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

  44 Responses to “Sarcasm in the UK and US – Part one: What’s sarcastic?”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Karenne Sylvester, BELTfree. BELTfree said: #BELTfree #ELT #EFL Sarcasm in the UK and US – Part one: What’s sarcastic? […]

  2. It’s an interesting question. I find myself thinking that whether something is sarcastic depends on the tone with which the statement was delivered and agreeing with the AmE definition.

    Merriam-Webster and American Heritage dictionaries both support the broader AmE definition. Meanwhile, Macmillan, Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, and Oxford English Dictionary all support the BrE definition.

  3. Interesting post. I’ve always found the amount of sarcasm in the two cultures to be quite similar. I’ve always felt the Brits were a bit more dry though. In the US, sarcasm is definitely identified by tone of voice, smirks, etc. where with Brits I don’t seem to be able to pick up on the signs always.

    When first looking at the lists you linked I thought that they definitely weren’t examples I would identify as sarcasm, but then I stopped and felt they were.

    Sarcasm in the US seems to include the blatantly obvious stated in an idiomatic way like the “Not the brightest crayon in the box, are ya?” as well as preposterous statements like “Could you be any stupider?”

    The context is very important for most of those comments though. For example, “Make yourself at home. Clean my kitchen.” In this situation the person I’m talking to must be taking major liberties with my hospitality. I’m saying something that’s not true and adding onto it something more that could be deemed a request in another context.

  4. Hmm, this was interesting to read. As an American who has been living in the UK for several years, I personally don’t see much of a difference between the sarcasm of the two countries. I see them both as how you describe British sarcasm. (Chambers – a UK dictionary – and Merriam-Webster – a US one – also agree on your definition.)

    I don’t think I’d call Bryson’s comment sarcastic. I’d call it smart-alec.

    In general, I think Americans have a tendency to use ‘I was being sarcastic’ as a way to distance themselves from a comment that they meant…but just don’t want to admit that they meant.

    For example, there’s a girl wearing an ugly dress.

    Americans and Brits who are being sarcastic would say ‘Oh, what a lovely dress’ but in a sarcastic tone. Meaning ‘That’s not a lovely dress at all’.

    But an American might also say ‘Oh, what a hiddeous dress’ – meaning ‘Oh, what a hideous dress’ but when the girl started crying, they’d say, ‘oh no, I was being sarcastic’. When they weren’t really.

  5. A student of mine did a nice dissertation–and blog post–on the subject of whether ‘irony/sarcasm’ means different things in UK/US. If you’re interested:

  6. There’s no difference that I know of between the American and British versions of “sarcasm”, in the strict sense. But I think it’s kind of like “irony” being used to mean “something unexpected or surprising, especially in a way that’s somehow disappointing or frustrating to the participants and/or observer” (e.g., pretty much every example in the song by Alanis Morrisette) – people who don’t quite understand the concept misuse it and it gets picked up into common usage. And, much like the concept of irony, misuse of the concept of sarcasm infuriates a small subset of people who know better.

    The better word from my perspective to mean “insulting, especially if in an effort to be funny” is “snarky”. Sarcasm is a large part of snark, but they’re not synonymous.

  7. Bill Bryson’s remark is not what I would classify as sarcastic. ‘Literal’ seems the best word to describe it. I had a similar question when transiting through Detroit aout 8 years ago.

    “Any fruit or vegetables?”
    Me: “No thank you”
    I handed it over.
    “Oh, English, might of known”

    I didn’t think it would have been wise to have corrected her on the facts that:

    (a) It was a British passport, not an English one,
    (b) I am Scottish (and therefore an excellent practitioner of British sarcasm, with a bit of Calvinism thrown in for good measure), and
    (c) she should have said “might have” or “might’ve” not “might of.”

    It was probably her size, weight-training and gun that put me off!

    More interesting to me, though, was her response. I suspect a UK customs official would have brushed it off as a ‘smart-alec’ comment…

  8. It just sounds like a smart-a** joke to me, not sarcastic. The only way it could have been snarky is if he said it it in a tone that indicated “What a stupid question.”

    A common complaint among Japanese learners of English is that English speakers in general, and Americans specifically (maybe just because they tend to know more Americans) are far too sarcastic. Heh.

  9. I think Nick’s comment matches with my experience. I had to learn to be careful when I first came to Japan and started working with a lot of Americans because they tended to take comments at face value. I think the British like the dry, understated, deadpan delivery. Americans tend to telegraph their sarcasm with a ‘just kidding’ or a wink to camera. Is it because the US is traditionally a more multicultural environment, and the potential for misunderstanding in humour(and thus offence) has been greater?

