This is one of many curious British and American differences that I’ll be exploring in my webinar for IATEFL this Saturday (19th Oct 2013), along with questions like ‘Are Americans really more direct?’ and ‘What’s the role of sarcasm in American English?’
To join the webinar, follow this link: http://www.iatefl.org/membership-information/iatefl-webinars
It’s suitable for English teachers or anyone with an interest in linguistics and British and American differences. It’s free and open to all so hope some of you can make it.
I’ve been arguing that ‘sarcasm’ means different things in BrE and AmE, so is it the same with ‘irony’? I’ll try to be systematic about this because there are different kinds of irony.
1. The most common sort seems to be of the verbal kind. An example would be a sarcastic remark where you say the opposite of what you mean, like ‘Yeah right’ when you mean ‘No way’. And we generally all know that you mean ‘no way’, so it’s often funny. These kinds of remarks seem pretty common on both sides of the pond to me, and we could use the word ‘ironic’ in both varieties to describe them.
2. Then there’s fictional or dramatic irony, so when something is strikingly obvious to the reader or viewer but the characters or actors can’t see it. It’s pretty specific to literature and there might be a BrE /AmE difference, but if there is, I haven’t noticed it.
3. And then there’s a situational irony, where instead of things happening as expected, we get the opposite result. This irony is often of the cosmic kind, where the world seems to be conspiring against us. So we might set out with the best of intentions doing what seems sensible to achieve a goal, but it later turns out that we did everything wrong and we wind up achieving the opposite effect. (I keep thinking of Del Boy in ‘Only fools of horses’ setting out to help Rodney mend his marriage and only making matters worse.) Again, I think we use ‘ironic’ in the same way for this in BrE and AmE.
‘But what about Alanis Morissette?’, you ask. ‘Did she misunderstand the word when she wrote her song ‘Ironic’?’
Yes, I think she misunderstood meaning No. 3. The events she describes wouldn’t normally be described as ironic in AmE. (You’d agree, wouldn’t you, American readers?) As the Irish comedian Ed Byrne puts it:
“The only ironic thing about that song is it’s called ‘Ironic’ and it’s written by a woman who doesn’t know what irony is. That’s quite ironic.”
Here’s Ed in action. (Thanks very much for the link, Shaun!)
So I reckon:
‘sarcasm’ – different meanings in the UK and US
‘irony’ – same meanings
Mind you, I read something that gave me pause for thought at this site ( I’m guessing it’s AmE.)
Well, this was news to me because I found that fire station example pretty ironic and the soap dish example very un-ironic. So maybe it’s another individual’s misguided take on things, or perhaps I’m missing something here.
Remember Bob Geldof, Boomtown Rats singer and oh so earnest political activist of Live Aid fame? He’s sometimes referred to in the UK press as ‘Saint Bob’. Would you say British newspapers are being sarcastic when they do that?
OK, done that? Remember your answer and read on.
So where were we?
Well, in part one I said that in BrE, we describe remarks as ‘sarcastic’ when we’re saying the opposite of what we mean. Meanwhile in AmE, ‘sarcastic’ seems to cover a wider range of remarks, such as those you’d find here or here. They mostly wouldn’t qualify as sarcastic in the BrE sense, but I think AmE readers seemed to agree that they would in AmE. However, reading comments from fellow Brits, I’m still wondering if I’m defining BrE sarcasm too narrowly.
So now I need to tell you that someone very knowledgeable has come to the exact opposite conclusions to mine. Ha! You can read more about it over at Lynneguist’s excellent ‘Separated by a common language’ blog. Solo was one of Lynne’s students, and she wrote:
So Brits and Americans (and everyone else) how did you answer that question earlier?
I’m sure Solo’s right that ‘sarcastic’ means different things in BrE and AmE. But I wonder if we’ve both been going up the wrong garden path here. We’ve both tried to apply that ‘saying-the-opposite-of-what’s-meant’ definition to one variety or the other. But it’s very limiting and probably only works in part in both varieties. And we’ve both presumed that one variety encompasses a broader set of meanings for sarcasm than the other. But a more helpful way to think about it might be something like this:
Click here to read part one of this series and here for part two.
An overt nod and a wink seems to be used a good deal to signal sarcasm in the US. I ran searches on my personal emails and I can tell you that only my ‘merican correspondents ever say ‘just kidding’.
And (interestingly for this Brit) this extends to ‘mericans who are really close to me – folks who I feel sure must know that I know when they’re making fun. They don’t flinch when I mock or tease them and they give as good as they get. But when we’re trading friendly, intimate insults, they add a ’just kidding’. So what different politeness rules are operating here?