The first time I saw jape, somewhere in my earlier teens, I was japed and japed again (japers crapers!). It was in the introduction to Ambrose Bierce’s 1911 classic The Devil’s Dictionary, a collection of cynical definitions (“Education, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding”; “Learning, n. The kind of ignorance distinguishing the studious”; “Vote, n. The instrument and symbol of a freeman’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country”).
Many of Bierce’s definitions are several sentences long, and some even have illustrative poems, which I did not at first understand were all made up by Bierce himself (ironic, that, given that I did the same myself for high school English class, inventing poets with names like Les McLove and Dirk E. Oldman to flesh out an anthology rather than bothering to dig through the library). Most notable of Bierce’s fake poets was – well, here, read the sentence in question for yourself:
A conspicuous, and it is hoped not unpleasing, feature of the book is its abundant illustrative quotations from eminent poets, chief of whom is that learned and ingenious cleric, Father Gassalasca Jape, S.J., whose lines bear his initials.
I was not particularly familiar yet with this word jape (I may have seen it in Wodehouse somewhere, but those books were full of all sorts of quaint toffee-nosed terms). I was also not in the least familiar with the initials S.J. and I thought at first that this was some literary way of indicating that his initials were S.J. rather than G.J. However, I quickly saw that all the Jape poems were attributed G.J.; I think I then inferred that it was one of those obscure Latin references like Ibid. (which for years I thought was some often-quoted Latin work like the Iliad or the Aeneid, but boringer). It was a number of years before I somehow learned that it meant the bearer was a Jesuit priest, and when I learned that I immediately thought of Gassalasca Jape and thought “Ohhhhhh.”
Which is, really, the classic response to a jape, especially if you are the object. Jape is both noun and verb, and is now mostly treated as meaning ‘joke, trick, jest’ – not so much a humorous story as a one-liner, sly dig, or practical joke. But when it first showed up in English in the 1300s, it meant ‘trick, cheat, deceive’ (and also ‘seduce’ and ‘have sex’). It moved on through ‘mock’ to its current sense, which is perhaps less unkind. Perhaps. We’re not sure where we filched the word from, by the way; evidence suggests that the form came from the Old French verb japer (‘bark, yelp’) and the sense came from the Old French verb gaber (‘mock, deride’), because why wouldn’t a tricky word be tricky.
And jape has the jab of jab and the capering vowelscape of caper, not to mention that it apes ape. So it sounds right, or at least I think it does. And it has by our own times become just merry and innocent enough not to break any commandments, at least most of the time.
Speaking of which, I would be playing too mean a trick if I were not to quote one of Bierce’s poems by Father Jape. Here is Bierce’s definition of decalogue:
Decalogue, n. A series of commandments, ten in number – just enough to permit an intelligent selection for observance, but not enough to embarrass the choice. Following is the revised edition of the Decalogue, calculated for this meridian.
Thou shalt no God but me adore:
’Twere too expensive to have more.
No images nor idols make
For Robert Ingersoll to break.
Take not God’s name in vain; select
A time when it will have effect.
Work not on Sabbath days at all,
But go to see the teams play ball.
Honor thy parents. That creates
For life insurance lower rates.
Kill not, abet not those who kill;
Thou shalt not pay thy butcher’s bill.
Kiss not thy neighbor’s wife, unless
Thine own thy neighbor doth caress.
Don’t steal; thou’lt never thus compete
Successfully in business. Cheat.
Bear not false witness – that is low –
But “hear ’tis rumored so and so.”
Covet thou naught that thou hast not
By hook or crook, or somehow, got.