  10. Erin, welcome and I’m really grateful to you for doing what I should have done before I started this and checking different BrE and AmE dictionaries. (Duh – I wasn’t the brightest crayon in the box there, as Nick might say!) I think you’re right about the tone being important (more on that later) and your findings have given me the confidence to proceed with cracking on and writing part two. Thank you!

  11. Nick, oh great examples. Speaking as a Brit, I have to say I find that sort of ‘Make yourself at home, Clean my kitchen!’ (when I have taken liberties) style of humor delightful. After more than a decade, I still find it novel and it creases me up. To me it also conveys a warm friendly intimacy, and Brits, feel free to chime in here, but it’s a branch of humour that I think we don’t practice much in the UK. It’s taking liberties with directness in a way. Americans have a reputation for being direct, which is mistaken in a lot of instances in my experience, but maybe some of that reputation stems from this.

    And it reminds me of an American term that we don’t have in the UK: ‘a roast’. I’m referring to a reference (wikipedia) for this one (following in the good steps of Erin). A roast is an event in which an individual is subjected to a public presentation of comedic insults, praise, outlandish true and untrue stories, and heartwarming tributes, the implication being that the roastee is able to take the jokes in good humor and not as serious criticism or insult, and therefore, show their good nature.

    It’s not that we don’t roast in BrE, of course, but we don’t have a word for it, or do we? ‘A formal ribbing’ might do the trick, perhaps?

  12. Shannon, thank you for stopping by! I think your point about blatant or not blatant is very perceptive. Now maybe the signs of British sarcasm could be harder to pick up because they are just different. Or maybe it because they are less overt in BrE. I think we might favour more ambiguity in the UK, and I will try to write more on that in part two, or maybe part three. Ha! I don’t know where this is going yet!

  13. Wow, thank you so much for commenting, Lynne! You are two steps ahead of me (as usual!). I loved (really loved) your students’ research and was planning to get onto that post. Now she was saying there that UK sarcasm covered a broader range of comments than US sarcasm, and I’ve been arguing here that the opposite is true. But I think it might be just a matter of terminology. Solo’s post was actually the reason why I wanted to start this series of posts off with a definition of terms, because she alerted me to its importance.

    What Solo’s saying in that post about the importance of how close we are to the people we’re teasing/insulting rings absolutely true with me. Please stop by for part two, and Solo, if you’re around, please chime in and help me!

  14. Welcome DL and thank you for commenting. I was hoping to set some parameters for what we understand by ‘sarcasm’ in this post and it’s really helpful that you’ve raised the issue of possible ‘misuse’ of the term – and how infuriating that can be for people who feel they know better. I’m a descriptivist rather than a prescriptivist at heart, so I tend to interpret what some might see as misuse as just something interesting that’s part of the way languages inevitably change. I don’t see any particular use of the term ‘sarcasm’ as being better than another and I suspect many of my readers feel the same. But I don’t really know, so it’s great that you’ve raised this point, because I’m sure you’re right and that pejorative overtones are relevant to the definition. Thank you!

  15. Ha! Oh Colin, I thought Scots were supposed to be laconic! Welcome and I am so glad you kept your trap shut! I’m want to post more on the veggie police guy’s response to Bill Bryson’s response and feel sure you made a wise move. But should you ever find your tongue runs away with you and need someone to come and bail you out of jail, feel free to give me a call. It’d be great to connect.

  16. Clarissa – I asked my significant alien (‘merican guy) and he said ‘Bill Bryson was being sarcastic’, but smart alec/smart ass – I think you’re right that these terms might be the best descriptions.

    Now do your students feel westerners are more sarcastic because they they say the opposite of what they mean, or because they are just harder to read?

  17. Great to see you Darren and thank you for commenting -always a delight!

    When I first came to the US, it registered with me that people were explaining things to me that nobody would have bothered to explain in the UK. ‘Aha’, I thought, ‘It’s a low context society and maybe that’s because it’s an immigrant society – folks here needed to reduce the potential for misunderstanding by explaining the seemingly obvious – just in case.’

