“Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

Why did the chicken…?

‘Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road? To get to the other side.’ It is one of the most tedious jokes in history, but it is also one of the oldest in continuous use. Now, just how old and where does it come from?

Knickerbocker Glory

The earliest reference that has been found so far (full credit to an anonymous editor at Wikipedia here) dates to 1847 and the Knickerbocker (vol 29, p. 283) (a New York magazine).

Conundrums we do not greatly affect; and must therefore be excused in the eyes of ‘M.’ for declining his extensive batch. There are ‘quips and quillets’ which seem actual conundrums, but yet are none. Of such is this: ‘Why does a chicken cross the street?’… ‘Because it wants to get to the other side.’

‘M.’ has sent in a selection of ‘conundrums’ and the tired editor quotes one to show how bad they are: luckily for us it is ours. The chicken joke is caught in aspic in that moment, in the middle of the nineteenth century. Note that at this date there is no sense that it was commonly known, at least not to the Knickerbocker’s long-suffering joke editor (what a hellish job). I think here at the beginning we have the key to appreciating why-did-the-chicken: it was launched onto the world as a conundrum or a riddle, but actually it is a joke – in other words you don’t get the expected pun so beloved of nineteenth-century English speakers (and found today in Christmas crackers), you are made to realise that you are over-complicating simple things.

Variant Questions

The joke proved rather rare in the years that followed. I have not been able to dig up a single version from the early 1850s. the earliest seems to date to 1859 and it is a variant:

‘Why does a chicken run across the road in dirty weather? To get to the other side.’ An another alternative question appeared in the 1861 Bradford Observer: ‘Why does a chicken three weeks, three days, and three hours old, walk across the road? To get to the other side.’

Variant Answers

Of course, an important part of the modern chicken joke is that expectations are dashed. I ask why the chicken crossed the road and you answer, say, ‘To get to the Shell station’ or anything other than the dread doom-laden syllables ‘to get to the other side’. Variant answers were already cropping up by the 1860s. This shows us that (i) our ancestors were just as foolish as us; and (ii) the ‘cross the road’ joke must have been very well established because otherwise the following would fall flat.

In 1867 we get ‘Why is a chicken a crossing the road like a burglary?’ I worried about this for about twenty minutes before I realised that the newspaper had printed the answer below: ‘Because it is a fowl proceeding.’ This is  a failed joke… (Note that ‘fowl proceeding’ went back to an earlier joke:   ‘Why is a chicken running, like a man whipping his wife? Because it’s a fowl proceeding’, 1857.) By 1878 the fowl joke had been naturalized: in 1878 in the Reading Mercury, for example, the joke ran simply ‘why did the chicken cross the road’ ‘it would be a fowl proceeding’.


In the first decades of the twentieth century there are many signs that the chicken joke was as familiar to readers as it is to us. By 1907 a British newspaper, the Western Daily News, can play with the joke using it for the title of piece on a chicken that ran into a bike. The chicken owner, incidentally, was not found liable… By 1919 an American playwright can include a rather good dialogue with the chicken joke in (When the Circus came to Town). Note the way that ‘why the chicken’ has effectively become an adjective.

Clay. ‘Well, why does a chicken with a sack of flour on its back cross the street?’

Zuzu. ‘Hold on, hold on. You can’t slip any ‘why does a chicken cross the street stuff’ over on me. Besides, what’s the idea of the sack of flour?’

Clay. ‘Oh, I put that in to make it harder. Don’t you think that’s funny.’ (Anxiously.)

In 1939 a witness at Willesden Court, London answered, when asked, why he had crossed the road, inevitably: ‘to get to the other side’. This was considered to be hilarious enough that it appeared in a regional Scottish newspaper. They didn’t have the war to excuse them…

Conclusion and Challenge

So where does the chicken joke came from? Britain or the US? Don’t know why, but I’d guess the UK. When? It seems to have been putting down roots in the the 1840s and 1850s? Conundrums, like poetry, were incredibly popular in staid Victorian drawing rooms on either side of the Atlantic: they did not have Youtube, they did not have Kindles… These witticisms were able to spread very quickly from mouth to mouth, with a speed that only internet memes manage today. The variant answers of the 1860s and 1870s show that the joke was well known by then, otherwise they would not have worked: they are fairly desperate anyway. Just possibly some of the variant questions show the same. Not sure. I really care about this one so I’m shelling out (get it?). A suitably good second hand book sent via Amazon to anyone who can drag the joke back beyond the Knickerbocker and 1849 [i.e. 1848 or earlier, it can be in English or a European language]. God help you. It won’t be easy. Again my sixth sense says that, if found, an earlier version will be found in the UK: drbeachcombing AT gmail DOT com

Stephen D with a classic variant from the six counties, 5 Nov 2017:

Question: Why did the chicken cross the road?

SINN FEIN: That would be a matter for the chicken. Sinn Fein and the chicken are not part of the same organisation, although we share some ideals in common. If there are presently any chickens in Sinn Fein, we are not aware of it.

ORANGE ORDER: The chicken is entitled to walk in a peaceful manner on the Queen’s Highway. It’s a traditional route. Anyone who tries to deny the chicken his rights to walk on the road will find the road blocked at both ends until the chicken is allowed to walk in a dignified and non-threatening manner, without accompanying bands if need be.

DUP: We are implacably opposed to the chicken crossing the road until the chicken’s armaments have been removed and the chicken itself declares its diabolical intentions.

IRA: On behalf of the people of Ireland, we reserve the right to defend the roads of the island against the chicken. For 800 years the Irish People have resisted the imposition of chickens by force of arms and shall continue to do so until the chicken is expelled from our land. Anyone collaborating with the chicken, or assisting or enabling the imposition of road crossing by chickens, will be deemed legitimate targets in our struggle against tyranny.

UFF: We, the loyal defenders of Ulster roads, reserve our right to retaliate against any precipitory hostile actions by the chicken. We shall meet force with deadly force. (A £200 donation to the Loyalist Prisoners Association will ensure free passage of the chicken with respect to the road and the crossing thereof, till the same time next month anyhow. Do chickens have kneecaps?)

UUP/SDLP Joint statement: We believe that only by working together in unison, and with the majority of the people of this island, the British and Irish governments and our friends overseas behind us, can we find the answer to this question. If we do not, or cannot, then our children will rightfully ask us the question, ‘So why did the chicken cross the road?’

THE HOME SECRETARY, UK GOV.: While not normally commenting on security matters, Her Majesty’s Government feels it is right and proper, in this instance, to make a statement on this affair. – Members of the Special Air Services involved in a covert anti-terrorist operation on the road at 8:42 this morning observed the chicken attempting to cross the road. As the chicken was approached by one of the soldiers involved, it was seen to make a threatening movement and action was taken to nullify that action. It has not been ascertained why the chicken was crossing the road, and it seems unlikely that we will now discover the motive.


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