Sunday, November 13, 2011

Selective Censorship

While reading the Sunday paper, in which the usual madness coincides with really outlandish fashion pictures, whether in ads or in “style” sections, the germ of a joke popped into my mind. It went like this. Q: “What do people in Heaven call a group that’s dressed weird and acting crazy?” A: “A humanity with oil wells.” Just another furtive thought, half-baked and thus at once dismissed. But then I became aware of the root of it, which is “dressed like an Indian with an oil well.” I got to wondering where the phrase originated. Google, of course. And then came a surprise. I got a single hit. The phrase appears in a 1954 play written by Harry Kurnitz, Reclining Figure, available on Google Books. Hhmmm. I tried Microsoft’s Bing. My answer was No results found for "dressed like an Indian with an oil well".

Now I got to wondering. Has the Millennium dawned and I haven’t noticed? Two possible answers. That phrase was very common in the 1950s—the reason why Kurnitz, a very prolific screenwriter (Errol Flynn movies, Witness for the Prosecution, How to Steal a Million, Once More with Feeling!), who knew his public, used it in a play. But then came the silencing wave of political correctness. And by the time journalism was routinely Internetted and therefore indexed, the phrase had become taboo.

But political correctness has not extended evenly and does not cover Gypsies, for example. Yes, of late, since the uproars in France over Sarkozy’s attempt to push them out of France a couple of years back, we are now anxious to call them Roma. But if we search the Internet using the words gypsy and steal, lots and lots of hits. We learn, among other things that to gypsy is to steal, to rob. Polack jokes still get us pages, but Wop jokes don’t. They’ve been replaced by Italian jokes. All right. I tried Indian jokes. Well. I got a couple of entries. But when I examined the jokes themselves, they turned out to be Honky jokes which, the Wikipedia instructs me, are jokes directed at Caucasians, and predominantly in the United States.

Beginning to feel jealous now, I tried Hungarian jokes, and found myself reassured. Yes, the category exists. Example. Q: How do you sink a Hungarian battleship? A: You put it in the water. Another one is Q: Why wasn’t Christ born in Hungary? A: Because they couldn’t find three wise men and a virgin. That last, of course, is the kind of joke people make about themselves—and sure enough, I found the same joke playing the same role as an Irish and as an Italian joke. Having researched enough, I went back to finish my breakfast—but a mental image of a television ad lingered in my mind. It was the image of a seated Indian chief with a big teardrop forming in his right eye.


  1. I had a Dutch professor once who liked telling Dutch jokes; the one that was most memorable was:

    Q: How do you make copper wire?
    A: Give two Dutchmen a penny.

    She always said that she thought that there was a different attitude to such things in Europe than in North America (we were in Canada, but she had taught in Kansas): there are so many nationalities in Europe, with such long histories, that jokes that would be in bad taste here were just ways people could relieve the tension there.

  2. Humor in general, and jokes in particular often lose something in translation. I remember when first exposed to American humor, failing to laugh when everyone else did so heartily. Now, after spending 50 years in this country, I wonder if I mightn't feel similarly at a loss hearing German jokes.


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