    The theory worked well for me until I went to Brazil – another immigrant society with all sorts of curious parallels (and not parallels) in history. But in Brazil’s case the communication style was very high context. So another one of my great ideas got blown out of the water. 🙂

    So I say this in a wary kind of way because once bitten, twice shy. But nevertheless, I want to say that I find your theory very attractive and extremely plausible. Quite possibly brilliant, in fact. As I understand it you are postulating something along these lines (and do correct me where I’m wrong)

    Because the US is a multicultural mix of immigrants, the potential for misunderstanding in humour (and thus offence) is larger, so a nod and a wink – (which several people have mentioned as being more prevalent here) may have arisen from the peculiar circumstances of that multicultural mix.

  18. Hello there! Been awhile since I put in my 2 cents here. Have to agree with the commenter above who said “people who don’t quite understand the concept misuse it and it gets picked up into common usage.”

    I think most Americans understand sarcasm in the classical sense, if you will–though there are probably tons who just follow the “sarcastic=snarky” equation.

    I was familiar with the Bill Bryson bit thanks to a textbook reading (I’ve only ever read his stuff in coursebooks!), and I would agree with the person above who characterized it more as “smart-alecky” than “sarcastic”.

    By the way, great post. Really interesting. Nice job. (**not sarcastic**)

  19. For me sarcasm is always “nasty” (to some degree)
    Irony is different, and i would have to look in a dictionary.
    Bill Bryson was just very funny.



  20. Hmm… I think the Americans I spoke to on my trip to America had a problem understanding my British sense of humour, but I was never accused of being sarcastic – even though I was often very sarcastic when I didn’t/couldn’t get my message across.

    One comment I made to a cashier in California didn’t go down too well… I’d just bought a six-pack of beer and was pushing it towards our hire car when the cashier ran after me and said, ‘Sir, do you need a bag for your beer?’

    ‘No’ I said, ‘I don’t. Us Brits drink it out of the can.’

    I’m quite sure he didn’t think I was being sarcastic. He just thought I was another crazy tourist from Europe.

    For me ‘sarcasm’ is belittling someone or something by making a ‘smart’ comment which makes them look silly… perhaps ‘sarcasm’ is close to sneering at someone, whereas being ‘witty’ is tricky because it could be translated as being sarcastic by some folk/cultures.

    Brits don’t (normally) mind other folk laughing about them or the silly mistakes they’ve made, but there aren’t that many cultures where people share their mistakes and laugh about them.

  21. Welcome back Nicky! Great to see you again.

    Some more on DL’s interesting comment about “people who don’t quite understand the concept misuse it and it gets picked up into common usage.”

    I’m a bit concerned by that word ‘misuse’. Might it suggest there’s a right and wrong about this, because I don’t think that’s the case.

    I reckon that we’re looking at a word that meant the same on both sides of the Atlantic originally, but that over time, people have adapted its meaning to the functions that seemed most useful in the local circumstances.

    So I guess one of the things that’s interesting me here, is why the broader ‘merican use might have been more useful over here.

  22. Oh what a great link to that BBC article, Chris. Thank you!

    I think sarcasm is often nasty, but not always. The thing is we can use it for humour and as sort of solidarity and empathy builder. That ‘Nice weather’ example when it’s pouring, for example, or some of the examples (like the cat or Chandler) in the BBC article)

    Have to agree re Bill Bryson though – not sarcastic in my book either – but funny – yes!

  23. Yo John!
    I’d hazard a guess that that Californian cashier was concerned you were breaking the law. Maybe a Californian can tell us.

    The laws surrounding the sale of alcohol in the US are a bit of a mystery to me but I gather it’s illegal to carry liquor (not in a bag) in the streets in some US States.

    And there’s another thing re this. I think there’s something stemming from the fourth amendment that relates to it being OK to drink from an open bottle in the street providing it’s in a bag – the broader issue being the government can’t search and take away your property without good cause.

    Now what were we saying about sarcasm – Ha! Clean forgotten now!

  24. Vicki, sorry for the delay–I was away from home helping my dad recover from surgery. You know, I’m going to have to ask my Japanese students and friends to try to pin down what they mean by it.

    There was also a list translated from 2ch, Japan’s famously freewheeling* anonymous bulletin board, about most disliked traits of non-Japanese (mostly English speakers), and sarcasm was one of the entries…

    John Sydes’ funny remark definitely made me think of a common complaint by those Americans who don’t like or understand British TV shows or comedians, which is what several people have alluded to–too much “dry humor.” (Although in this case, I guess that depends on the style of the ale.) If it’s delivered in a deadpan way, that kind of joke is very irritating to many Americans, and positively catnip to others (anecdotally, it seems to me that my geeky kindred are more fond of it, but then we tend to like Britcoms as well). I don’t think of that kind of thing as being the same as sarcasm, but I suppose there’s some shared territory.

