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In a song video made by an American acquaintance, there is a joke that I don't understand.

I am not a native speaker, and I guess most English speakers would understand what makes his joke funny.

Is it on-topic to ask what is the meaning of his play on words?


As asked by Jeff Parker, here is some context:
"Alfresco" and "Pentaho" are two non-competing software applications that can be used together. An Alfresco representative recently made a rap song where he talks about his "tricked out Pentaho". Is it a reference to rappers' pimped out cars? I am not sure I understand.

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    I'd have to vote yes, assuming the joke is in English as is implied. It's a usage of the language, thus in my mind perfectly valid to ask. Would you care to post it here? – Jeff Parker Apr 15 '11 at 4:15
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    A certain English as a, uh maybe 5th, language speaker found the following particularly humorous: "Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana." – Carl Brannen Apr 19 '11 at 3:41
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    @jeff so anything involving English is on-topic? Can't say the faq agrees... – Jeff Atwood Jul 10 '11 at 11:04
  • @Jeff The FAQ doesn't appear strictly disagree, the devil being in the details. Don't ask: "Explain this joke to me", except in the case where the crux of the joke is some particularly subtle aspect of English. Difficult to judge without the content of the joke, as was the case when this question was first posted, but it certainly sounded to me like it fits the bill. – Jeff Parker Jul 11 '11 at 8:25
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    @jeff well, we just added that section. See below answers + discussion for context. – Jeff Atwood Jul 11 '11 at 8:41
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    @Jeff Indeed, and I've already upvoted the viewpoints I agree with but neither the new addition, nor the previous guidelines seem to outlaw this behaviour. As for the new rule, the person asking the question isn't necessarily qualified to make this distinction, as they don't understand the joke. How are they to know whether or not it's a subtle aspect of the language? I see the intent, but think a cleaner definition is required. – Jeff Parker Jul 11 '11 at 8:53
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    @jeff if the person is not absolutely 100% confident of their skills in English, and the question is about a joke, the signals STRONGLY point to the question being off-topic. Therefore the standard guidance should be "don't do it" in that case. Just take a look at the example questions below.. – Jeff Atwood Jul 11 '11 at 9:20
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    @Jeff Who amongst us is supremely, perfectly confident in our skill with the English language? Is humour not amongst the most important parts of it? I realise you're looking at the examples, and going "these questions are generally useless", and quite rightly so, but this still irks me. On a side note, is this a democracy, or an autocracy with myriad opportunities for voting? I'd be tempted to put this to a vote. – Jeff Parker Jul 11 '11 at 9:53
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    @jeff I scored 99th percentile on the English GMAT back in the day, so I for one am pretty confident in my English language skills. This isn't a subtle problem; english.se has enough severe quality issues as-is without adding pop culture guidance and ESL joke translation services to the litany of standing problems. – Jeff Atwood Jul 11 '11 at 9:57
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    @Jeff Atwood Wow, 99th percentile on the English GMAT is an impressive feat. I'm surprised you haven't contributed more answers on the main site; with credentials like that, you'd certainly qualify as a "linguist, etymologist, and (serious) English language enthusiast." But maybe you haven't enough enthusiasm to be an enthusiast? Or maybe you are just not serious? – Kit Z. Fox Jul 13 '11 at 14:39
  • @kit the question was about confidence in one's English skills. No idea what you're talking about beyond that. – Jeff Atwood Jul 13 '11 at 15:22
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    @Jeff I mean to assert that the site would certainly benefit from answers by users with a high degree of confidence in their English skills. Users like you. – Kit Z. Fox Jul 13 '11 at 15:36
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    I changed the FAQ entry because “some particularly subtle aspect of English” is a uselessly vague and subjective criterion. – nohat Jul 16 '11 at 18:17
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Well, we do have these:

All of them open. So I would say go ahead and ask.

