Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Almost everyone knows about knock-knock jokes. Who made them up, and why did they catch on?

share|improve this question

2 Answers 2

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Some claim they originated in the Middle Ages as a call-and-answer password format. Others, as @Callithumpian notes, cite passages in Shakespeare.

Here is a legitimate reference to their existence in America in 1936:

enter image description here

This is the first legitimate printed reference I can find.

share|improve this answer
    
Could you explain the Roosevelt one? –  user4727 Jun 26 '11 at 20:29
1  
@Tim: "When I woke up and rose I felt awful." –  Robusto Jun 26 '11 at 20:48

I found this use of the joke in the printed "Proceedings" of the American Pomological Society. This publication seems to cover meetings from 1933 to 1937, but this occurrence is early enough (p. 75) that I think it can be dated to 1933. I wondered if this was perhaps used as a jingle by an apple company, but I couldn't find evidence of this.

http://books.google.com/books?ei=sNIFToedJs-10AGVktz_Cg&ct=result&id=DGwPAQAAIAAJ&dq=proceedings+american+pomological+society+1933&q=knock+knock#search_anchor

Whatever the origin of the first joke, its form certainly came from Macbeth:

http://books.google.com/books?id=rIE7AAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=macbeth+shakespeare&hl=en&ei=Y8oFTqLxOYfHgAe8-fHLDQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CDYQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=knock%20knock&f=false

share|improve this answer
5  
How certain can one be that the Shakespeare example isn't based on the fact that "knock knock" jokes were already common rather than being the spark for them? –  Neil Coffey Jun 25 '11 at 12:00
1  
If people understood and laughed at these jokes, I reckon it was because they were already in common usage round about then... –  Thursagen Jun 25 '11 at 12:06
3  
@Neil, et al.: I'm simply saying the form, or the phrase "knock, knock" followed by "who's there?" would have been familiar to people due to its use here in Macbeth. As to knock knock jokes being around in Shakespeare's time, I don't think you'll find any evidence of that outside of bogus Uncyclopedia entries. –  Callithumpian Jun 25 '11 at 12:38
2  
Of course there's also the possibility of the "Knock knock / Who's there" answer/response arising independently at different times - after all, "Who's there?" is perhaps one of the most natural responses to someone knocking! –  psmears Jun 25 '11 at 14:56
1  
Well, it's interesting that in 1936 what is ostensibly a "knock knock" joke is being described as a "new" game, and the 'apple' reference above from the 1930s, plus e.g. this also from 1936 bit.ly/kWJqSB says: "but to open the ball this month with the novelty fox-trot Knock, Knock, Who's There ? Of course you have heard about this new musical game of the Schoolboy Howler type". So it is looking like around the 1930s was when they first sprang up, and possibly the Shakespeare example is just a red herring. –  Neil Coffey Jun 25 '11 at 17:56

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.