    *understatement/euphemism alert!

  25. Vicki, it’s not legal to drink from open containers in public at all in most places, regardless of covering (it varies by state and also by city–isn’t it grand?), but some people are compelled to drink anywhere and try to hide it in bags. That’s a stereotypical depiction of an alcoholic, actually. If you actually walk down the street drinking from a bottle of cola wrapped in a bag, you may find yourself being taken aside by a police officer–don’t try it! ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_open_container_laws ) My poor brother-in-law was once questioned due to possession of a sandwich (near a liquor store in a university area).

    If John Sydes was offered a bag, it was probably just for convenience (if it were a case or six-pack), or so that it wouldn’t make a police officer have to take a second look to see if the bottle/can happened to be open or not, in the car or his hand.

  26. (I feel soooo American overusing names like that, but without threading–which my blog doesn’t have either–one is compelled to. hahaha!)

  27. Oh, do hope your Dad is doing well Clarissa and thank you so much for returning with these great comments. It sounds like differences in humour styles is pretty key here and I’ll try follow on it up it in later parts.

    And thank you for teaching me the word ‘threading’. It’s the word I’ll need when I go searching for a new template for this blog. This one has lots of things I like, but the lack of threading is becoming a nuisance. One day when I have time…

  28. It’ll usually say “threaded comments” in a feature list. 🙂 It’s on my “one of these days” lists too.

  29. […] this when I was trying to tease out the differences between the US and UK meanings of sarcasm in part one of this […]

  30. I would say that the answer to the agricultural police was witty rather than sarcastic. Humour is often giving an unexpected (for the context) reaction. So not sarcasm, which tends to have a negative tinge, but wit – saying something funny spontaneously. There is also irony – in which I would include the comment about the weather. I have done this in foreign languages only to be instantly corrected – they don’t do irony in all languages or cultures. I think both US and GB can handle it though. The major difference in humour between the two is the US tend to do one-liners whereas GB does more in depth stuff. I hate to give Little Britain as an example of how humour does not always survive the Atlantic crossing.

  31. I just so happened to stumble upon your post and absolutely loved this question!

    I’m ‘Merican born and raised but have quite a few British friends and influences,
    I read some of the comments and have to agree that many BrE speakers tend to think AmE speakers don’t understand their humor or sarcasm, but many times I don’t think that’s the case.
    For me living in an area surrounded by immigrants if someone I know or suspect to be foreign says a comment like the one in John Sydes’s post I usually won’t laugh or try to think anything of a comment like that so as not to offend or embarrass myself.
    I also have to agree that American’s usually set a tone for sarcasm with smirks or laughing at themselves. I constantly use a ‘just kidding’ or a nudge to hint that I’m joking with a friend who obviously knows I’m messing with them, but as for someone I don’t know I usually reserve using sarcasm directed towards them until I know them better or know they wouldn’t mind it.
    Hope that made sense, love all the input in here! :’D

  32. Hi Mik and many thanks for this. Yep, I have been avoiding talking about irony, but as you point out, it’s relevant, so I just added something on it in the comments in part three.

    Little Britain was shown on HBO in the US. Was it not well received here? Something Brits may be unaware of is that the British version of the Office was broadcast over here as well as the US version, and I gather it developed quite a cult following. It is interesting to see what comedies go down well on both sides of the Atlantic or only one side or the other. Borat was a box office hit but it was a surprise to the people scheduling the cinemas, I gather. And then there’s Only fools and horses – which came out top in a BBC viewers poll in the UK – which has never made it over here. It always surpises me as there are some quite sentimental bits to that I’d have thought would appeal over here. I have to provide a running translation of the Sauf’ Lundon accents for my husband though – or put the subtitles on if we watch it. Oh I think you’re inspiring a new post, Mik. Thank you!

  33. Oh, it absolutely makes sense Sidney – a big welcome and thank you for commenting.

    Yes, Brits tend to think ‘merican’s don’t get sarcasm, but I think a lot of the time it;s because they see a different reaction to it. More on that in a part four or five, so hope you can return.

  34. Recently I went over to ireland with a group of people to interact with Irish youth and we were cautioned on being sarcastic. A good example of American sarcasm we were given was Scrubs. Scrubs was and is still widely popular and I think Dr Cox is a prime example of what Americans see as sarcasm. I don’t know how different irish and british humor is but we were told to watch what we said because our use of sarcasm I guess is more insulting.