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    I don't think these should be open, at all; in fact, I'm closing all of them but the Will Ferrell one and updating the /faq to outlaw them. – Jeff Atwood Jul 10 '11 at 11:01
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    @Jeff Atwood: I am a bit confused. In the FAQ you added that people shouldn't ask questions like "'Explain this joke to me', except in the case where the crux of the joke is some particularly subtle aspect of English." In questions #1, #3, and #5, the joke hinges on pun/wordplay/multiple meanings of words. Question #4 is the syntactic analysis of a sentence that just happens to be humorous. How do these violate what you put in the FAQ, or the spirit of EL&U? – Kosmonaut Jul 10 '11 at 15:52
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    @kos that's just basic ESL "explain the meaning of these words to me" stuff. Remember this site is supposed to be for experts so the standard here is high -- if it is simply ESL or explaining pop culture references that is insufficient. – Jeff Atwood Jul 10 '11 at 17:24
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    @Jeff Atwood: From the description you are giving now, it sounds like it doesn't have anything to do with jokes, so why add the line to the FAQ? Also, I don't think e.g. the "chrome and Hollandaise" wordplay can be understood by just looking up the meanings of the words... – Kosmonaut Jul 10 '11 at 18:09
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    @kos see my updated answer; jokes are particularly dangerous for the reasons described there. Per three years of Stack Overflow history, people love answering them, even when nobody is learning anything, and will fight you to the death over their right to be entertained and entertain others. (Which is fine, but that's not what we do here..) If you want to edit the faq to make it clearer why these sorts of questions are unwanted, feel free. – Jeff Atwood Jul 10 '11 at 18:45
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    @Jeff Atwood: I get what you mean about that, and indeed I have seen jokes get upvotes on EL&U (particularly answers) almost certainly based on their humor alone — in the end this generally gets corrected by the community/mods. But there is a lot that can be learned about a language by looking at things native speakers find humorous. One (IMO) crucial thing in these cases is that I don't think any of these questions here are attempts to be humorous — they are actually questions about the language (though the "Chuck Norris" one is about culture, so not on-topic). – Kosmonaut Jul 10 '11 at 19:20
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    That said, some of the other ones might qualify as "general reference" questions. – Kosmonaut Jul 10 '11 at 19:21
  • @Jeff jokes on SO are so unlike jokes here. – Jürgen A. Erhard Jul 19 '11 at 12:39
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I totally agree with Jeff that

  • The quality of the questions and answers is paramount.
  • Joke questions pose a real danger, because (a) everyone likes them, and (b) they can easily end up trivialising the site.

However, I can't help but think the policy in the FAQ at time of writing is overly restrictive:

  • Native speaker or otherwise, someone who doesn't understand a joke ipso facto doesn't know whether "the crux of the joke is some particularly subtle aspect of English".
  • While I've witnessed the potential for harm on other SO sites, I don't feel we have a joke-infestation problem here, and for a good reason: the in-depth, academic analysis that we provide in our answers kills all known jokes dead. (I only remember ever seeing one joke-related question receive inflated moderation - hardly an epidemic.)
  • Jokes often raise interesting questions about language. Several people have said "well, you can say that about anything in English", but that's not true. Sure, any type of question can end up with an enlightening answer - but for many classes of question ("Proofread this for me"; "Explain this word that I could easily have found in a dictionary"; "What's your favourite word?") that's the exception rather than the rule. I haven't found this to be the case with "Please explain this joke".

I realise Jeff would probably dispute this last point, but, taking the question that seems to have sparked this debate as a starting point:

  • The joke hinges on an English idiom (to give sth up for Lent), that while very common in some circles, I suspect even many native speakers will not know.
  • The key word in that phrase (Lent) does not appear in the joke.
  • Even if you happen to figure out (perhaps from the combination of Catholic and lint) that Lent is the key word, looking it up in the dictionary (at least, the first two that I tried) does not give you the phrase.

This is why I was happy to spend 10-20 minutes yesterday morning checking my facts and writing up an answer. (What I would criticise about this question is the title. If it were, say, Does the phrase "picking my bellybutton" have a double meaning? then I suspect the question would have gone entirely unnoticed.)

So... how to resolve the contradiction? Or rather, how to put in the FAQ "Don't ask questions about jokes unless they're good questions" in a way that questioners might be able to comply with - without forbidding the word joke on the site entirely?

I propose something along the lines of the following as a policy (I'm sure someone here has the skills to reword it to better fit the FAQ):

Do not ask for explanations of jokes that would be understood by any native speaker. Not sure? Ask a native speaker. If they understand - don't ask the question here (but you already have the answer). Otherwise, go ahead (but be warned that the question may be closed as off-topic if the joke turns out not to be language-based.)

Of course, some with good questions may not have easy access to native speakers - but for that we have chat, where there are usually at least a few native speakers, and some exceptionally competent pineapples.

