794: Inside Joke

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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Inside Joke
I've looked through a few annotated versions of classic books, and it's shocking how much of what's in there is basically pop-culture references totally lost on us now.
Title text: I've looked through a few annotated versions of classic books, and it's shocking how much of what's in there is basically pop-culture references totally lost on us now.


Inside jokes occur between friends and family members that live through a shared experience, which makes them laugh when they make reference to it later on. For people not "in the know", these inside jokes can come across as being completely incomprehensible, and in extreme cases just sound like random words strung together.

Randall posits the theory that this has been going on throughout history, and that historical figures probably had the same number of inside jokes as any modern group of high-school students. He probably chose to compare them to high-school students because that's generally the age where a person's social skills start to develop into an adult level - or not, in some cases.

The title text says that there are several classic books - the Odyssey comes to mind - that make pop-culture references to events that no modern reader was alive to see. Topicality sometimes has the unfortunate side-effect of the work being far less understood given time, and many references that would have made perfect sense to a reader at the time of publication now are completely lost on modern readers. Consider, as an example, the Shakespeare play, "Much Ado About Nothing". It is a direct title - much angst and anxiety is had in the play's plot over nothing of any real consequence. The title also has another meaning, however - "nothing" was a slang term for a woman's vagina, and so the title is actually a sexual pun. This fact is completely lost on most modern readers of the play, who are not familiar with the double meaning that that word had at the time.

The inside joke presented in the comic appears to be a reference to the esoterically-named Buddha Jumps Over the Wall, a type of fish soup that allegedly smelled so delicious, Buddhist disciples would sneak out of their meditative ceremonies to eat it.


[Two men with beards stand at a crude wooden counter, one is wearing a turban. Behind the man without a turban is a woman kneeling on the ground and putting something into a box.]
Turban man: Nine silvers for a ham? That's too much!
No-turban: Too much? There's a monk out back with a ladder!
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
There's no reason to think that people throughout history didn't have just as many inside jokes and catchphrases as any modern group of high-schoolers.

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I believe the reference to the ladder is the origin of the 'Monk Jump over the Wall Soup', where a monk (who is not allowed to eat meat) broke his meditation to escape from the monastery as he smelt the delicious food cooking on the other side.


In this case, the ham seller comments that his products are so delicious that 'even the monk nearby is climbing over the wall to get some ham', after being remarked that his product was too expensive. 11:48, 29 May 2013 (UTC)Justin

Added the last line to the explanation Ad1217 (talk) 19:13, 16 May 2014 (UTC)

Assuming Randall Munroe had a specific reference in mind, it could just as well be a reference to Saint John Climacus, known as "John of the ladder". AD 525-606. His book "the ladder" was widely circulated and concerns steps to an ascetic life. The roman catholic church celebrate him during the fasting season, when one is not to eat meat.

The joke here is then that "monk out back with a ladder" can mean both "so climb in the rear window and steal some" and "The monk's here with a copy of the book "the ladder", go convert to free ascetism if money and meat is too much for you" 12:11, 19 January 2015 (UTC)

Wouldn't the shopkeeper say "The Ladder", not "a ladder" then? -Pennpenn 22:45, 30 March 2015 (UTC)

It is absolutely ludicrous to try to find the meaning or reference in this comic. Randall attempted to come up with something which was incomprehensible. That's the whole point. If he'd thought for a moment there was an actual known origin or explanation for this ham joke, he would immediately have changed it to something else. I mean, come on. XKCD itself is a random, meaningless string. Will edit. AmbroseChapel (talk) 23:52, 17 September 2017 (UTC)