The other day I watched Evil under the sun, a film about Agatha Christie's homonymous novel, where the following lines were said:

Patrick Redfern: It's funny to think, if Giuseppe Verdi had been an Englishman, his name would have been Joe Green.

Hercule Poirot: Yes, I suppose it would, yes.

PR: [after some silence] It used to make the boys laugh when I was trying to din some Latin into them when I was a teacher.

HP: Little boys laugh easily if it keeps them away, even for a moment, from their study of Latin.

(source of script)

I did not get Patrick's joke then, and I still don't get it. Is Patrick confusing Latin with Italian? Or is there some Latin joke in there that I am missing? It seems Giuseppe Verdi in Latin is Iosephus Verdi. But I don't see where there might be a joke there.

I add further script below, in case it helps with the issue. Beware! If you ever plan to read the book (or watch the film), I strongly recommend not hovering over the box, because it contains spoilers:

As Poirot concludes later one, Patrick never taught Latin. He was lying above. By the end of the film, HP states: You [Patrick Redfern] were clever enough to avoid putting your signature in the hotel register, but, you know, the signature on this cheque is really quite good enough. Different names, of course. Here on the claim form for Alice Ruber's insurance policy, it appears as Felix Ruber, and here on the hotel cheque it appears as Patrick Redfern. Different names, but, monsieur, undeniably the same handwriting. [...] You were wrong to tell me that little joke about Giuseppe Verdi being called Joe Green in English, or that you had once you taught Latin to small boys. It was at that moment that I realised that in that language "Felix Ruber" is "Red Fern". You see, it is folly to try and trick Hercule Poirot, even in a dead language.

PS: couldn't find a proper tag. Please advice.

I think you are having trouble with idiomatic English, in particular with the meaning underlying 'funny'.

In response to being told that something is funny, you have to decide which is intended — humorous, or peculiar. The joke here (it isn't much of one, really) is that when PR first speaks, he merely means that a name, Giuseppe Verdi, that sounds exotic to English ears, has an exact English equivalent, Joe Green, that is very ordinary — which is to him, as an adult, just a peculiarity of language.

HP appreciates the point, but PR then goes on to suggest that the schoolboys laugh because they think it an idea to be laughed at — in fact they are surprised at the contrast between what began as an exotic name and has turned out to be run-of-the-mill English. The final comment by HP is just a wry reflection on the nature of all schoolboys.

As I said, not much of a joke at all!

(Added after 7 other answers and comments). We can get all analytical and Eng. Lit. about it but, in the end, writing about it at length as other answers and comments have done makes us miss the point of luchonacho's query : he wanted to have explained what he thought was a joke about Latin (which was not, as I pointed out, much of a joke at all). 'Redfern', etc., isn't really a joke either, but a clever plot device — though in another context it might be humorous.

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    But where does Latin enters into the picture? I'm puzzled by the "when I was trying to din some Latin into them when I was a teacher." This suggests that Latin is part of the joke. If the above had Italian instead of Latin, it would make a bit more sense. Hence my suggestion of the error. But I doubt Agatha Christie would make such a mistake! – luchonacho Sep 26 at 10:30
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    Not sure that this is a proper question to ask here — it isn't strictly about Latin. Nevertheless, I've answered it above, and we can wait and see what others think. The reference to Latin is just coincidental — it could have been any subject at all. – Tom Cotton Sep 26 at 10:40
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    Is it just a reference to the fact that many Latin names have equally prosaic English translations? – chepner Sep 26 at 16:19
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    @luchonacho The only element of Latin is that he was teaching Latin at the time. Stereotypically it's a boring subject, so any mediocre joke is likely to get a laugh. – lonesomeday Sep 26 at 16:53
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    Now listen up boys, today we are going to learn the names of the colours in Latin... Green is "viridis", from which we get "verdant", and the Italian "verdi". Did you know, if Giuseppe Verdi had been an Englishman, his name would have been Joe Green. Now you'll remember viridis because you will remember my little joke about Verdi. .... People try to teach Latin words by linking them to their modern cognates. – James K Sep 26 at 21:05

I don't think our friend Tom Cotton got the joke. "Felix" is a variant spelling for "filix" meaning "fern". "Ruber" is the colour "red". When Patrick tells his joke about "Giuseppe Verdi" meaning "Joe Green", the unflappable Poirot realises that "Felix Ruber" is also a translation, namely of "Redfern".

