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.

I've heard this joke several times, but I'm ashamed to say I really cannot understand it. It just doesn't seem to make any sense however I look at it.

I have a suspicion that it is supposed to be rude, so I'd like to offer my apologies if it causes offence- that is not my intension.

Here's the joke:

Two nuns are in the bath.

Nun1: Where's the soap?

Nun2: Yes, it does rather.

Edit: I understand the pun on "where's"/"wears". But what I don't understand is why that is funny. Several people have mentioned that there is a sexual inference, but I don't understand where it comes from.

share|improve this question
2  
Btw, google the joke and you will find the same explanations as presented below; along with comments that some, presumably native speakers, do not get it either (or that it is not that funny). –  Unreason Oct 18 '11 at 12:52
4  
I would suggest its more of an anti-joke (meta-joke?). It gets laughs because it distorts the form of what we consider to be a joke and relies on an awareness of the tradition of sexual jokes about nuns. Another favourite anti-joke: Q. What is brown and sticky? A. A stick. –  5arx Oct 19 '11 at 8:54
2  
I think plenty of jokes require cultural knowledge and preconceived notions to understand. Take any joke about blonds who are stupid, or men from X who have small penises, etc. - without an idea of why it should be funny, you can't find it funny. This is why humor is so notoriously hard to translate. –  onomatomaniak Oct 22 '11 at 8:59
1  
I find it hard to accept OP's rationale for offering a bounty on the grounds that current answers do not contain enough detail. I also don't see how after he'd heard this joke several times all he could manage was a suspicion that it is supposed to be rude. Existing answers clearly identify the pun/innuendo involved - I'm voting to close on the grounds that further exploration is General Reference into theories of humour, which is beyond the scope of English Language and Usage. –  FumbleFingers Oct 26 '11 at 17:46
3  
@Urbycoz: Using a bar of soap as a dildo would wear it away, which sounds like where. How much more detailed an explanation do you want for your bounty? It's just a schoolboy pun. –  FumbleFingers Oct 27 '11 at 10:47
show 22 more comments

6 Answers 6

up vote 5 down vote accepted
+50

"Why is this funny?" may be one of the hardest questions to answer. Humor is subjective, circumstantial, and, not infrequently, ineffable.

Personally, I don't think I'd ever encountered a nun joke before this, as I didn't grow up in a community with many Catholics and nuns didn't really seem relevant to our lives. Thus, like OP, I would never have understood the joke by myself.

The other answers show that an understanding of the joke requires some basic cultural assumptions - here, that nuns are secretly lewd (and sometimes, apparently, lesbian).

When the one nun asks, "Where's the soap?", the other takes this as a declarative comment about her current (apparently masturbatory) use of the soap: "Wears [out] the soap." The guilty nun then affirms that "Yes, it does, rather."

Why do some people find this funny? Because they already have a history of finding sexualized nuns funny, and this joke triggers their comic affection for that idea.

There are innumerable jokes that similarly necessitate some level of preconceived notion for their humor to be apparent. Let's look, for instance, at this "dumb blonde" joke:

The waiter asked the blonde if she would like her pizza cut into six pieces or twelve.

"Six, please," she said. "I could never eat twelve!"

Why is this funny (to the extent that it is)? Because its audience has been programmed (probably from a young age) to find the idea that blondes are stupid funny. The joke itself doesn't much matter in its details - it just has to trigger that automatic comic response.

Examples abound - jokes about how Jewish/Asian/[insert modifier here] men have small penises, jokes about how "you might be a redneck if...", and on and on. Ultimately, they're contextual, and no amount of explaining the context will make the joke funny (even if it makes it decipherable).

share|improve this answer
4  
I think the nun joke is funny because it isn't immediately obvious. Listeners have to work it out for themselves and when they realize (if they do) the significance of the pun, they react with a combinbation of shock and amusement. –  Barrie England Oct 26 '11 at 8:04
2  
Well, sure, of course. A pun is a type of joke that operates on just that assumption - that people will be pleased with themselves (and, transitively, the joke) once they "get" it. But a pun is just one type of joke and is equally subject, here, to the "cultural assumptions" phenomenon I describe. –  onomatomaniak Oct 26 '11 at 8:06
2  
Thanks. I like this answer. I find it a curious but fascinating phenomenon that some jokes rely on the listener filling in large amounts of gaps based on a cultural assumption. But, as Barrie says, it can actually make the joke more funny when it is understood. Humour, eh! –  Urbycoz Oct 26 '11 at 8:13
    
Yes, humor, indeed. –  onomatomaniak Oct 26 '11 at 8:15
1  
@ShreevatasaR - I'm guessing you're a non-native speaker. Some things you'll have to take on trust from those who are. Unfortunately some forms of humour (e.g. schoolboy humour) require you to have been a schoolboy in the linguistic tradition/context. It is unlikely, for example, that someone coming to the UK or US to read for a PhD in English would be able to readily grasp it or indeed to find it funny. –  5arx Oct 27 '11 at 13:31
show 1 more comment

@Barrie England is entirely correct - the joke hinges on the homophones 'wears' (as in erodes/ wears away) and 'wheres' (where is). In the joke, one nun is searching for the soap while the other one is, as Joel Brown has stated, apparently pleasuring herself with it.

