Consider the following pun:

"What do you say when you see an empty parrot cage?" "Poly-gone"

It's funny in the way that bad puns are, but it had a sense of novelty when my grade school teacher told it shortly after we started learning geometry. The pun was relevant then, the concept it referenced was on the cutting edge of the classrooms knowledge. Now that I'm older and take the definition of a polygon for granted, the novelty of the reference is gone. Even if I'd never heard it before and it was presented in the proper context for a geometry pun (whatever that would be) it wouldn't be the same. I could say that I've become jaded to describe how I feel about the pun now, but is there a word to describe the original impact?

Edit: To clarify, I'm not referring to the fact that the pun wouldn't have been funny unless I understood it, like with an inside joke. I'm looking for a word to describe a concept that is perceived as being novel lending it's novelty to an otherwise uninspired joke or statement which references it.

Edit 2: A better example would be a remark about a current event. For example, if I was to watch a current episode of the Daily Show, it would be funnier now than it would a year from now even if I clearly remembered the news items that were being satirized. The jokes are funnier because I find the topics, which are not funny per se, interesting.

Edit 3: Another way of saying this would be a joke that is funny because it aligns with my interests. In the original example, students who were in the same class but found math boring would have found the pun boring, even though they understood it just as well.

  • Sorry that was clear from the outset my mistake! I know just the type of joke you mean. Would it be slang? A word that started out in a joke that we now use to refer to something?
    – Rachel
    Feb 6, 2012 at 4:39
  • Following your edits, I think you're just talking about "dated humour", or "things that were funny at the time". Feb 6, 2012 at 5:18
  • @FumbleFingers "Dated humor" would be considered "topical humor" before it becomes dated, which is an example of what I'm trying to describe. Feb 6, 2012 at 5:25
  • @Jordan Bentley: Not necessarily - we never know what aspects of today's apparently topical/ephemeral popular culture will turn out to last well into the future. Or indeed what aspects of seemingly more enduring culture will be become hopelessly passe in a few years time. Despite it clearly being "topical" at the time, and now 2400 years old, I recently had a good laugh at Aristophanes' The Birds, for example. But even last year's "popular news quiz/comedy" on TV often leaves me quite cold - you just can't tell what will stand the test of time. Feb 6, 2012 at 13:05
  • @FumbleFingers: I was going to say to the commenter, “But PLEASE don’t tell Fumble I’dexpectthattrendtocontinue Fingers – He’s got future trends all mapped out for the next million years!” – based on your previous posts, but, sheesh, I see it’s YOU again. english.stackexchange.com/questions/57358/… Feb 13, 2012 at 22:04

4 Answers 4


Mostly when we "outgrow" jokes we call them "childish". But in the more general case it's called an in-joke - a joke that is appreciated only by members of some particular group of people.

An in-joke (also known as an in joke or inside joke) is a joke whose humour is clear only to those people who are "inside" a social group, occupation or other community of common understanding; an esoteric joke. It is humorous only to those who know the situation behind it.

  • 1
    "Inside joke" implies, at least to me, that the joke is notable despite it's esoteric nature. I'm looking for a word that implies a joke is notable only because of it's esoteric nature. Feb 6, 2012 at 4:39
  • 1
    @Jordan Bentley: I have no idea why you would think that. As Rachel says, an in-joke can be something totally silly - not at all "notable" or worth repeating outside the immediate context where it arose. If you specifically want to differentiate those in-jokes which were only funny because of the particular assembled company and circumstances, you'll have to go for some more roundabout phrasing along the lines of "You had to have been there!" Feb 6, 2012 at 4:49
  • Is an in joke notable despite it's esoteric nature? Unless people were laughing I don't think one would pick up on an in joke. Say you and I were best friends and we were talking to another person, you could make an in joke and we could exchange a look but unless we both laughed the other person wouldn't notice. We could even make a joke at the other person's expense. :-)
    – Rachel
    Feb 6, 2012 at 4:58
  • @Rachel the exclusivity is a common side effect of what I'm trying to describe, but not a requisite condition. Feb 6, 2012 at 5:06
  • @Rachel: Well, I know that in your answer text you mainly focussed on "silly" in-jokes, but how about Two hydrogen atoms walk into a bar. One says, "I've lost my electron." The other says, "Are you sure?" The first replies, "Yes, I'm positive...". You might lose the humour if you have to explain it, but I still think it's "notable". Feb 6, 2012 at 5:15

an inside joke/high context joke

An inside joke is also sometimes called a private joke. The concept of this type of joke is that only a select number of people inside a certain social group understand the joke's meaning. Therefore, those on the outside of the group that understands the joke usually don't have any clue as to what the inside joke actually means. An inside joke is often just a word or a phrase.

also see the comments regarding high-context jokes:

It is common to British humor to have jokes which are hard for most people to understand. This kind of humor is blurred even further when jokes which are impossible to understand, or completely random (as in much American humor) are interchanged with high-context jokes. High context jokes require a previously understood context to understand, and could be considered to be regional inside jokes.

or contextual humor/private joke

enter image description here

  • 1
    The copied comment doesn't make a lot of sense to me. First the guy says British humour is often hard to understand (because it's high-context), then he says much American humour is "impossible to understand" - presumably for the same reason. Feb 6, 2012 at 4:58
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers the comment might be high-context haha :) Feb 6, 2012 at 7:19
  • I recall that as a young(er) man I always thought Monty Python was "obscure British humour" that Americans could never appreciate. But a couple of days ago I watched MP Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1983), for the first time. I now realise it's actually pretty "low-context" (plenty of slapstick/theatre of the absurd). Still made me laugh though - in fact I nearly pissed myself at John Cleese's Just one more 'wafeur', monsieur! Feb 6, 2012 at 13:26

In Australia we call it an 'in joke'. That's probably not the official term for that type of joke but it's common here in casual speech. Imagine that you're at a party with your cousin and his/her group of friends and one of fhe friends says something like your example and they all start laughing. You look at your cousin in confusion because you really don't understand what is funny about that which was said. Your cousin may say to you, 'oh don't worry it's just an in joke'.

The fact that it's an in joke doesn't necessarily mean that it's exclusive and you cannot be involved. Quite often it just means that it's a silly joke and you probably had to be there to understand - it might be too hard to explain of not worthy of an explanation.


Those are topical jokes:

top‧ic‧al: a subject that is topical is interesting because it is important at the present time

topical subject/issue/theme etc

a new TV comedy dealing with topical issues

topical jokes (=jokes about topical subjects)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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