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    I kind of violently disagree about the specific example you picked. The crux of that joke is "lint" vs. "Lent" which is the most banal, simplistic "oh you said X and it sounded like Y" kind of wordplay -- that's akin to arguing a joke about great tits or boobies is worthy of discussion. It is also not our job to educate people about Lent. That said, the proposed FAQ change seems OK, if a tad wordy. – Jeff Atwood Jul 11 '11 at 17:15
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    +1 mostly because this seems like a viable solution. We can certainly refine behavior again in the future if need be. – MrHen Jul 11 '11 at 18:54
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    @Jeff: Yeah, totally agree about the wordiness... I'm sure you or one of the mods can improve on my effort :) – psmears Jul 11 '11 at 22:18
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    I have great sympathy for @Jeff's position here, which is basically that left unchecked, a proliferation of joke-based posts could easily be toxic to the site. But in truth, the entire site is littered with humorous witticisms (which many of us enjoy writing/reading). Who among us has never posted an amusing comment, or upvoted someone else's? But I think that's fine - all we need to guard against are Questions (and titles, if I may make so bold) that seem primarily intended to amuse rather than enlighten. – FumbleFingers Jul 12 '11 at 3:22
  • ...apropos which I really do think the one about the Dalai Lama was intended to raise a laugh, not seek understanding of language usage. But I'd be against it regardless of OP's motive, to be honest, purely on account of the possibility that more of the same might be encouraged. – FumbleFingers Jul 12 '11 at 3:27
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    @Jeff Atwood: That question, if given a chance, can lead to an explanation of why these two words are similar in such a way that makes the pun work. In English, vowels are often affected by adjacent nasal consonants, particularly the lax front vowels (/ɪ/ and /ɛ/) in /lɪnt/ and /lɛnt/ — in some AmE dialects, the nasalization causes contrast neutralization. This particular case of neutralization is known as the pin-pen merger. Just because something seems to be banal and simplistic superficially doesn't mean it is actually so simple. – Kosmonaut Jul 12 '11 at 14:04
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    After all, walking seems like a simple process on one level but is actually extremely complex. Mainly, I think we do this site a disservice by singling out and writing off questions that just happen to have something to do with humor. Again, this question isn't seeking to be funny (nor is the current answer), which IMO should mean that the "no joke questions/answers" clause doesn't apply at all. – Kosmonaut Jul 12 '11 at 14:13
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    @Jeff, Kosmonaut actually is one of the experts who you say you want to attract to the site, yet you have now successfully offended him to the point where he's contemplating leaving the site in disgust. Nice job. – Marthaª Jul 12 '11 at 20:27
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    @kos I have amended my comment; my frustration comes from the fact that nearly every time I visit this site, I am embarrassed to be associated with the sort of banal, least-common-denominator questions that appear here. If this site is indeed intended for experts, it needs far stronger moderation. – Jeff Atwood Jul 12 '11 at 21:07
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    @Jeff, I know I am not someone who should be telling you this, but I believe your frustration might arise from the fact that the basic competency required to use English.SE and SO.com (say) is different. The minimum threshold that is required to ask a question in English.SE will be very very low. This could be due to the fact that anyone who can surf the net, can ask a question on English.SE. Couldn't you change your perspective for this site. I believe SE already treats parenting site differently and allows a lot more subjective answers. – rest_day Jul 12 '11 at 21:50
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    @Shog9: Are you comparing EL&U to Urban Dictionary? Because the approach is very different: on EL&U there may be questions about "strong" language, but it will be addressed in a mature and adult fashion. Whereas on Urban Dictionary... not so much. Or have I misunderstood what you were getting at? – psmears Jul 12 '11 at 22:26
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    @Shog9 AFAIK, the issue was with "least-common-denominator questions". I am not sure where vulgar came into the discussion here. – rest_day Jul 12 '11 at 22:39
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    And @shog the bottomline is, English.SE is different from SO.com and the guidelines at one will not work at the other. And till now, the moderators were doing a pretty good job of maintaining a site that was useful for people who were interested in English. – rest_day Jul 12 '11 at 22:53
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    @Shog9 well that's the bikeshed problem right there. I don't need to tell you that it exists on every site, and you'll probably also know that the MultiCollider is all but helping. I am pretty sure that, say, Super User has way awesomer questions than the... um... subpar ones that it keeps flooding the collider with. (Again, not that site's fault; just Parkinson's Law of Triviality, plain and simple.) Same here. You ask an awesome question, only the people here get to notice; you ask a subpar question about an expletive, every random passerby gets excited and upvotes it just for giggles. – RegDwigнt Jul 12 '11 at 23:32
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    @Jeff: nowhere in my comment did I mention "popular but off-topic". I only mentioned popular. I am explicitly talking about perfectly ON-topic subpar questions. You can't be serious about implying that I don't close stuff that is blatantly OFF-topic. – RegDwigнt Jul 13 '11 at 23:56
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I am a native speaker of English, a poet, and I find words interesting. I am not yet an expert. A detailed analysis of a joke helps me understand the corner cases of the language. Of all the joke questions under discussion I learned something from all but two. One was deleted, the other was about Chuck Norris, but that was because I have already studied meta humor. What would I have learned from the one that had been deleted?

