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What Is a Dad Joke?

You've heard them called "dad jokes," but have you ever wondered why? We have a definition and also the perfect example of a dad joke.

By
Neal Whitman, Writing for
6-minute read
Episode #573

What Makes a Joke a 'Dad Joke'?

From the research I’ve done, there are three main characteristics of dad jokes that come up again and again. Not everything that gets labeled a dad joke has all of these, but something that does would definitely be in the running for the perfect dad joke. The first characteristic comes from the OED definition, which says that a dad joke is “a joke told by a father, or of the type associated with fathers, esp[ecially] one which is hackneyed, embarrassing, or unoriginal.” 

The second characteristic you may have already figured out based on the dad jokes I’ve favored you with in this episode. It’s wordplay! An article by Diane Cameron from 2005 in the Buffalo (New York) News celebrates this aspect of dad jokes. She writes: 

 A lot of dad humor is predicated on children’s love of wordplay. It works because of the linguistic advantage adults have in those early years when kids are developing a sense of syntax and discovering that words can have more than one meaning.

As an aside, this article also shows that the term “dad joke” also works with the synonym “humor.” But it does NOT work with the synonym “father.” There is no such thing as a “father joke,” as far as I can tell. And on the subject of related terms, what about “mom jokes”? No: The closest thing you can get in that direction is the “your mama” joke, which I’m not going to talk about here. 

So dad jokes are embarrassing or unoriginal, and often involve wordplay. The third characteristic of dad jokes that I’ve found again and again in discussions of them is that the dad who tells them does so repeatedly, even to people who have already heard it—namely, his family. For example, one of the responses to the forum post in 2003 was from someone who wrote, “After talking on the phone for 20 minutes, [he] hangs up and says ‘wrong number’ while shaking [his] head. EVERY TIME!”

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About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg school board. You can find him at literalminded.wordpress.com.

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