Jul 192010


I’ve just read here that researchers have devised an algorithm that can detect irony in long texts. Wow! Robots can detect sarcasm!

Apparently they ‘trained’ the algorithm by giving it a long list of sarcastic phrases from Amazon product reviews. Now were they detecting British or US sarcasm, I wonder?

‘Sarcasm’ is a tricky concept for a Brit in the US. Popular wisdom amongst Brits is Americans don’t get it, and popular wisdom amongst Americans is it’s ‘bad’. Yet I seem to find myself surrounded by it here. So I thought I’d stick my neck out and have a stab at describing what I think it might mean in the two varieties. I’m still learning, so Brits and Americans, please put me right if you think I’m off target.

In BrE, I think we generally describe remarks as ‘sarcastic’ when we’re saying the opposite of what we mean e.g. ‘Wow, that’s a surprise’ when something was very predictable, or ‘Nice weather, eh?’ when it’s pouring with rain, or ‘Punctual, as always.’ when someone who always comes late finally arrives. So sarcasm can be either nice (a funny joke) or nasty (an unkind remark) but some element of ‘saying the opposite of what you mean’ needs to be involved for something to be labeled sarcastic.

Take a tour round some American websites like this one or this one and you’ll find remarks that wouldn’t qualify as sarcastic in this BrE sense. Nevertheless they’ve been labeled ‘sarcastic’ by American writers. So ‘sarcastic’ seems to be used to describe a wider variety of remarks in AmE– some saying the opposite of what’s meant, but many not. Depending on context, sarcastic seems to mean something closer to ‘unkind’, ‘insulting’ or simply ‘funny or amusing’ here.

Now fellow Brits, I need your help with this – am I defining British ‘sarcasm’ too tightly above? Are there BrE ‘sarcastic’ remarks that don’t fit the ‘saying the opposite of what’s meant’ rule?

And consider this example:

Bill Bryson tells a story of a return to the US after he’d been living in the UK for many years. I can’t remember it exactly, but as I recall the agriculture police guy asked ‘Any fruit or vegetables, sir?’ and he quipped back something like ‘OK, I’ll have half a pound of carrots and a couple of pounds of potatoes.’

Could you describe Bill’s quip as sarcastic there? And Americans, what do you think?

 Posted by at 10:39 pm
Jul 012009

talking_sheepSarcasm has been a mystery to me in the US.  Popular wisdom amongst Brits is Americans don’t get it, and popular wisdom amongst Americans is it’s ‘bad’. Yet I seem to find myself surrounded by it here.

Well, I read a great post on sarcasm tonight. Here are some extracts

Over the course of my research into the differences between American and British (especially English) sarcasm however, it became clear to me that the difference isn’t so much in the way we use it, as in the way we define it.

Yep, think I’d already twigged that one .

While the AmE definition emphasi{s/z}es negativity and saying the opposite of what is meant, Brits seem to have a far broader definition, which includes humorous exchange, clever wordplay and affectionate insults or criticisms of others (even those we don’t know, which I think may be the most fundamental cultural difference).

So perhaps this confusion is largely about how close we are to the people we’re teasing/insulting? Well I never! Now I have a new way of looking at things to put on and try out for a while.

This might make life on this side of the pond a lot less confusing – Thank you Solo!

 Posted by at 5:59 am
May 082009

Sometimes AmE words get exported across the pond, but I can’t find ‘seriousity‘ in the Compact Oxford dictionary. I wonder if it will ever get past UK border controls.

travellersI think the best place to observe seriousity in action is in queues/lines for security at airports. If a security guard plucks an American out of the line at JFK for a thorough check with the wand, everyone’s demeanours will be solemn – the checker, the checkee and all members of the checkee’s travelling party. In a similar situation with Brits at Heathrow, it’s more likely there will be smiles exchanged, a few chuckles and perhaps even a bit of banter about bombs in bags between the checkee and their fellow travellers. There’s almost a social requirement to make light of the situation.

Of course both Americans and Brits love to laugh and joke, but humour is more likely to extend into serious contexts for Brits. Somehow they seem to provide irresistible opportunities for irony, which of course makes it tricky for Americans (and many other foreigners). How can they know whether we mean what we’re saying or whether we’re just joking around? Heck, in British conversations, I’m not sure whether I mean what I’m saying or just joking around a lot of the time.

So anyway, I can’t see seriousity making it in the UK. But I mention it because it’s something to bear in mind if you’re a Brit trying to speak ‘merican.

 Posted by at 2:18 pm
Apr 232009

Sarcasm in AmE is an ongoing puzzle for me. One reason I think it might be hard to understand is because of huge divides between red states, blue states, north, south, east, west, different ethnicities, the young, the old, city dwellers, burb dwellers, etc etc etc
And it’s all made more complicated by the fact that the word ‘sarcasm’ seems to have different meanings in American and British English. In the UK I think we generally restrict the word to situations where we’re saying the opposite of what we mean. So ‘sarcasm’ might carry negative connotations, or it might not.
In American, sarcasm seems to apply to a wide range of remarks that are intended to offend or be nasty and it always seems to carry negative connotations. The act of sarcasm is severely frowned upon. At least, that’s what Americans tell me…
But the fact is, I hear American’s employing sarcasm in the British sense all the time and nobody seems to get annoyed. So they’ll express disagreement or disbelief with ‘Yeah, right!’ when they mean ‘No way!’ and everyone understands that they mean the opposite of what they’re saying. But because no anger is implied or taken, it doesn’t seem to count as ‘sarcasm’ here. (Unless you’re an American linguist).  So it’s all highly confusing to this Brit.
If positive politeness is indeed highly valued in American culture, (and I maintain it is), we should expect to see more shows of solidarity, awarding of esteem, and efforts to include everyone in conversation. And of course nastiness would be severely frowned on in that context. Something rather wonderful that that bears this out is I find back biting comments seem to disappear from my life when I’m in the US.

 Posted by at 7:55 am