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I would make a difference between joke and joke.

If the joke is based on a play on words, or two different meanings the same phrase has, then the question is fine.
If the joke requires me to know, for example, one of the following things, then it's not on-topic for EL&U, for the fact it doesn't involve any knowledge of English language, but rather a knowledge of the American/British/Australian culture.

  • the nickname used when referring to a person or a place
  • a denigratory name used when referring to a person or a place
  • a mispronunciation of a name

For example, if the joke is about an elephant and a donkey, and the OP is wondering in which way the joke is used in a political context, then the question is not on-topic on EL&U because it is not based on a double meaning of a phrase, but on which mascot did the major American parties choose, and not a particular meaning associate with elephant or donkey.
Another example is a joke that requires to explain what Caulifornia means.

In Is there a double-meaning to "picking my belly button" in this context?, does the phrase a particular meaning that can be explained without any reference to the culture? Does "picking my belly button" have a meaning that is not the literal one?

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    The role of this site is not to act as an English As Second Language (ESL) joke translation service, nor a pop culture reference explaining service. It is ostensibly for "linguists, etymologists, and English language enthusiasts." However I do agree that the Will Ferrell question meets the bar, as the joke is complex and entirely hinges on wordplay. – Jeff Atwood Jul 10 '11 at 17:29
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    In fact, I am not referring to ESL, or EFL. There could be jokes that are not easily understood by native speakers of English. I am just making a difference between jokes where the explanation is cultural, and jokes where the explanation is the different meaning a phrase can have. Explaining the different meaning of a phrase is not translating the phrase. – kiamlaluno Jul 10 '11 at 17:45
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    in 4 / 5 of examples this "explanation" is trivial, and the OP explicitly said they did not speak English and that is why they were asking. That simply is not the role of a site intended for experts. If the mandate of the site was "English for beginners" then perhaps. – Jeff Atwood Jul 10 '11 at 18:03
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    Right, but the question is not "Are questions about English jokes not understood by who speaks English as second language on topic?" – kiamlaluno Jul 10 '11 at 18:08
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    if you read what I wrote, the problem should be self-evident: the explanation is trivial. This will not attract experts, it will attract other newbies and those interested only in jokes and entertainment, not learning English at a professional level. – Jeff Atwood Jul 10 '11 at 18:57
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    So, is it trivial to explain all the jokes? What is the difference between explaining "Katy Perry pours herself into yet another racy purple dress to promote her fragrance" and explaining "She looks as though she's been poured into her clothes and forgot to say when."? – kiamlaluno Jul 10 '11 at 20:18
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    neither of these are really jokes. Jokes are particularly dangerous for the reasons described in my updated answer here. Per three years of Stack Overflow history, people love answering them, even when nobody is learning anything, and will fight you to the death over their right to be entertained and entertain others. (Which is fine, but that's not what we do here..) – Jeff Atwood Jul 10 '11 at 20:36
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    Well, the last one can be categorized as "a thing that someone says to cause amusement or laughter"; the first one is imitating a joke said by Graucho Marx. I don't think that saying the meaning of a joke is fun; it's fun to listen to a joke you are able to understand, but not asking what a joke you don't understood mean. – kiamlaluno Jul 10 '11 at 20:49
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Another (bad) example:

Is there a double-meaning to "picking my belly button" in this context?

I do not feel that "explain this joke to me" should generally be on topic on a site ostensibly for

linguists, etymologists, and (serious) English language enthusiasts

In fact, I feel such questions tend to degrade the overall tone of the site and skew it heavily away from the goal — professional discussion of English usage, not watercooler haw-haw talk.

More specifically,

  1. This site is supposed to be for English experts, not a pop culture explanation machine, or an ESL joke translation service. The standard has to be high, particularly for joke questions, because ...

  2. Joke questions are funny. That's why people like them. But that does not mean they are on topic, it simply means they are entertaining. It also makes them far more dangerous, like "Favorite Programming Joke" or "Explain this Hilarious Programming Joke to Me" on Stack Overflow — these questions are popular, but for the wrong reasons; in the service of entertainment rather than the practice of professional programming, as intended.

