows humor is comparable to the French expression rire jaune,[8][9][10] which also has a Germanic equivalent in the Belgian Dutch expression groen lachen (lit. green laughing).[11][12][13][14]

Italian comedian Daniele Luttazzi discussed gallows humour focusing on the particular type of laughter that it arouses (risata verde or groen lachen), and said that grotesque satire, as opposed to ironic satire, is the one that most often arouses this kind of laughter.[15][16][17] In the Weimar era Kabaretts, this genre was particularly common, and according to Luttazzi, Karl Valentin and Karl Kraus were the major masters of it.[17]


There are multiple recorded instances of humorous last words and final statements. For example, author and playwright Oscar Wilde was destitute and living in a cheap boarding house when he found himself on his deathbed. There are variations on what his exact words were, but his reputed last words were, "Either that wallpaper goes or I do."

Examples of gallows speeches include:

  • One of the first convicts transported in Australia by the British Empire, nicknamed after the pirate Black Caesar, escaped the penal colony in 1789 and lived as a bushranger in the wilderness. He survived by raiding garden patches with a stolen gun. When he was eventually caught, according to colonial governor David Collins he was "so indifferent about meeting death, that he declared in confinement that if he should be hanged he would create a laugh before he was turned off, by playing some trick upon the executioner."[18]
  • Murderer James French has been attributed with famous last words before his death by electric chair: "How's this for a headline? 'French Fries'."
  • As Sir Thomas More climbed a rickety scaffold where he would be executed, he said to his executioner: "I pray you, Mr. Lieutenant, see me safe up; and for my coming down, let me shift for myself."
  • At his public execution, the murderer William Palmer is said to have looked at the trapdoor on the gallows and asked the hangman, "Are you sure it's safe?"[19]
  • Sir Walter Raleigh was beheaded in the Old Palace Yard at the Palace of Westminster on 29 October 1618. "Let us dispatch", he said to his executioner. "At this hour my ague comes upon me. I would not have my enemies think I quaked from fear." After he was allowed to see the axe that would behead him, he mused: "This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all diseases and miseries." According to many biographers – Raleigh Trevelyan in his book Sir Walter Raleigh (2002) for instance – Sir Walter's final words (as he lay ready for the axe to fall) were: "Strike, man, strike!"
  • Ronald Reagan, upon being transported to the emergency room after being shot by John Hinckley, Jr., is reported to have asked of his doctors, "You're all good Republicans, I hope?"

Military life is full of gallows humor, as those in the services continuously live in the danger of being killed, especially in wartime. For example:

  • The Japanese Navy Mitsubishi G4M Isshikirikkou (イッシキリッコウ) "Betty" bomber airplane was called "Hamaki" (葉巻 or はまき, meaning cigar) by the Japanese crews not only because its fuselage was cigar-shaped, but because it had a tendency to ignite on fire and burn violently when it was hit. The American nickname was "flying Zippo" – as the slogan of the cigarette lighter company was: "Guaranteed to light on first strike, every time".
  • Similarly the British took to calling the M4 Sherman tank, which burnt out or exploded easily when hit, "Ronson" after the cigarette lighter whose slogan was: "Lights up the first time, every time!".
  • When the survivors of HMS Sheffield, sunk in 1982 in the Falklands War, were awaiting rescue, they were reported to have sung the Monty Python song, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life".
  • Soviet pilots in WWII joked that the true meaning of the type designation of the LaGG-3 was Lakirovanny Garantirovanny Grob, "varnished guaranteed coffin".
  • Overnight, in the Battle of Jutland (31 May – 1 June 1916), the destroyer HMS Tipperary was sunk; only 13 survived out of a crew of 197, in her engagement with heavily armed German dreadnought SMS Westfalen. The survivors were identified in the gloom by Royal Navy rescuers because they were heard in the distance, singing, "It's a long way to Tipperary". Their rescuers said, "We knew it was you".
  • During the Winter War the Soviet Union bombed Helsinki, and after Soviets claimed they were air-dropping food to the "starving people of Helsinki" the Finnish people dubbed the Soviet bombs "Molotov's bread baskets."
  • During the WWII the Soviet soldiers dubbed the 45 mm anti-tank gun M1937 (53-K) "Good bye, Motherland!", as its penetration was proving to be inadequate for the task of destroying German tanks, meaning a crew operating one was practically defenseless against the enemy tanks.

In culture

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b Kurt Vonnegut (1971) Running Experiments Off: An Interview, in Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut quote:
  4. ^ Paul Lewis, "Three Jews and a Blindfold: The Politics of Gallows Humor", In: "Semites and Stereotypes: Characteristics of Jewish Humor" (1993), ISBN 0-313-26135-0, p. 49
  5. ^ Obrdlik, Antonin J. (1942) "Gallows Humor"-A Sociological Phenomenon, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 47, No. 5 (Mar., 1942), pp. 709-716
  6. ^ Mariah Snyder, Ruth Lindquist Complementary and alternative therapies in nursing
  7. ^ Wylie Sypher quoted in ZhouRaymond, Jingqiong Carver's short fiction in the history of black humor p.132
  8. ^ Redfern, W. D. and Redfern, Walter (2005) Calembours, ou les puns et les autres : traduit de l'intraduisible , p.211 quote:
  9. ^ Müller, Walter (1961) Französische Idiomatik nach Sinngruppen, p.178 quote:
  10. ^ Dupriez, Bernard Marie (1991) A dictionary of literary devices: gradus, A-Z, p.313 quote:
  11. ^ Brachin, Pierre (1985) The Dutch language: a survey pp.101-2
  12. ^ Claude et Marcel De Grève, Françoise Wuilmart, TRADUCTION / Translation, section Histoire et théorie de la traduction - Recherches sur les microstructures, in: Grassin, Jean-Marie (ed.), DITL (Dictionnaire International des Termes Littéraires), [22 Nov 2010]"
  13. ^ (1950) Zaïre, Volume 4, Part 1, p.138 quote:
  14. ^ Chédel, André (1965) Description moderne des langues du monde: le latin et le grec inutile? p.171 quote:
  15. ^ Pardo, Denise (2001) Interview with Daniele Luttazzi, in L'Espresso, February 1st, 2001 quote:
  16. ^ Daniele Luttazzi (2004) Interview, in the Italian edition of Rolling Stone, November 2004. Quote:
  17. ^ a b Marmo, Emanuela (2004) Interview with Daniele Luttazzi (March 2004) quote:
  18. ^ Hughes, Robert. "The Fatal Shore." Vintage Books. New York. 1986. Page 196.
  19. ^ Witticisms Of 9 Condemned Criminals at Canongate Press

Further reading

  • Lipman, Steve (1991) Laughter in hell: the use of humour during the Holocaust, Northvale, N.J:J Aronson Inc.
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