I read this sentence and I don't understand what "punch line" means here:

Most people recognize this Amazon: Jeff Bezos's hyperproficient Borders-killer; one of the few dot-com initial public offerings that didn't end up a punch line; ......

I know the literal meaning of "punch line". So in this sentence, does it mean that most dot-com IPO companies failed like jokes, so they "end up a punch line"? This explanation sounds awkward to me. Could somebody please explain the usage of "punch line" here?

  • 5
    That is a horrible "sentence". – Mateen Ulhaq Mar 7 '11 at 7:51
  • "punch line" in this context means "butt of the joke" or rather, someone laughable enough to be the punch line of someone else's joke. Could have been worded better. – Neil Mar 7 '11 at 15:17
  • It's amazing such a simple question (indeed, already answered in the question :) ) attracted so much commentary. "So in this sentence, does it mean that most dot-com IPO companies failed like jokes, so they "end up a punch line"?" Yes. – Fattie Jun 16 '15 at 2:42

Punch line is the final part of the joke which makes you understand the meaning of the joke and that it is a joke.

Many dot-com businesses were so extremely uncommercial that looking back it is funny that people believed they might be worth investing in. Amazon was not one of those.

  • If I understood you correctly, the author compares the dot-com phenomenon to a "joke" and those failed businesses become the punch line of that "joke", am I right? – evergreen Mar 7 '11 at 5:21
  • That is how I read it. – Henry Mar 7 '11 at 7:12
  • @evergreen, If the whole phenomenon is a joke, with failed ones being punchlines, how about the successful ones? Does it follow that there is a joke without any punch line? Don't take it literally, it's just a figure of speech. – Fountain Mar 7 '11 at 7:38
  • @Fountain, I think what Henry said makes sense. When you talk about the dot-com phenomenon as a joke, you mention those failed companies. Of course you can talk about the phenomenon in other ways and you would probably mention those successful companies. – evergreen Mar 8 '11 at 1:53

Darn puppy peed on the floor again, got anything to clean it up?

Sure, use these pets.com shares.

Not a very funny joke, but it is one where a dot-com era's IPO is literally a punchline.

If you publicly fail at something, you may become the subject of some cruel jokes. In some of them, you or your project might be the punchline of the joke itself.

Of course, if you publicly succeed at something, you may be the subject of some cruel jokes too, but you're likely going to be better known for that success.

To say that something or someone has become a punchline, suggests that their only remaining relevance to anybody is as something you can end a joke with. The humour value of your failure being the only reason people have left to talk about you, you have become a punchline.

It was probably quite a striking idea the first time someone said that someone had become a punchline, but it's a tired and overused cliché now, even when used in better sentences than that in the question.


Aside from the definition of ‘punch line’ in Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary - the last few word of a joke that make it funny, we used the word, ‘punch line’ very often in the sense of the clincher, most selling phrase in the ad or commercial message.

For nearly 40 years I spent in Tokyo operation of New York-based ad agency as a copy writer and later account executive, I kept being driven by severe clients (mostly American such as Procter Gamble and American Express) who had asked almost every day “What’s the punch line of the message you propose? Does it sell?, Are you sure?” We overtaxed our brains out to come up with a decisive punch line of the ad for the clients. I'm haunted by that word, 'Punch line' even today like a nightmare.

  • Mari-Lou A. Thanks. I corrected 'hounted with ...' per your advice. – Yoichi Oishi Aug 6 '13 at 20:30
  • That's a fantastic example, Yoichi. I do not know how you survived the mental dissonance between Japanese and US advertising! :-) – Fattie Jun 16 '15 at 2:40

It's a figure of speech called synecdoche : part of something is used to refer to the whole thing.

In the above context, a punch line is a joke as a whole, not being the final part of it.


It's a bad usage of synecdoche.

  • what you said seems make sense too. But I would accept Henry's answer, since his answer has more votes. Anyway, as you said, it is not a good sentence. – evergreen Mar 8 '11 at 1:55

A punchline is the line that knocks you flat. Hearing the punchline is when the joke hits you. Without a good punchline at the end, the joke won't work. It won't have any impact.

Similarly with a business proposal. It helps to end with an impactful punchline to make it memorable to the person that it's pitched at. Hopefully it's a knockout and they're floored by your amazing expertise and prowess! They sign you up to pitch for their team :)

  • 1
    How does your answer relate to the "one of the few dot-com initial public offerings that didn't end up a punch line" which is the main topic of the question? – Bitter dreggs. May 21 '20 at 15:31

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