Q: What's the shortest book in the world?

A: "Who's Who in Ethnonia."

By Lawrence Meyer

AT THE MOMENT I am in the process of inventing a new, non-existent ethnic group. The reason for this exercise stems from my boss' recent admonition about a column we both read and chuckled over. After laughing at one particular comment, however, he said, "It's a good line; but we can't use it." We couldn't use it, he said, because the comment was offensive to the group in question.

Under the no-offense rule, I cannot reveal either the comment or the identity of the group. That's the way censorship works, folks. I'm lucky I can write about this at all.

I'm not here to protest the ruling or to lament the passing of a happier, more innocent time in our national history when anyone was fair game -- the Irish, blacks, Jews, Poles, Chinese, etc. Being a member of one of those groups myself, I'm as quick as anyone else to take offense when my ox gets gored.

Indeed, reading some local advertising of World War I vintage, what strikes me now as humorous, perhaps even hilarious, is the absurdity of the stereotypes employed -- stereotypes so exaggerated that they say more about the persons holding them than the groups supposedly portrayed.

I find it impossible, for example, to believe that there anywhere existed blacks even remotely as ludicrous as the character created by Stepin Fetchit. Rather that character represented an application of the law of ethnic relativity -- the attempt by one group to elevate itself by depressing the image of another.

Obviously, then, blacks cannot find the character of Stepin Fetchit (or, probably, Amos and Andy either) anything but offensive. Likewise for a lot of other so-called ethnic humor. I'm not sure that some ethnic jokes (for example, 99.99 per cent of all Polish jokes) were ever funny in a way that wasn't mean- spirited toward the group being laughed at.

On the other hand, ethnic jokes can be funny. What gives offense isn't so much the joke, as who tells it. I might be in stitches over the Abie-Solly joke that my wife's Uncle Maury tells. But let my Episcopalian friend, Winthrop, try to lay it on me (Yiddish accent and all), and there's a good chance I'll conclude that he's an anti-Semite.

It isn't that the joke's not funny. We're simply suspicious of the motives of the joke-teller. And every time someone tries to smooth over the point -- "Don't get me wrong, some of my best friends are (blank)" -- eyes glaze over.

We get our backs up when a non-member of our clan tries to get a laugh at our expense, and over the years, as more and more ethnic groups have been empowered and admitted into the mainstream of American society, there are fewer and fewer ethnic jokes that may be told.

I recall a delightful Jacques Tati movie some years ago in which he was of mixed French and Italian blood. The whole movie was aimed at poking fun at each. I'm not sure that its counterpart could be made in America now without some group or other picketing in protest over an ethnic slur. We all have gotten very touchy about ethnicity. As a result, we stand in danger of losing our sense of humor about ourselves.

One of the reasons that ethnic jokes are funny -- even if we can't tell them any more -- is that the law of ethnic relativity touches something real in human nature -- the need we all have to feel superior to someone else. That is a need we ought to recognize and acknowledge. History is full of examples, many of them decidedly unfunny.

In a better world, we could keep trying to change human nature and examine the nature of prejudice and teach our children that we are all equal in the sight of God, brothers under the skin, etc., etc. But several thousand years of human civilization appear not to have made a dent in the problem. No, the need is there and has to be reckoned with. My solution, which will acknowledge the problem and offend no one, is to invent the Ethnonians.

Ethnonians come from a depressed country where the population is of subnormal intelligence. The honesty of Ethnonians is in doubt. They have a highly developed acquisitive spirit which they satisfy either by outright theft or by sharp, shady and underhanded business practices. They tend to congregate with each other, often engaging in loud and boisterous conversation.

Ethnonians also have what we would all characterize as low sexual mores. The women are sensuous; the men are renowned for their sexual prowess. But neither sex puts any stock in marital fidelity or even in the institution of marriage. A high percentage of Ethnonian children are born out of wedlock.

At the same time, however, some of America's most prominent families are of Ethnonian descent (my boss won't let me name any names here). By virtue of an Ethnonian network -- which consists of certain prominent athletic and social clubs in major American cities, prep schools and colleges -- these upper- crust Ethnonians maintain power and influence over the major financial institutions. These upper-crust Ethnonians tend to liquid lunches, but since they drink Scotch and Bombay gin, their high rate of alcoholism masquerades as elegance.

Now we are ready for a whole raft of Ethnonian jokes --

"How many Ethnonians does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" Answer: Three. One to screw in the bulb and two to turn the ladder. Or: Three. One to screw in the bulb, one to crack the ice and one to pour the martinis. "Who won the Ethnonian beauty contest?" Answer: No one.

"How do you know Lawrence of Ethnonia when you see him?" He wears a cape and rides on a pig.

"The Ethnonians plan to land a man on the Sun." How? "They'll go by night."

By creating the mythical Ethnonians, we could painlessly restore ethnic slurs and humor to the central position they have always enjoyed in our national life. Our irrepressible urge to put somebody else down would be satisfied.

And if any Ethnonians show up, they can always change their names and try to pass for Polish, Italian, Jewish, black, Serb or Croat.