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Getting the Joke 55 Years Later

Tenniel’s White Queen in Through the Looking Glass

Tenniel’s White Queen in Through the Looking Glass

I was a mere fourteen years old, a Freshman in Latin 1 at Chanel High School in Bedford, Ohio. My instructor was the Rev. Seamus MacEnri, S.M., from Dungannon, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. One day, he archly drew the following on the chalkboard:

Jam tomorrow, jam yesterday, but never jam today

Our reaction was a uniform, “Whaaa?” But then, we were all a bunch of hayseed kids from the southeastern suburbs of Cleveland and didn’t have Father MacEnri’s breadth of experience. It took quite a while before the whole joke became clear to me. Today, in this post, I will analyze the joke, effectively forestalling any laughter or snickers.

First, let’s take a look at this from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

“I’m sure I’ll take you with pleasure!” the [White] Queen said. “Two pence a week, and jam every other day.”

Alice couldn’t help laughing, as she said, “I don’t want you to hire me – and I don’t care for jam.”

“It’s very good jam,” said the Queen.

“Well, I don’t want any to-day, at any rate.”

“You couldn’t have it if you did want it,” the Queen said. “The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day.”

“It must come sometimes to ‘jam to-day’,” Alice objected.

“No, it can’t,” said the Queen. “It’s jam every other day: to-day isn’t any other day, you know.”

“I don’t understand you,” said Alice. “It’s dreadfully confusing!”

And so were we all confused. Now, why would a teacher of Latin spring this rather arcane joke on a bunch of high school freshmen. It took a while to swirl around in my mind before I got the picture. It all comes down to something that Medieval copyists started doing in the 13th century:

Sometimes one will see a “j” in Latin. Technically Latin has no letter J. It was introduced in the 13th century or thereabouts to differentiate between the vowel i and the consonant i. The consonantal i is like our y. “Major” in Latin is pronounced as MAH-yor. Until this last century, most printed Latin texts used the j to indicate the different sounds. Today the j’s are usually replaced with the more classical i’s.

That’s why we have words like juvenile and justice, which come from the Latin iuvenilis and iustitia respectively.

Now, what does jam—or should I say iam?—mean in Latin? It means nothing less than now. Jam tomorrow, jam yesterday, but never jam now.

Well, Father MacEnri, I finally got the joke—and damned near killed it, too.

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