Applied Cultural Linguistics: Romanian Jokes About the Pandemic

Far be it from me to make light of the difficult times we are all going through, but sanity sometimes requires a lighter touch (“Dinge auf die leichte Schulter nehmen” as the Germans would phrase it), so I thought I’d bring you today some intercultural competence in the form of jokes and puns about quarantine, social distancing and Covid.

Some Romanian jokes, to be exact.

Source: clipart-library.com

As cultural products or artefacts, jokes address and reflect social realities, mores and norms, which they either lampoon or reinforce (or both!). They capture myths, stereotypes and perceived realities. They represent valuable sources of information about current affairs and underscore cultural values. A joke is a cultural cue. And Covid jokes have the added benefit of an interplay between a global phenomenon and its local instantiations. The “new normal” is very present in them. We all need humor – especially these days – so here’s a sample of (some of the simpler) jokes about the pandemic circulating in Romania right now. I’d love to give credit, but they are anonymous creations I have selected from the countless memes I’ve been getting on WhatsApp lately.

Of course, jokes are funniest in the culture and language that originated them, and a lot can get lost in translation. In fact, the translation of jokes is almost invariably an adaptation to the receiving culture and to the specific target group, a process that can pose quite a challenge to translators and transcreators.

HEALTH

One prime example of such difficulties is the concept of health. In English, we usually differentiate between bodily health and mental health – or sanity. In Romanian, health = sănătate. There is no one-word equivalent for sanity. To express the concept of sanity, Romanian typically resorts to a longer phrase: sănătate mentală/psihică. As a result, the appeal to remain inside and avoid socialization in order to stay healthy immediately begs the question what kind of health we are talking about. It’s an ambiguity that Romanian humor fully exploits, especially considering that gregariousness and sociability are important dimensions of Romanian culture. The result?

“There’s no way we’re going to get out of this mess in good health. Going outside can make you sick with the virus, staying inside will make you sick in the head.”

As is well-known, isolation can have some weird effects on the human psyche. When your mind begins to develop fixations that keep you in their grip, Romanians call that “the little gnomes/goblins/imps on your brain” (pitici pe creier). The question in lockdown becomes:

“Do the hobgoblins on my brain count as pets? Because they need to be taken out for a walk…”

Reaching out to friends to exchange ideas about how to make it through is also a good strategy. The next joke is my personal favorite:

X: “What do you take to treat your depression?”

Y: “Nothing, my depression is in perfect shape!”

A little cheating also helps when you’re down:

“I stepped out and knocked on my own door. I really felt better knowing that someone is eager to see me.”

Exercise can also mean something different in quarantine, when the lockdown is strictly monitored by the police:

“I need to lose 2 lbs. I think I’ll just go outside to be chased around by the police.”

Sitting around certainly doesn’t help:

“I have to do something. My jeans buttons and their buttonholes are social distancing too.”

RELATIONSHIPS and WOMEN

Relationships are also under strain during the pandemic. We all spend way too much time cooped up together. The next joke plays on the typical reaction of a jealous wife when her husband comes home late (from work, from the pub, from the ladies) in the evening. So here is the Covid take on that situation:

Wife: “Care to tell me why you’re coming home so late from the balcony?”

Love and commitment also take on new forms as the new normal settles in. And so do love messages. A present-day Valentine’s card might read something like:

“Would you like to spend the rest of your quarantine with me?”

Asking someone out or going on a date is not without its challenges:

“Let me take you out today. Meet me by the dumpster?” or

“How about going for a walk today, my love? Let’s both take out the trash at 5.”

(Remember, movement without a special filled-in form is restricted. Taking out the trash remains the only option.)

Now, this next one is more in the vein of dark humor, but the challenge is to convey its true meaning, because it relies on wordplay. In Romanian, “inconștient” can signify both “unconscious” and “irresponsible”. Linguistic ambiguity leads to laughter:

The hospital calls the wife to inform her that, unfortunately, her husband is “unconscious” (= has lost consciousness). Her unphased reply? “You’re telling me? He’s been like that (=irresponsible) for 25 years!”

Again, gender roles resurface – and keep in mind that Romania is what G. Hofstede calls a “feminine” culture. The wife is often seen as the more responsible of the two (by women), but also as nagging and castrating (by men).

Speaking of gender role stereotypes, try to guess whose point of view the following joke represents. It portrays Romanian women as volcanic and opinionated, unrelenting rhetoricians and controversialists. That can be an issue when forced to spend time alone, in self-isolation:

Woman to a female friend: “I felt great today! Ah, it was just like the old days! I had a huge fight with myself for no particular reason, and, in the end, I was right, too!”

Remember the movies? It used to be that burglars and bank robbers were hard to identify because they always wore a mask… Nowadays, this can lead to slightly different problems:

A: “And who’s the father?”

B: “How should I know? He was wearing a mask!”

LIFESTYLE

The following joke gives a surprising amount of insight into the daily lives of Romanians and their shopping habits. Aside from supermarket chains, each city block usually has its own small, family-owned “non-stop” or 24/7 grocery store, where you can get anything from mineral water to bread, chips, detergents, or that indispensable chocolate bar at any hour of the day and the night. It’s the shop that never closes. It’s the go-to place for most Romanians when they run out of toilet paper at 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning or they need another couple of beers for their guests. However, quarantine rules currently in place in many large cities forbid going out after 10 p.m. Which has resulted in the following joke:

“What is the world coming to? They’ve stopped serving people at the non-stop.” or “I’ve lived to witness the unthinkable: The 24/7 is closed.”

It’s not uncommon for older homes in the countryside to still use an outhouse as a latrine (no indoor toilets). This is a cause for embarrassment for many urbanites and a constant topic of lamentation in the press. Combine this with Romanian Orthodoxy and a mischievous sense of humor and you get a new Beatitude:

“Blessed are the poor whose toilets are situated in their backyards, for they shall enjoy at least 3-4 walks outside every day…”

Of course, the pandemic isn’t a breeze for anyone, even though Romanians are known for their self-irony and their penchant to poke fun at their difficulties as a coping mechanism. Covid has caused many people to lose their jobs or at least part of their income, which is what the next joke deals with:

“I looked inside my wallet while chopping the onions. That way I don’t have to weep twice!”

Any similar or different jokes where you’re at? I’d love to hear them!

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