Aug 142010

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.)

The word “irony” is among the most commonly misused (and misunderstood) words in the English language. Most people think that irony means a juxtaposition of opposites, as in:

• It was ironic that the fire station burned down.

While this sentence has some element of irony in it, it is not really ironic, and does not portray the full and correct meaning of the word irony. True irony involves some form of deceit, duplicity, or hypocrisy, be it intentional or accidental... …

The most common form of irony is when the spoken words do not convey the underlying meaning. For example, it would be ironical for you to say:

• He is as smart as a soap dish

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.

Any thoughts?

Here’s the rest of this series: part one, part two, part three

 Posted by at 5:25 am

  24 Responses to “Sarcasm in the UK and US – Part four: Does irony mean something different?”

  1. Then let’s dot the i’s and cross the t’s. What is it in the Ironic song?

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Karenne Sylvester, BELTfree. BELTfree said: #BELTfree #ELT #EFL Sarcasm in the UK and US – Part four: Does irony mean something different? […]

  3. The Soap dish thing is a bit weird. It is just as surreal as
    “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”.

    And the fire station I find ironic in that you would not expect it, and that is part of irony, innit. Or perhaps my compass is also misguided for irony?

    However as for both sides of the pond in regards to humour and sarcasm, I have had to readdress the notion that Brits have a lot of self deprecation.
    After watching Louie (an American Series) it must be noted that he delves the depths of self deprecation so far it often grates to the bone.

    Maybe we lack the nuances in our observations due to lack of experience. At least you are immersed in US humour Vicki, all I get is the watered down media form and the American friends here in Germany. Who to be honest have some European flavour added due to their length of time in Leipzig.

    Maybe Brits and Americans overestimate their humour and the facets of it? And we all need to eat humble pie, whether it be American or Apple 😉

  4. I’m not sure it’s fair to say that Alanis Morissette ‘misunderstand’. she may well not have known the technical definition, but I think that it was more a case of common usage.

    The Oatmeal covered the topic of Irony quite well/humourously a few weeks ago:

  5. Gosh, I really should proofread my comments before I press the post button.

  6. Great to see ya, Stew.

    I’d love to write about (and get everyone’s take on) UK/US humour/humor here. It’ll take me another dozen or so years to get a handle on that but it could unlock a lot of doors for me – and laughs.

    So I think you’ve just given me a whole new series to write. I don’t know whether to thank you or curse you. Ha!

    A news story has broken today that demonstrates that irony is alive and well in the US. Not sure if it’s hit the global press, but a new museum opened in Manhattan this week. One of its first acts has been to oppose a proposed Islamic center near ground zero. The name of the museum: ‘The Museum of Tolerance’!

  8. Shannon, hi!
    My feeling is people who make typos, spelling and punctuation errors fit right in to the spirit of this blog. (Heck, I spelt Colombia wrongly a while back – big belated apologies to Colombian readers.) So welcome back Shannon and thank you for making yourself at home.

    Also, I’m 99.9999% sure I can proof and edit postings if you or anyone else say things you’d like to retract/correct/adjust/whatever. Just drop me a line, folks.

    And finally, and most importantly, thank you for that great link.

    So, back to irony. That link makes me think that there must be more than one or two stray individuals who are interpreting irony differently here. If it’s not cool and seen as pedantic and (tongue in cheek I suspect) obnoxious, to draw a distinction between ‘unfortunate’ and ‘ironic’, then we’re talking about a larger group of people. The most plausible explanation (to me) is that we’re seeing language change in action here.

    Just as the meaning of ‘sarcastic’ seems to have changed on this side of the Atlantic (and quite possibly on the other), so might the meaning of ‘irony’ be starting to morph.

    So I’m wondering if we might need to start formulating a new hypothesis here. Here’s a very first draft (that no doubt needs modifying):
    Like ‘sarcasm’ the word ‘irony’ can mean different things in BrE and AmE. In the US in particular, one of its meanings is changing and instead of meaning something like ‘contrary to the expected outcome’ it’s coming to mean ‘unfortunate’.

    PS. Shannon – Love that cherry blossom wedding cake on your blog.

  9. A quick update, Stew. I just went and checked out Louie. Oh very interesting!
    I think we’re going to need Anne Hodgson’s help when we start exploring self deprecation.

  10. The most striking thing here is how very young Ed Byrne looks. It’s bewildering to say the least.

    As a graduate of an institution where a deprecating yet still intrinsically superior self-awareness is the default, I live my whole life through an ironic filter. At parties we listened to bad 90s pop music- ironically; In clubs we wore fancy dress, neon nu-rave or whatever the kids wear these days- ironically. I have drunk ironic cans of Vimto and eaten ironic Pot Noodles. It is not just a situation or an utterance for some of us, it is a way of life.

    An inconvenience does not an irony make and I stand by that!

  11. Thank so much for this Solo. There’s that wonderful line in the Old Country by Alan Bennet that Kate Fox quotes:
    “We’re conceived in irony. We float in it from the womb. It’s the amniotic fluid… Joking but not joking. Caring but not caring. Serious but not serious.”
    I think we’re very happy to live in a state of ambiguity in BrE. It’s not that we’re always joking when we speak, but we like to leave our options open.
    The thing is ambiguity has a lot of social benefits. We can cut to the chase and then if it seems we’ve been too cutting, we can retract and make amends – everyone pretending that we didn’t really mean it, so face is preserved and no harm is done – as I think you pointed out in a previous comment.

