It is one of the simplest, most beautiful retorts in the English language. “Guess what?” “Chicken butt.” In just two words and three syllables, the interrogator has been made a fool in the eyes of all those present. The original question is utterly negated, and the respondent has clearly established dominance. “Chicken butt” is a conversational masterstroke, good for any number of occasions though rarely heard outside of the playground. The best part of the joke is that it’s timeless. Chickens are funny. Butts are funny. Chicken butts are almost incalculably funny. Those facts are never going to change.
But this witty rejoinder must have started somewhere. Over at Today I Found Out, in response to a request from reader Matt R., writer Melissa Blevins (no relation) delves into the origins of the “chicken butt” joke and traces its roots back to the Great Depression, when street vendors could be heard yelling “Chicken butt! Five cents a cut!” to passersby on city sidewalks. The “butt” in this context referred to a chicken’s shoulder, however, not its posterior.
A reference to these street vendors made its way into George Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess in 1935, though here, “butts” was rhymed with “guts.” A primordial ancestor of the modern day “chicken butt” joke also turns up in a 1962 novel by Charles G. Bell. By the early 1970s, version of the joke were being cited in academic works about language and early childhood education. Apparently, the term “chicken butt” served a double purpose back then. It could be used as a wisecracking answer to “What?” or it could just be employed as an all-purpose insult. The documentation, unfortunately, is both spotty and anecdotal. In all likelihood, Blevins finds, the humorous turn of phrase “originated in southern black-American culture at least as early as the 1960s and probably a bit before.” From there, the whole English-speaking world embraced it.
Regardless of its origins, the “chicken butt” joke has heartily endured throughout the decades. It’s such an integral part of kid-dom that it even popped up in an episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Demonstrating a surprising amount of wit (for him), Goofy uses it on Mickey, thoroughly humiliating the famous mouse in front of Donald.