I recently left an unnecessary comment because I could not resist telling a bad joke. That made me wonder: What would be a good (classical) Latin word for a bad quality joke? The joke can be any kind of short joke, wordplay or similar, but it has to be of terrible quality.

It is entirely possible that there is no single word for this purpose. A suggestion or two with an explanation of how they fit the bill would be great. For those who know Finnish, I am more or less looking for a translation of "puujalkavitsi" (literally "peg leg joke"). I do not know of a comparable expression in English; I would simply say that a joke or pun is terrible or corny. I am looking for an idiomatic expression for a bad joke, preferably in classical Latin.

(To make this easier to find, let me repeat the key question in Finnish: Miten sanotaan "puujalkavitsi" latinaksi?)

  • I'm not sure I understand this question. Do you want a Latin idiom to translate a Finnish idiom? Do you want a Classical Latin word or phrase, or can it be from any era?
    – cmw
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 6:07
  • @C.M.Weimer I edited the question slightly in an attempt to clarify. I prefer the classical era, but good suggestions from other eras are welcome. I am looking for something similar to the Finnish idiom if any such thing exists in Latin. So yes, I am looking for a translation of the Finnish idiom, but I hope I explained my intentions clearly in English, too.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 13:09
  • In English, we sometimes call a bad joke a lame joke. Is this the sense behind a peg leg joke? Because someone with a peg leg would be lame!
    – Penelope
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 13:24
  • @Penelope I think that's pretty close to the Finnish idiom, and certainly good for the purposes of this question. I think the point of a peg leg joke is that it limps; limping is a common figure of speech in Finnish for any kind of badly working narrative.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Jan 20, 2017 at 0:16
  • 1
    The best translation into English for this Finnish word is a "Dad Joke." It refers to the tendency of Dads to tell terrible corny jokes.
    – Nickimite
    Commented Oct 7, 2019 at 18:55

2 Answers 2


Frigidus / cold can be used metaphorically to describe any kind of speech that seems flat and lifeless, whether it was an attempt at humour or not. But here we see it being applied specifically to bad jokes:

Haec aut frigida sunt, aut tum salsa, cum aliud est exspectatum.

These [jokes] either fall flat, or are funny only when something else was expected.

Cicero, De Oratore, 2.64.260

In this quote, Cicero explicitly contrasts frigidus with salsus / salty, an adjective often used in a metaphorical sense for funny or witty. As an example of this, Cicero says elsewhere that he found much that was funny and witty among the Greeks:

Inveni autem ridicula et salsa multa Graecorum
De Oratore, 2.217

Suetonius also uses frigidus to describe Claudius’ jokes which are both bad and far-fetched:

ad hilaritatem homines provocaret … immixtis interdum frigidis et arcessitis iocis

calling the men to merriment … now and then mixing in bad and far-fetched jokes

Lives of the Caesars – Claudius, 5.21.7

While Quintilian warns the would-be orator to avoid jokes that rely on word-play as they are often bad, even if sometimes acceptable:

Fiunt et adiecta et detracta adspiratione et divisis coniunctisque verbis similiter saepius frigida, aliquando tamen recipienda

Similar jokes made by adding or removing an aspirate or dividing and joining words are often bad, although sometimes acceptable

Orator’s Education, 6.3.55

  • Interesting. Japanese has a similar idea, where a bad joke is called 寒い samui, meaning "cold". Commented Jun 20, 2021 at 8:21

Following Cic. de orat. 2,218, I would think about two words describing this particular verborum lusus for which you are asking for: cum duo genera sint facetiarum, alterum aequabiliter in omni sermone fusum, alterum peracutum et breve, illa a veteribus superior cavillatio, haec altera dicacitas nominata est.

The first word, cavillatio (from cavilla [or cavillum], which in some cases means "double sense": Plaut. Aul. 638 aufer cavillam, non ego nunc nugas ago; Apul. met. 1,7 allubentia proclivis est sermonis et ioci et scitum et cavillum et iam dicacitas tinnula; is often referred in the sens of irrisio, iocus and, for quote an example, is intended as a "bad joke" addressed to a roman knight by the emperor Tiberius in Suet. Tib. 57:

Nec multo post in senatu Pompeio cuidam equiti R. quiddam perneganti, dum uincula minatur, affirmauit fore ut ex Pompeio Pompeianus fieret, acerba cauillatione simul hominis nomen incessens ueteremque partium fortunam

The second word, dicacitas, comes from dicax, which means "quick-witted", "witty", and is mainly used to define the mordaciter dicta of the rhetors (e.g. Quint. inst. 6,3,42 : in narrando ... Cicero consistere facetias putat, dictationem in iaciendo), I only found an example of the sense you mean in Aug. op. imperf. 5,15:

de ferramentis agricolarum ad impraegnandas feminas adhibendis, quae tibi festivissima dicacitate sonare videbantur, cum vanitate ineptissima dicerentur

Where Augustine alludes to a coarse pun made by Julianus blaming him for the inappropriate comparison.


  • O. Burger, ThlL III, 1908, s.v. "cavillatio", coll. 647-648;

  • A. Gudeman, ThlL V 1, 1912, s.v. "dicacitas", col. 957.

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