1600 Pennsylvania Avenue / Colloquy 4: The Joe Miller Joke Book / Report on the We-Uns



After Miller’s death, John Mottley (1692–1750) brought out a book called Joe Miller’s Jests, or the Wit’s Vade-Mecum (1739), published under the pseudonym of Elijah Jenkins Esq. at the price of one shilling. This was a collection of contemporary and ancient coarse witticisms, only three of which are told of Miller. This first edition was a thin pamphlet of 247 numbered jokes. This ran to three editions in its first year.

Later (not wholly connected) versions were entitled with names such as “Joe Miller’s Joke Book”, and “The New Joe Miller” to latch onto the popularity of both Joe Miller himself and the popularity of Mottley’s first book. It should be noted that joke books of this format (i.e. “Mr Smith’s Jests”) were common even before this date. It was common practice to learn one or two jokes for use at parties etc.

Owing to the quality of the jokes in Mottley’s book, their number increasing with each of the many subsequent editions, any time-worn jest came to be called “a Joe Miller”, a Joe-Millerism, or simply a Millerism.

Joke 99 states:

A Lady’s Age happening to be questioned, she affirmed she was but Forty, and called upon a Gentleman that was in Company for his Opinion; Cousin, said she, do you believe I am in the Right, when I say I am but Forty? I ought not to dispute it, Madam, reply’d he, for I have heard you say so these ten Years.

Joke 234 speaks of:

A famous teacher of Arithmetick, who had long been married without being able to get his Wife with Child. One said to her ‘Madam, your Husband is an excellent Arithmetician’. ‘Yes, replies she, only he can’t multiply.’

Joe Miller was referred to in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843), by the character Scrooge, who remarks “Joe Miller never made such a joke as sending [the turkey] to Bob’s will be!”

Joe Miller was also referred to in James Joyce’s “Ulysses” (1922) in the limerick that Lenehan whispers during the Aeolus episode to Stephen Dedalus, the last line of which is “I can’t see the Joe Miller. Can you?”.

According to Leonard Feinberg, the 1734 edition contains one of the oldest examples of gallows humor.

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