  12. Pup, welcome and I’m sorry I didn’t reply earlier. Forgive me, but if I’m not sure what you mean. I’m wondering if I should have been more explicit about the song I was talking about. If so, the lyrics are here:

  13. Hi, Vicki! Thanks for yet another example of why you should always think twice before you pay attention to anything anyone says ever on Wikianswers, Yahoo answers, and other sites of their ilk. Your boy demonstrates that he has no idea of what irony is–in fact, to my mind he’s got it exactly backwards. Maybe he was being “ironic”?

  14. […] Sarcasm in the UK and US – Part four: Does irony mean something different? […]

  15. Sorry, been offline too long. What a lovely set of posts!
    I love British ambiguity, the capacity to be consciously snarky and tender at the same time… and it’s an art that’s completely beyond me. Is that typically American, then, to oscillate between the poles, and take a stand at each pole, however briefly, for the sake of the joust, and while we’re there even make fun of our own one-dimensional polarity to get a laugh?

  16. Usually when you have the same word in different languages, you expect it to mean the same thing. I’m French but have lived in the UK for 10 years.
    I first understood the word ‘ironic’ as pretty much equivalent to ‘sarcastic’. Thats’s what it means in French. When you say something but you obviously mean the opposite, or you may be acting, like it’s not really you who is talking. There’s still a slight difference between sarcasm and this definition of irony, to me, in that sarcastic is dry humor, when irony doesn’t have to be (but irony encompasses sarcasm).

    Then came the other meaning of irony that I first heard in the UK, the fire station burning down. I soon realised that it was actually the most common meaning of the word in the UK, even the only one for many people. To me it doesn’t have much in common with the other type of irony, the sarcastic one. But then I did accept that, language is what people make of it. However I did hear people in the UK who still don’t agree with the commonly used meaning (the fire station burning down), that apparently came about more recently, when the original meaning is the one associated with sarcasm.

  17. Irony is not sarcasm, coincidence, or
    It is not interchangeably used with any other word. It it one of the finest words in the english language. Too bad most people can’t appreciate that.

    When a goal is intended and actions to achieve that goal are taken, but comically instead lead directly to the opposite of that goal due to the actions taken – this is IRONY.

  18. Today I came across this blog by chance and I find it very interesting and amusing from a German point of view to follow the discussion about the differences between AmE and BrE humour.
    I live in the north of Germany and I think that we northerners have very much in common, concerning the kind of humour we like, with the Brits, especially in the daily use of sarcasm and irony.
    The people in southern Germany are a bit more like the Americans and we northerners often hear that we are rude which ist in fact not true, we simply have a bit dryer kind of humour and irony.
    Concerning the meaning of irony and sarcasm in Germany I would say that sarcasm always includes a certain portion of intentional insult wheras irony can be but is not necessarily completely free of negative feelings.

  19. sh… I was too quick with the submit button…
    forgive me my mistakes in writing

  20. Oh welcome, Holger. Great to meet you and hear a German take on this.
    And please don’t worry about mistakes in writing. I make them all the time in my posts, and have found readers here very tolerant.

  21. A year ago I posted my comment. The error here is that mis-use and lack of understanding a sophisticated word which describes a sophisticated concept is perceived as valid by frequency of use. Dumbing down the English language is to miss the beauty of it.
    But, perhaps understanding irony is too sophisticated a concept for many. Tolerance is fine, teaching is better.

  22. Thanks for coming back, Amy and thanks for this new comment.

    Yes, I think you’ve put your finger on it when you say this use/misuse of ‘irony’ is perceived as valid by frequency of use. That *is* how I look at it.

    But please understand that I don’t like it and I wish Alanis and her followers would use it with the same meaning as you and me. But the fact that there seem to be a heck of a lot of them and that they are all managing to communicate successfully with one another with their new meaning suggests there’s an unstoppable tide rolling in here.

    I think a lot of applied linguists have pet peeves about some of the ways words and usages are changing. We can rail against it, but we know we’re never going to be able to stop language change happening. Hence most self respecting linguists take a descriptive rather than a prescriptive approach these days.

  23. Thanks for your reply Vicki.
    Language evolves and changes and words can be used however one chooses. linguists are also interested in preserving the quality of the meanings especially of words that have no equal. Irony is one of those words that when you “get” it, you appreciate the profundity of language. Of course we can communicate without it but I endeavor to save those perfect words.
    Help me!
    I like that there is even a discussion about it.

  24. An interesting subject. For me the fire station comment is ironic because of the position fire stations have in society, namely making sure buildings don’t burn down. I can see no irony in the soap dish comment personally. I’m British if this helps where I lie on the scale.

    This does remind me of an article I saw once with the headline “Rapper and anti-knife campaigner DJ Ironik has been stabbed” that, whilst slightly dark, did strike me as a tad ironic.

    Also with regard to the Ed Byrne video he’s done a newer version in the encore of his “Pedantic and Whimsical” show which adds an extra bit on the end dealing with irony a bit more. Where he states that the American Society For The Preservation Of Good English has condemned Alanis Morissette for her misuse of the word “ironic”, saying that she is adding to the stereotype of Americans not understanding irony.

    Alanis Morissette is Canadian. Somewhat ironic perhaps.

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