The Delight of A Public Inside Joke

Something which, for me, is a consistent source of glee and delight, is the human capacity for inside jokes. At the micro end of the spectrum, it could be nothing more than a knowing glance amongst friends; the strategic use of a select word or phrase (e.g. spaceship rides). At the macro end, the joke rather loses its “inside” quality and instead is a more or less public phenomenon. In between you have the inside jokes only decipherable to a certain company’s current or former employees, or the readers of a certain blog, or fans of a particular band.

Regardless of the size of the community within which a joke may be “inside”, there is something glorious about a well-executed one. They’re a testament to social ingenuity, human creativity, and a compelling record of the layered webs of associations, implications, memories, and references we all carry with us. They’re a tribute to the wonderful plasticity of language, and a monument to the myriad subtly different meanings encoded in speech and text.*

Prompting this rhapsodic discussion of inside jokes was the discovery this week of what, in my mind, is one of the all-time great ones. In The Culture of Power in Serbia, a book born of field work conducted in Belgrade during the early 1990s, Eric Gordy writes:**

The term novokomponovna, originally used to refer to “newly composed” folk music, took on a variety of derisive uses in this new environment. A tasteless and garish piece of clothing would be called novokomponovano. The rare examples of new construction in Belgrade, like the high-end retail mall on Čumićevo Sokače or the massive heavy-on-the-reflective-glass showcase of the Ktitor furniture company, would be called novokomponovna arhitektura. A variety of social actors had the adjective attached to them as well. The pyramid-scheme “bankers” Jezdimir Vasiljević-Gazda Jezda and Dafina Milanović became the novokomponovna elita.

This is genius. I certainly don’t want to make light of the broad social circumstances which prompted this type of wry, black, derisive humor. But as humor (and not, say, as the symptom of a deeply troubled era in recent Serbian history), it’s an exquisite example of the inside joke at the societal level. Since it was a phenomenon present on a scale such that a Western sociologist could identify it, the novokomponovna reapplication doesn’t seem like an inside joke in the classic sense of the phrase. Still, it’s hardly comprehensible if you’re not either of the former Yugoslavia or familiar with certain aspects of the country’s post-World War II culture. And in the early 1990s in Serbia, one imagines the sneering deployment of the term novokomponovna to describe everything from shopping malls to politicians was a decently reliable marker of at least some level of antipathy towards the Milosevic government which had aided and abetted the explosive growth of the gangster economy which underpinned this flowering of newly-composed gaudiness and kitsch.

But unluckily for curious readers, it’s not clear from the text whether or not this newly employed adjective achieved such widespread use that even the targets of its derision would have found the phrase on their lips (though perhaps unaware of its negative connotation). If it did, then the phrase achieves a sort of meta inside joke-ness; the marker of “getting” it is not just using the phrase, it’s how the phrase is used and how it is received – with a finger against the nose and a twinkle in the eye, or with all the earnestness of a puppy? In less convoluted terms – you’re left with basic irony.

*More perniciously, they can also serve to mark in/out groups, but these examples are pretty harmless; we are talking about inside jokes after all
**Page 141 if you happen to have the book available