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What is the best Latin word for a joke? By a joke I mean a short funny story, like one starting with two or three people entering a bar. It doesn't have to be a single word. I know some joke words (iocus, ludus, risus, nuga, ridiculum), but I am not sure what is the best word in this context.

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In answer to another question, I referenced the second book of the Saturnalia of Macrobius (5th century AD). You will see, referring to my answer to that question, that many of these "jokes" are exactly in the same vein as current jokes.

Avienus proposes "jokes" as the topic of conversation and begins, at the end of §1, to speak about different appropriate words. Here are the relevant parts of the passage:

et, ni fallor, inveni, ut iocos veterum ac nobilium virorum edecumatos ex multiiugis libris relatione mutua proferamus.... Haec res et cura et studio digna veteribus visa est: et iam primum animadverto duos quos eloquentissimos antiqua aetas tulit, comicum Plautum et oratorem Tullium, eos ambos etiam ad iocorum venustatem ceteris praestitisse. Plautus quidem ea re clarus fuit, ut post mortem eius comoediae, quae incertae ferebantur, Plautinae tamen esse de iocorum copia noscerentur. Cicero autem quantum in ea re valuerit quis ignorat qui vel liberti eius libros quos is de iocis patroni conposuit, quos quidam ipsius putant esse, legere curavit? ...Sed in hoc verbum non casu incidi: volens feci. Iocos enim hoc genus veteres nostri dicta dicebant. Testis idem Cicero, qui in libro epistolarum ad Cornelium Nepotem secundo sic ait:

Itaque nostri, cum omnia quae dixissemus dicta essent, quae facete et breviter et acute locuti essemus, ea proprio nomine appellari dicta voluerunt.

Haec Cicero. Novius vero Pomponiusque iocos non raro dicteria nominant....

My comments:

  • iocus appears to be the most appropriate, generic word. Macrobius refers every other word back to this and, as a plus, it's directly related to the English word!

  • dictum refers more to a "saying." I would translate it, based on the Cicero quote above, as a "witticism."

  • dicterium comes from "δεικτήριον" and is described, even by a late-Latin writer, as recent usage. Given its Greek root, the L&S definition seems really appropriate: bon mot.

Concerning the other words in your list:

  • ludus most properly refers to a game. As a "joke," it really only is appropriate in the sense of "to make fun of." (=aliquem ludos facere).

  • risus really just means a "laugh." The only example given for the secondary meaning of "jest" is best translated by "laugh" or perhaps "mockery" (as in English), so it's rarely a good translation of "joke."

  • nugae literally are "pointless things." It means something more like "nonsense" or "foolery." Aufer nugas might be a good reply to a groan-worthy pun, but it certainly would not refer to a witty joke.

  • ridiculum is literally "something that causes laughter", and the relevant entry gives a few examples that would best be translated by English "joke." It strikes me as more clunky, but essentially synonymous. Enter Plautus, Amphitruo, 3.2:

    equidem ioco illa dixeram dudum tibi,
    ridiculi causa.

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There is a 1615 book called Facetiae facetiarum (The Jokes of Jokes), which contains long funny texts. Yet, the word facetiae is also used as joke in this book, which contains shorter and longer "tales" (e.g. see here).

There is also a 1642 book called Nugae venales (Jokes for sale), which as far as I understand has different forms of small jokes.

Based on this evidence, I think using either facetia or nuga for joke is historically appropriate.

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