  3. Of the 5 examples given, 4 are basically "I don't speak English, explain why this is funny" and only 1 is properly "this joke has sophisticated wordplay, let's analyze it."

If I offended anyone in this post or the comments, I apologize because I am rather frustrated. Read more here: Is EL&U succeeding?

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    I don't buy that 5 questions about the meaning of a phrase used in a joke degraded the tone of the site. – kiamlaluno Jul 10 '11 at 11:54
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    @kia yes, and "explain this programming joke to me" is perfectly on topic at Stack Overflow, as well? – Jeff Atwood Jul 10 '11 at 12:05
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    I don't see the relation between your example, and what I said; I commented about something different from off-topic/on-topic. A joke about programming is not on-topic on Stack Overflow because it would require to explain something that is related to English, or the American/British/Australian culture; both are off-topic on Stack Overflow, as I should not ask what hacker means, or what the etymology of the word is, on Stack Overflow. Something that is off-topic on Stack Overflow is not automatically off-topic on EL&U. – kiamlaluno Jul 10 '11 at 12:27
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    @Jeff: I have to agree with kiamlaluno here - sure, "explain this programming joke" is off-topic for SO, because it's unlikely that the answer will enlighten anyone about programming. But on the contrary questions about jokes often provoke answers that are illuminating about language and usage. – psmears Jul 10 '11 at 13:07
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    @Jeff, I'm going to have to weight in and disagree as well. Haw-haw talk is not what we're after. "I don't get it" questions from second-language speakers because they don't know the references isn't helpful to the site. However many jokes hing on forms of irony, tongue in cheek, and creative manipulation of language. These things very much DO add value to the site and are of interest to professional linguists (which incidentally is often what defines a great comedian.) – Caleb Jul 10 '11 at 17:32
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    @psm every answer that contains English words can theoretically be "illuminating" -- remember this site is supposed to be for experts, and not a pop culture explanation machine, or an ESL joke translation service. The standard has to be high, particularly for joke questions. – Jeff Atwood Jul 10 '11 at 17:34
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    @Caleb in practice that is not what is happening; of the 5 examples given, 4 are basically "I don't speak English, explain why this is funny" and only 1 is properly "this joke has sophisticated wordplay, let's analyze it." – Jeff Atwood Jul 10 '11 at 17:40
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    There is something I don't understand: Is the problem that the question contains the word "joke"? In other words, would the same question be fine if it asks about the meanings a sentence can have without to mention the phrase has been used in a joke? – kiamlaluno Jul 10 '11 at 18:24
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    @kia the largest symptom of the problem is the words "I don't speak English, and..." which immediately tells you the question will not be of interest to "linguists, etymologists, and (serious) English language enthusiasts". Not because that person is bad or wrong, but because it is at entirely the wrong level. Those beginner English questions belong on another site. – Jeff Atwood Jul 10 '11 at 18:38
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    I don't disagree about the level of the question; it's just that a question about the meaning of a phrase used in a joke doesn't automatically mean "low level question," in the same way "asked by somebody who doesn't speak English as first language" does not mean "low level question." – kiamlaluno Jul 10 '11 at 18:45
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    @kia the combination of "question about joke" plus "I am new to English" is a particularly poor one based on the existing data. There is 1/5 that worked, and that one did not include the "I am new to English" phrase. Remember the goal is for expert level questions that others can learn from; I struggle to think what anyone could learn from a question about a phrase used in a Chuck Norris joke, in the typical case. – Jeff Atwood Jul 10 '11 at 18:55
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    I fail to see the difference between a question about jokes, and other questions: Both the questions could be high quality questions, or not. When I read a question, I first look at the quality of the questions, not the topic of the question. – kiamlaluno Jul 10 '11 at 20:24
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    @kia this is about signals and reading signs; there can be exceptions and judgment is always necessary of course. But the general trend is clear based on the existing corpus of questions. – Jeff Atwood Jul 10 '11 at 20:33
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    @Jeff: what Rhodri said. A "please explain this [joke]" question is NOT a "joke question". Or, it's not any more likely to be a joke question than "please explain this [idiom]" or "please explain this [grammar rule]". – Marthaª Jul 12 '11 at 19:42
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    @Jeff, last I checked, "family" is just a word, not an idiom or a grammar rule. Please read my comment again: I didn't say anything like "adding the words 'please explain' makes questions on-topic". – Marthaª Jul 14 '11 at 13:23

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