I have been listening to Dean Martin Pandora radio lately and there is a song medley between Sinatra and Martin. During each song they have little quips back and fourth, and there is one that I don't seem to understand

Frank: "Do you have a fairy godmother?"
Dean: "No, but I got an uncle we keep a close eye on."

What is the meaning behind this joke?

  • 11
    The allusion is to fairy = homosexual, a common pejorative back in the days when homosexuals and paedophiles were conflated in the minds of many. – FumbleFingers Nov 14 '16 at 14:02
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    @FumbleFingers I don't understand why you've added paedophiles to this – G. Ann - SonarSource Team Nov 14 '16 at 16:06
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    @G.Ann-SonarSourceTeam it is because a paedophile is someone "we keep a close eye on" – user77261 Nov 14 '16 at 16:11
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    That association did exist, but I suspect that "keep a close eye on" comes more from an unspoken fear that a homosexual would make a pass at me, Dean Martin, an adult male, rather than make a pass at some kid. – Tim Sparkles Nov 15 '16 at 0:48
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    I would tend to agree with @FumbleFingers' interpretation, especially given the fact that the relative under watch is an uncle: the term funny uncle was, at one time, commonly understood to mean a male relative who was known or suspected to be either gay, a child molester, or (probably, in the minds of the relatives) both. You can still find examples of this usage today. The conflation of homosexuality and pedophilia and the suggestion that a pedophile is just a bit "funny" is extremely offensive on multiple levels, and thus this joke should not be repeated in a modern context. – 1006a Nov 15 '16 at 2:45

In this quip, the term fairy is being used to imply homosexuality. "Fairy" is a somewhat archaic term for homosexuality that today would be considered offensive.

Nels Anderson in The Hobo (1923) said that “Fairies or Fags are men or boys who exploit sex for profit.” The word fairy appeared in the 1870s, and was universally understood by the 1890s.

(From Rictor Norton's "A History of the Word 'Gay' and Other Queerwords")

The joke comes from Frank's use of fairy godmother to mean the fairy tale character, a woman with magical powers who brings good fortune to someone (as in Cinderella), and Dean using the term fairy to connote homosexuality. Dean is saying "I have an uncle that we suspect might be gay, so we watch him closely." The "keep a close eye on" also suggests that homosexuality is something to worry about or police, so the joke reinforces homophobic norms (not at all surprising given the context).

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    I am a milennial whose first language is English and I have never heard the word fairy used like this before. I'm very glad that English is (albeit slowly) losing these terms. – user77261 Nov 14 '16 at 16:02
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    That's such a gay comment! :) – FumbleFingers Nov 14 '16 at 16:21
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    @stanri I am roughly in the same age group, and I have heard it quite a lot – Kik Nov 14 '16 at 18:45
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    @stanri My last name is Ferry so I can confirm many people are still aware of its original meaning both young and old. – leigero Nov 14 '16 at 21:01
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    Hmm, the quote defines 'gigolo's, not homosexuals. – mcalex Nov 15 '16 at 3:48

A common meaning for fairy is homosexual (most dictionaries warn that this use is offensive), and that is one of its uses here. The usual meaning of fairy godmother is a magical woman who watches over the indicated person (often seen in children's stories). See http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/fairy for both meanings of fairy.

So Frank is asking if there is someone who (magically) watches over Dean, and Dean is saying that he has an uncle whom the family suspects is gay. When explained this way, it doesn't sound funny at all, but the original is (somewhat) humourous.

  • Ahh, this makes sense. Thanks for the explanation! – KDecker Nov 14 '16 at 14:03

It's a simple gay joke. Others have claimed it involves paedophelia and that it is perhaps offensive. No. It's just lowbrow humor from a few decades ago.

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