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Article Archive >> Community

Reflections: Why did the chicken cross the road?

Reflections
Why did the chicken cross the road?
By William L. Bulla

"Why did the chicken cross the road?" is one of the oldest and most famous joke riddles still in use in the English language. The most common answer to this riddle is "To get to the other side."
We all know the joke. We've all told it. Kids love to tell it over and over and over again, with as many different punch lines as possible.
The riddle leads the listeners to expect a traditional punch line, but they are instead given a simple statement of fact. Some psychologists believe the riddle's humor comes from the fact that its answer is expected to be funny, but is not. "Why did the chicken cross the road?" has become largely iconic as an exemplary generic joke to which most people know the answer, and has been repeated and changed numerous times.
In researching the origin of this riddle, I found it was mentioned in print in 1847, in The Knickerbocker, a New York City monthly magazine. Also, there was a variation of it in an 1890 issue of Potter's American Monthly magazine. I have read quotes credited to Plato, Einstein, and many others that have provided answers of why the chicken crossed the road. I have no idea whether these answers are true or not. I was amazed at the wide use of the riddle by people in all walks of life. I believe politicians used it more than any other category. Perhaps by uttering the chicken question gave them a chance to humorously provide clever, obscure, and tricky punch lines instead of answering issues in a straightforward method.
So, why did the chicken cross the road? The origin of this question, and why people ask it, is very definitely lost in the bowels of folklore and urban myth. In researching the origin of this riddle, I found it was mentioned in print in 1847, in The Knickerbocker, a New York City monthly magazine. Also, there was a variation of it in an 1890 issue of Potter's American Monthly magazine.
During my research I came upon these questions and answers. Actually the question "Why did the chicken cross the road?" is perfectly valid. But how can we answer that? This answer suggests the chicken did it 'to get' something and it seems to imply the chicken had knowledge of the road. To understand 'the other side' the chicken must have knowledge of some object with two sides, understand that it is on one side of said object and desire to cross the object to reach the other side.
Since a chicken is an animal, it is unlikely to have a concept of a road in any sense - why would a flying bird need roads?
What then is the nature of the road as the chicken perceives it? "The question "Why did the chicken cross the road" is invalid. It is invalid because "why" assumes that the chicken had some reason for taking the action to "cross the road". This, in turn, assumes that the chicken has the concept of "road." But, if the chicken doesn't know that the road is there, then the chicken did not - from the chickens point of view - "cross the road", and consequently it is meaningless to ask for its motivations for doing so.

William L. Bulla is a freelance writer residing in Washington County.

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