Mother-in-law joke

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A doctor informs his patient's mother-in-law that he may need to resort to tapping – she misunderstands him as meaning tapping alcohol. Wood engraving by C. Keene, 1880.

Humour and jokes about one's mother-in-law (the mother of one's spouse) are a mainstay of comedy. The humour is based on the premise that the average mother-in-law often considers her son-in-law to be unsuitable for her daughter (or daughter-in-law unsuitable for her son), and usually includes the stereotype that mothers-in-law are generally overbearing, obnoxious, or unattractive.[1] This has commonly been referred to as the "battle."[citation needed]

British comedians such as Les Dawson and Jim Davidson have often used them, and many television sitcoms have featured stereotypical mothers-in-law.

There is evidence that this joke dates back to Roman times: Satire VI by Juvenal says that one cannot be happy while one's mother-in-law is still alive.[1] Most of the mother-in-law jokes are easily translatable to other languages and are easily understandable in most European cultures.

In a book on cartooning written by Dave Breger, the author lists a series of "tired gags", and gives a suggestion on how to exploit them. In his illustration, Breger and his wife go to a museum and see a Tyrannosaurus skeleton. Mrs. Breger says, "And no funny remarks, please, about that Mother called or something..."[2]

A study of mothers-in-law by Pamela Cotterill found that "they tended not to be upset by jokes because they seemed so far fetched they couldn't apply to them, but they didn't find them funny". Cotterill also found that daughters-in-law didn't find them funny either, largely because they saw that one day the jokes could be applied to them.[1][3]

The jokes are considered offensive by some. A widely reported case is that of the London borough where, in 2010, a workshop leaflet called "Cultural Awareness: General Problems" advised against using them. The leaflet states that "mother-in-law jokes, as well as offensively sexist in their own right, can also be seen as offensive on the grounds that they disrespect elders or parents."[4][5]


The stereotype is often portrayed on film and in popular entertainment.


The plant Sansevieria trifasciata is sometimes referred to as "mother-in-law's tongue".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Luisa Dillner: Mothers-in-law are lovely, in their place. Their own place, that is - Commentators - Voices - The Independent
  2. ^ Breger, Dave. How to Draw and Sell Cartoons. Putnam, 1966. ISBN 0399104240
  3. ^ Mothers and Daughters-in-Law: A Study of Intergenerational Relationships Between Family Women. Staffordshire Polytechnic, 1989
  4. ^ Council denies ban on mother-in-law jokes (From Times Series)
  5. ^ Council outlaws mother-in-law jokes - Telegraph

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