    In terms of putting an AmE definition on Bryson’s remark it would be labeled witty or a smart aleck remark. An american would probably react to it in one of two ways. The first thought would be “are you stupid”? And then if they realized it wasn’t inteded that way they would more likely glare at you for making a smart aleck remark but they may smile. I guess it also comes down to personality because I would be inclined to make a quip like that and often I do and then I have to point it out when no one reacts.

    Its not so much that Americans don’t get British sarcasm its just that we have not been conditioned to receive it as humor. In the same way we had to watch our tongues in Ireland so as not to come off as insulting(assuming british and irish humor is the same). I think all native english speakers hear a “sarcastic” remark and think there’s something funny about it but it may or may not register as humorous.

  35. Many thanks for this helpful comment Stephen and welcome! I haven’t seen ‘Scrubs’ unfortunately. I’ll go see if I can find some clips.

  36. I just found this link , Stephen. Dr Cox is a really interesting example. You’re saying he’d be described as ‘sarcastic’ in ‘merican? It wouldn’t have occured to me.
    ‘Grumpy’, ‘negative’, ‘rude’ would all work in BrE, but ‘sarcastic’ wouldn’t have crossed my mind. It’s reminded me that I still have a long way to go to understand ‘merican!

  37. Hi Vicki!

    Thanks for citing me, I’m made up 🙂

    Lynneguist pointed towrds this post and I’ve been very reticent in responding- sorry. I would agree with some of your comments; my conclusion was a little too restrictive. To contextualise- my research involved generating a working ‘theory of sacrasm’ from existing literature, all of which is based on AmE. I then applied the theory to examples of British Sarcasm (drawn from episodes of This Week in BBC1) to ascertain whether BrE usage complied with AmE theory. So I didn’t actually consider natural occurences of AmE sarcasm, I just took the theorists’ word for it that they had acceptable examples.

    From the comments here I think one important difference is that Brits more frequently consider sarcasm to be funny in and of itself. I’ve never heard of the Irish being more sensitive to sarcasm than their cousins on the big island either…

  38. Oh yes, and closeness is vital. I find Brits, most particularly the English, will readily be sarcastic to any Brit they encounter almost immendiately. If they then seem offended or take the comment literally we will tone it down. When I was at university visiting American students would often have a slightly wounded expression as they thought they were being picked on (which they were a bit), which I think US-natives mind a lot more. Negative face threatening abounds.

    I don’t think I put it in my post, but in my research I did start to compose a theory of ‘imbedded sarcasm’ within BrE, where we would have no idea a comment was sarcastic until it was pointed out to us because the covert meaning has become codified.

    Haiman has a term for it which I’ve forgotten at present, but there are some phrases which can only ever be sarcastic now. For example “Thanks a lot/bunch.” If I heard or read that I would assume I had done something wrong and if a non-native speaker uses it sincerely it always takes moment to realise I’m not being criticised.

    Not sure if that’s relevant 🙂 I’ll come back and respond to parts 2 and 3 soon.


  39. Oh Solo! Great to meet you and so glad you could stop by! A big thank you for all your comments. As you must have realised, I really enjoyed your post at http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2009/05/sarcasm-and-irony.html

    It’s great to get more background on that study and knowing the theories were based on AmE explains a lot.

    I think it’s probably more allowable to find sarcasm funny in the UK – and/or maybe the ambiguity makes us laugh, not sure. With the higher value placed on positive politeness in the US, it stands to reason that remarks that vere on insults or nastiness would be frowned on more. (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.) But of course not all sarcastic remarks are nasty – on the contrary, a lot are affiliative as you point out. So I’ll hear people saying ‘Yeah right’ when they mean ‘No way’ here and everyone is enjoying the joke. That example you give of Brits being ready to engage in sarcasm in first encounters is spot on. I hadn’t thought of that, but we do, don’t we. Ha! Insulting is our way of being friendly. Banter we call it, and because we swim in a sea of ambiguity in many of our interactions, there’s no problem toning it down if needs be.
    That issue of covert sarcam becoming codified is very interesting. I feel another post coming on re that – ‘I could care less’ is a classic example perhaps. There was a great post on something similar over at the Macmillan blog the other day too: http://www.macmillandictionaryblog.com/the-new-f-word

  40. “Any radioactive or biological materials?”

    “No, but I can go back and get some for you.”

  41. […] the rest of this series: part one, part two, part three  Posted by Vicki at 5:25 […]

  42. […] here to read part one of this series and here for part two.  Posted by Vicki at 6:36 […]

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