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?