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Why did the chicken cross the road?

Maggio 2015
La storiella più longeva in inglese è sicuramente quella del pollo che attraversa la strada. Con miriadi di varianti, naturalmente. È di una semplicità disarmante. Ma il difficile è inventarne una nuova...

di Russell Evans © British Council

File audio:

Speaker:  Justin Ratcliffe (Standard British accent)

In the past, chickens weren’t kept in large battery farms like they are now. 150 years ago, chickens were more like edible pets, kept around the house to provide a ready supply of fresh eggs or perhaps a chicken meal on special occasions. For this reason, it was undoubtedly a common occurrence for people to notice chickens running from one side of the road to the other in search of food or shelter. At some point, someone made a joke about why the chicken crossed the road – to get to the other side – and one of the longest-lasting jokes in English was born. The joke has since been told countless times and in countless variations. But what does the joke really mean?


The first explanation is that it is an anti-climax joke, or a “non-joke.” The teller indicates by context and facial expression that he is telling a joke, and this sets up an expectation on the part of the listener that the punchline will be funny, but when the answer comes, it is a straightforward factual explanation. The humour is in the fact that the listener was expecting a funny answer but didn’t get one.


A second possible theory is that the joke is a pun. There are two meanings for the phrase “the other side.” The obvious meaning is the other side of the road, but “the other side” is also a common expression which means the afterlife. In this explanation, the chicken wanted to commit suicide under the wheels of a car. The humour is in the unexpected idea that a chicken would choose to take its own life.


No one knows which explanation is true, but the joke’s popularity persists. Thousands of variations are now in circulation. Why did the duck cross the road? Because it was the chicken’s day off. Why did the chicken cross the road? There was no force acting upon the chicken to stop it (Sir Isaac Newton). And thousands more have yet to be invented. The tricky part, of course, is to create a new and original variation yourself!

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