In my native language we have lots of ways (some of them very funny) of saying that you, or someone else didn't understand a joke right away. That is, he/she needed some time to figure it out.

I wonder if there's any idiomatic way of expressing that in English.

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    One that's used often in UK and AU when someone doesn't get something at all (not restricted to a joke) is: "That went right over his/her/their head"
    – Deco
    Commented Feb 6, 2013 at 23:55
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    Some people call these joke grenades (~1:36) where you tell them, and then wait for several seconds for people to get them and start to laugh.
    – Jim
    Commented Feb 7, 2013 at 0:48
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    It's not quite the same thing, but "whoosh!" is the sound of a joke going over someone's head.
    – user230
    Commented Feb 7, 2013 at 1:39
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    @snailplane: Those two are very much related. However, "whoosh!" requires the hearer to already be familiar with the idiom "over his head;" otherwise, that onomatopoeia will go, well, right over the hearer's head :^)
    – J.R.
    Commented Feb 7, 2013 at 10:23

6 Answers 6


The word get is particularly used these days in the context of understanding jokes - and even more particularly in the negative, for not understanding. With no other context...

"I don't get it", "He doesn't get it!", "Don't you get it?", etc.

...are very likely to be assumed to be in reference to a joke that wasn't understood.

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    +1 For both the most universally understandable phrase (probably understood in UK and US English), and for one that, more than the others, is specific to "getting a joke".
    – David Hall
    Commented Feb 7, 2013 at 7:43
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    @David: ty. Actually, the answer itself isn't intended to be a joke, but somebody didn't "get" it (I got an anonymous downvote! :) Commented Feb 7, 2013 at 13:13
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    youtube.com/watch?v=OGzCjxvoJNI watch from 0.45 to hear the expression: "I don't get it" in its context.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 2, 2013 at 11:24

The first phrase that comes to mind is 'The penny dropped'. As with jwpat7's suggestion, this phrase is not limited to understanding a joke, but is commonly used in that sense.

Particularly in a situation where a lot of people have been laughing at a joke and I finally understand it, I would say:

"Ah, the penny just dropped!"

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    Nice idiomatic expression! But you don't often hear it used in the negative for when the penny hasn't dropped - except when followed by yet, with the strong implication that it soon will. Commented Feb 7, 2013 at 0:26
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    I'd not even thought of the negative usage for some reason. I feel that 'Waiting for the penny to drop' is moderately common, though perhaps that is a NZ English peculiarity - seems likely that this depends a lot on very localised culture such as television programs.
    – David Hall
    Commented Feb 7, 2013 at 7:46
  • In my language if someone doesn't get something, we say his/her penny is bent (so it's stuck and is likely to not drop).
    – Færd
    Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 16:01

You may hear over his/her head.

That one went over his head.

While it applies more to someone who is not familiar enough with English or the appropriate cultural/topical reference to get the joke, rather than someone who is just slow on the uptake, it's just as likely to happen in an ELL setting as the latter.

It can also be expressed by simply waving your hand over your head and making an apologetic expression.

  • +1: As with penny dropped, this one is a common idiomatic expression (an equivalent is That one passed him by). Commented Feb 7, 2013 at 13:41

The phrase slow on the uptake, often is so used. As seen from the examples at Collins Dictionary, it does not specifically refer to being slow to understand a joke, but I've often heard it used that way.

  • Related: “dawn comes late in some countries”.
    – Jon Purdy
    Commented Feb 7, 2013 at 5:39

The phrase "late to the punchline" is idiomatic, and always refers to this situation.


If your auditory audience are active Web users, they may be aware about an Internet meme, Slowpoke.

image from here

Urban dictionary defines slowpoke as "An unnecessarily slow person, not mentally, just physically."

There's also a Pokémon with the same name.

Hence, this term is often used on Internet boards to denote a person who's too slow to get a joke.

By the way, it can be also used if someone is posting an old joke that was popular a while ago, and everyone already knows it.

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    I do not think this is a useful word for someone learning English if they're not already encountering it. In which case they would know it, or easily be able to look it up. Commented Feb 7, 2013 at 4:28
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    @FumbleFingers The Internet memes are essential part of the language. An English learner is already exposed to memes within StackExchange network. See do you haz teh codez?. Commented Feb 7, 2013 at 11:04
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    @bytebuster "Auditory", as a noun, is in fact the old word, and I was excited to see you revive it. Commented Feb 7, 2013 at 13:37
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    @FumbleFingers I concur. It may be a large part of a scope since people already use it, but some may think it's not for the learners. Likewise any idiomatic constructs. Commented Feb 7, 2013 at 13:42
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    @bytebuster: Even if the actual word auditory exists in your language, it's certainly not used by Anglophones in your context here. Commented Feb 7, 2013 at 13:51

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