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    But Tom's question was about Patrick's joke told to the schoolboys. Patrick's joke had nothing to do with 'Redfern'. – LarsH Sep 26 at 15:00
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    @LarsH Agreed; this explains why the joke-scene is in the script at all (to allow for Poirot to catch the villain), but the joke-scene itself must exist on its own merits, or else it will be more easily distinguished as 'evidence'. This is how the mystery genre must work - items that appear innocuous are later revealed to be plot-relevant. – Grade 'Eh' Bacon Sep 26 at 17:40
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    Patrick's joke about Joe Green is what made Poirot realize that Felix Ruber was the translation, that's how it related to Redfern. If Patrick hadn't made that joke, Poirot wouldn't have necessarily made the connection. – Jeremy Weirich Sep 26 at 17:41
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    @rexkogitans, it appears that apart from meaning "lucky, happy", felix is also an alternate form of the word filix "fern". – TKR Sep 26 at 20:28
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    @rexkogitans. As was mentioned in my answer. The jury is out as to whether felix or filix is the etymologically correct spelling. – fdb Sep 26 at 20:40

It's a good question, because it's really not clear why Patrick (says he) told a joke about an Italian name in Latin class. My guess would be either

  • Patrick was confused about the difference between Italian and Latin, as you guessed, betraying his ignorance of Latin (cf. your spoilers). Or

  • He actually told the joke to the schoolboys in regard to the Latin form of Verdi's name, which works just as well as it does with his Italian name -- it sounds exotic in Latin and very plain in English. But when telling the same joke to Poirot there was no reason to use the Latin form; he used the form that English speakers normally use. Or,

  • The joke had nothing to do with Latin; it was told in Latin class only as a way to get the schoolboys to pay attention.

The joke being made is at Patrick Redfern's expense, by saying that he is not as witty as he thinks. Consider the simplest form of the conversation:

PR: "If Giuseppe Verdi had been an Englishman, his name would have been Joe Green." ... "My students always laugh at that joke". [The 'joke' here is purely that Joe Green sounds plain, and Giuseppe Verdi sounds 'exotic'].

HP: "Yes, students will laugh at anything." [ie: your joke was not funny, the only reason they laughed, was because latin is very boring, and rather than practice more latin, schoolboys will encourage their teachers to tell unfunny jokes].

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    The OP's question is not about HP's joke, but about PR's Verdi joke. – LarsH Sep 27 at 2:27

Well it's easy. Schoolboys enjoy studying Latin like they enjoy a visit to the dentist. Anything to avoid studying Latin is welcome to them. That is the joke, more of an observation, really. But a funny one, esp. if like me you were once a schoolboy subjected to Latin.

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    When I was at school Latin was my favourite subject. – fdb Sep 26 at 20:45
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    And some Latin teachers are easily diverted onto other subjects. I recall one 80-minute Latin lesson which was spent solely discussing special relativity. – Peter Taylor Sep 27 at 13:40
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    @fdb: And mine! I remember finding a page from an old vocabulary book and memorizing the words on it when I was in primary school. Which seemed less enjoyable when I turned 12 and I actually had to memorize Latin words in high school (or whatever the school system translates into)... – Cerberus Sep 27 at 21:57

I think perhaps the real significance of the passage is not the joke but rather Poirot's response: "Little boys laugh easily if it keeps them away, even for a moment, from their study of Latin." In this comment, Agatha Christie (and Poirot) may be signalling that it is clear that Patrick did not teach Latin; talking about an Italian name is keeping the boys away from their study of Latin.

(Although, I'm confused by the denouement: did Redfern know and/or teach Latin or not?)

I didn't see anyone else answer your question so I'll do it.

Giuseppe is the Italian spelling for the name Josef/Joseph; the shortened version is Joe. Verdi is is very close to the Latin word for green, viridis, and also closely resembles the Spanish/Italian word for green verde. I don’t have any good references for that but it's rather obvious once you know.

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    Welcome to the site! Your answer is indeed the only one that explains the joke (even though that is only part of the question, I think it should be answered here). – Cerberus Sep 27 at 21:59
  • As a quick correction, Giuseppe is the Italian (not Latin) spelling of Joseph--which I think is the point that sparked the question in the first place. – brianpck Oct 9 at 13:12

Having read the answers and comments above, It occurs to me this question might be better phrased as "what is a joke?" If I were to make my own joke (aside from the first sentence), it would involve my countrymen in the U.S. not understanding why British people think irony is funny. In this case it isn't "a joke" which the students laugh at, it is the situation. While this is a verbal telling with a laughter response, it is still situational comedy at the juxtaposition of a difficult to read, pronounce, and spell name of a highly respected classical figure sharing what would be a commoner's name. It would be similarly amusing to discover the U.S. President's family name used to be a name that sounds like a sack of wet excrement being dropped on a concrete floor.

protected by brianpck Sep 27 at 12:47

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