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Gallows Humor

  • By: Don Lee Fred Nilsen & Alleen Pace Nilsen
  • In: Encyclopedia of Humor Studies
  • Edited by: Salvatore Attardo
  • Subject:General Media, Communication & Cultural Studies, Sociology of Culture

Gallows humor is a way of making fun of death or life-threatening situations. Examples include the joke about the warden asking a condemned prisoner as they walk to the gallows if he wants a smoke. The prisoner replies, “No thanks, I’m trying to quit!” In a more recent joke, a prisoner turns to the warden as they enter the room where the electric chair awaits and asks the warden, “Are you sure this is safe?”

The 10th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary dates the term to 1901. Some scholars date the description of gallows humor to Sigmund Freud's 1927 essay “Der Humor,” while other scholars say that it was brought to America by Jewish immigrants from middle European countries. An example of this latter kind of ...

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