This action will wear away the soap.

share|improve this answer
4  
But how do we know from the context that she is "pleasuring herself"? It seems to me that she could just be scrubbing hard anywhere. The joke seems to be entirely in the reader's mind. –  Urbycoz Oct 18 '11 at 10:44
2  
Yes, your comment is correct. There is a long tradition, in Britain at least, of creating humour based on a rather childish (and, to Christians) disrespectful, sexualised notion of nuns, often as lesbians. funny-games.biz/jokes/three-nuns.html thejokeyard.com/dirty_sex_jokes/fighting_nuns.html thejokeyard.com/religious_jokes/100_nuns.html –  5arx Oct 18 '11 at 10:57
2  
No, I don't think you have to know it; as Barrie said it's the homophones: Q: Wears the soap? (Is the soap being worn away?) A: Yes, it does rather (Yes, it rather is) I think that awkward order of words in answer points to unusual order of words in the question and the double meaning. –  Unreason Oct 18 '11 at 12:47
2  
@Urbycoz - yes, the sexual inference comes from this longstanding tradition of humour regarding nuns who, as unmarried, 'pure' women live together in convents on vows of celibacy and so on. People (perhaps just men) have been deeply suspicious of such lifestyles for centuries hence the bawdy tradition that has in more contemporary times, generated jokes like this one. There may well be analogous non-Christian traditions like this too. There are, as a google search will reveal, many, many nun jokes. Not all of them are specifically about lesbians, but most are sexually-orientated. –  5arx Oct 18 '11 at 14:31
1  
Yes, the tradition with nun jokes is that they are alone, all women with no men and pass they time to find ways to "pleasure themselves". –  Nikko Oct 18 '11 at 14:35
show 9 more comments

From a linguistic perspective, the joke is in the pun on where’s /wears.

share|improve this answer
1  
+1, a pun is its own reword (rhetoric.byu.edu/figures/P/paronomasia.htm) –  Unreason Oct 18 '11 at 10:10
    
I can see both ways of reading it. But what make that funny? It seems to me that it's only funny if you know it's supposed to be a joke and therefore fill in the blanks accordingly. –  Urbycoz Oct 18 '11 at 10:48
4  
A joke explained is a joke ruined. –  Barrie England Oct 18 '11 at 15:29
    
Can you explain the the downvote, please? –  Barrie England Oct 24 '11 at 14:31
add comment

Rudeness to Follow:

The first nun cannot find the soap because the second nun is masturbating with it.

The humour in the joke, such as it is, flows from profaning the sacred by sexualizing nuns who have taken vows of chastity. This is obviously a vulgar form of humour.

share|improve this answer
1  
Oh ok. It seems like you really have to go hunting for the joke there. Maybe I need a dirtier mind. –  Urbycoz Oct 18 '11 at 9:54
2  
@joel The OP asked for an explanation of the joke/pun, not a categorization of the type of joke. =) –  TLP Oct 18 '11 at 10:02
    
@TLP From what 5arx is saying, understanding what type of joke it is, is crucial to "getting" the joke. –  Urbycoz Oct 18 '11 at 11:45
5  
@Urbycoz Much like "There are 10 kinds of people: Those who understand binary numbers, and those who don't" –  TLP Oct 18 '11 at 11:48
add comment

Everyone seems to be concentrating on the pun aspect, which is, of course the punchline, but to answer the OP's dilemma

But what make that funny? It seems to me that it's only funny if you know it's supposed to be a joke and therefore fill in the blanks accordingly.

We know it has to be joke as soon as we hear 1) two nuns and 2) they're in a bath together. It's not merely a jocular exercise on words, it is one of the most powerful tools in a comedian's repertoire; the taboo joke, or otherwise known as the "blue joke".

I mean how often do you read about two nuns sharing a tub together? It's a great opening line; short, pithy and mildly shocking. Men especially appreciate the first line because it reminds them of their erotic fantasies; two young females, naked, sharing a bath. only this time, they're nuns.

It has all the perfect ingredients for men to laugh out loud; lewd jokes are humorous because they give the listener permission to indulge him/herself in a brief sexual fantasy. We know it's not the done thing, it's naughty, and very rude but it's not our fault. We are innocent victims so to speak; we are forced to see the erotic and absurd image (two naked nuns) in our mind's eye; as a result, some may nervously laugh to cover their embarrassment; some will take delight in exposing the hypocrisy of the church's teachings of purity and celibacy; and some will revert back to their childhood when it was enough to hear the word, poo, to explode into a fit of giggles and smug smirks.

I call it "school-boy humour".

share|improve this answer
add comment

An alternative answer: The second nun misheard the question because the first nun's thighs were "muffling" her ears.

share|improve this answer
add comment

protected by RegDwigнt Aug 23 '13 at 20:04

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

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