Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, April 3, 2015

Fowl affair

I Swear

Vic Fleming

What kind of a thing is that to say about a chicken? Why would you challenge or impugn her motive? All she wants to do is cross the darn road.”

“You’re misunderstanding the issue. She clearly has already crossed the road. It says so right here in the text. The query goes to her reasoning. Why did she do it?”

“So, we’re talking motive here. I rest my case.”

“You’re both off base. I learned this riddle, and dozens of answers for it, from Sister Nancy. She was quite the jokester by the time her age hit double digits. I knew it was not original with her, though. She was quite the parrot when it came to riddles.”

“So, where’d it come from?”

“Well, it seems that a Big Apple monthly called The Knickerbocker ran the equivalent of this riddle in 1847.”

“They had chickens in New York City in 1847? How wide were the streets? I mean it’s one thing for a hen to take out across a country lane with little to no fear of being hit by a city bus ….”

“There were no buses in 1847. I know that much.”

“… Another thing altogether for a rooster to take on the 12-lane Trans-Manhattan Expressway.”

“Scholars suggest that The Knickerbocker’s original answer to the inquiry—’because it wants to get on the other side’—implies that the chicken has not yet entered the roadway. It is also postulated that, as a joke, this question-answer combo flourished, leading to variant questions and punny answers.”

“Flourished, huh? Those New Yorkers! They’ll make a joke of anything.”

“So, give us an example.”

“In Potter’s American Monthly, it was asked, ‘Why should not a chicken cross the road?,’ and the answer offered was ‘It would be a fowl proceeding.’”

“Oh, those punsters of the 19th century!”

“C’mon, man. It’s a joke for children.”

“Yeah, but it’s not funny. At least, not as originally told. It’s too logical. No incongruity.”

“Some call that an anti-joke. Seriously. Look it up.”

“So, kids are invited to come up with their own answers. So, it’s intellectually challenging, right?”

“Rot! Kids are always told the original answer immediately, and that colors their subsequent responses. I wish I’d never been told an answer. I’d like to know what I, as a 4-year-old, actually thought of when I first heard the question. Surely I had seen chickens crossing roads.”

“As a kid, I’d have thought the point of such a question was to suggest that the chicken ought not cross a road. For it could not know that whatever it sought on the other side would be worth the risk of getting run over by a truck.”

“There were no cars and trucks in 1847.”

“There were horses and buggies that posed similar dangers.”

“And stagecoaches!”

“Like on Broadway?”

“As a 4-year-old, I think I’d have personified the chicken, given her reasoning capacity, thoughts, feelings, desires—all the things that play into the silly answers that various comics and comic wannabes have come up with over time.”

“In my book, that’s motive.”

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.