Jul 302010

First a question:

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:

Over the course of my research into the differences between American and British (especially English) sarcasm …, 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. 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).

Co-op First Aid Dressing Launch - Page 1 by damo1977.

Solo gives an interesting example:

…there are things we British will do in conversation which we would call sarcastic, but which Americans would not. For example, in the irreverent media, Sir Bob Geldof, of Live Aid fame, is frequently referred to as ‘Saint Bob’. Now this is obviously not entirely sincere, but it isn’t fully contemptuous either; we are mocking his interminable altruism and campaigning, but we also respect all his charity work and dedicated parenting. So although we don’t completely mean that he is a saint, we also don’t mean that he isn’t and I think most Brits would refer to that as sarcasm, but I’m also fairly sure our American counterparts would not. Feel free to correct this flagrant generali{s/z}ation ☺

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.

 Posted by at 6:36 am

  18 Responses to “Sarcasm in the UK and US – Part three: Whose definition is wider?”

  1. Reading all your sarcasm stuff is interesting in that it makes me recall a comment made by a southern English ex-girlfriend of mine. She believed that “us up north” were closer to the bone in our sarcasm.
    This I believe is not as true as she thought. But I do think that in the North of England people know you like them if you make fun of them. As long as they do not take things to heart.
    This has also been something my American and Canadian friends have pointed out. Newbies to my circle of friends may often be warned by established ones that “they are only joking, they like you really”.
    This qualifier you mentioned in part 2, and I sometimes see in e-mails, where at first I was not sure what the J at an end of a sentence meant, is not a British thing. I realised after a while the J was for joking, and nall the senders were Americans or Canadians.

    Maybe being irreverent and not signalling our humour comes from a our class system in the UK and the notion that British humour does some how stem from this. Also could be that a Brit should never take themselves too seriously.

    I would be interested to know your and your readers opinions on self deprecation? Does it exist to the same extent in the US as the UK. And how does it manifest itself.

  2. Oh great to see you Stew and thanks for these terrific additions!
    I’d forgotten J in emails, but I’ve seen some of them too. Hey, you might have just explained an email mystery to lots of Brits.
    I think the overt/lack of signalling in the US/UK has some connections with our positive/negative politeness styles, but a potential link to the class system? Wow! There’s a whopping big thought.
    I’m sure you’re right that ‘Never taking ourselves too seriously’ is important in the UK, but actually it’s valued here too. But I think it’s probably more acceptable to pull folks down a peg or two in the UK if they’re putting on airs and I’d like to explore self deprecation later here too. In the meantime, to whet your whistle, you might like Anne Hodgson’s blog post on Reagan and particularly her discussion with Toby in the comments?

  3. Of course I have read Anne´s blog on Regan, we are often online sharing stuff. She has after all come over to the East side (Germany), a hop, skip and jump from me.
    The postive/negative politeness thing could have some root in it I agree. However it could be the ore direct levels of communication, and that PCness in America is more prominent, therefore (bare with me) this could mean a tendency to not want to hurt people´s feelings, hence the over signaling.
    As for the class system and connection to language and humour, we only have to go as far as considering the success of Blackadder in the UK, as opposed to the US.
    If you consider the putting on airs and graces, this is without a doubt opening yourself up for sarcasm. Take a look at this sketch from Harry Enfield, which plays on the whole idea:


    As for self deprecation; I have always believed you can not have fun at other´s expense if you can not poke fun at yourself. A few of my colleagues have this problem of giving it out, but not happy to get some back (sarcasm).

    Maybe some of the humour does come from language/culture, we Brits do like to play with our language, in a sandbox way and also in many hues and tones.

    The one thing in this discussion tho´ is that I am not so sure some British newpapers actually are being irreverent, just insulting. After all you can not really say we have managed to maintain high journalistic standards, more riches to rags 😉 (leave with a play on words).

  4. I (American) definitely thought it was sarcastic (or at least ironic), but in a gentle sort of way. I don’t know, I’m a fairly sarcastic person so perhaps my perspective is warped. It does seem that for me the defining characteristic of sarcasm is irony, and the secondary characteristic is mockery. The secondary characteristic can be missing, but not the first.

    I have never seen a J in an e-mail–it strikes me as really strange. (I have seen j/k for “just kidding” as referenced in the previous post.)

  5. I must say J was rather strange when I first saw it from a Canadian, but then it kept reappearing from different sources. And it took me, as I said ,a little time to actually work out was it signified.

    Irony is. like sarcasm. a hard nut to crack in regards to cultural differences.

    A bit of an extreme example is Alanis Morisette (Okay, she is Canadian and not American) and her “Ironic” free song.

    Fundamentally I reckon there are similiarities between us guys from separate sides of the pond. However humour as with language goes hand in hand.

    I really think there is little in American humour that works on the peculiarities of the class system. As the American culture has not had such a lengthy or eccentric form of the class system. But feel free to correct me on that one.

    I am no fan of Little Britain, but maybe a look at the UK and US version maybe worth analysis.
    Never was good at homework, but I will endeavour to check it out.

  6. Although i guess in the end it’s all subjective i can’t help feeling that we are confusing sarcasm and irony and that they are not the same things.
    What does my dictionary say ?

    Sarcasm – mocking or ironic language used to convey scorn or insult.

    Irony – the humerous or mildly sarcastic use of words to imply the opposite of what they normally mean.

    That’s clear then.

    Saint Bob?

    Maybe it depends who uses it and whether they intend scorn or humour?

    I remember when Jose Mourhino gave a press conference in England and described himself as “the special one” – i don’t think he was being sarky.

    the press have continued to call him the special one ever since and depending on the newspaper, or the results of the football match, they sometimes are.

  7. I’m updating this comment – hoping to make it clearer.

    Stewart – Duh! I hadn’t made the connection, but of course you’d know Anne and her t’riffic blog.

    Good point about the signaling being about not hurting other people’s feelings and The Harry Enfield link is a great springboard for a British class system discussion. Thank you!. I think treating people kindly lies at the heart of the politeness rules we all follow, but different aspects of it get emphasized on different sides of the pond. The ‘merican side of my brain is hankering to say ‘signaling’ rather than ‘over-signaling’. Hey – might that mean I’m finally starting to get the hang of this other variety?

    Thank you too, Clarissa! My ‘merican husband agrees with you about ‘Saint Bob’ being sarcastic. So far it’s 2:0 against Solo’s theory. I may need to revert back to my original definition of sarcasm in the two varieties. Early days yet, though. Can any more Americans weigh in?

    Chris (and Stewart and Clarissa) – I’ve been avoiding talking about the difference between irony and sarcasm. Reckoned I had my work cut out trying to define what sarcasm means in the two varieties without adding iroy to the mix. And in some ways delaying has been a useful tactic because now you’ve done the dictionary work for me Chris – thank you!

    There’s a nice explanation of irony here: http://www.examples-help.org.uk/irony.htm which goes:
    The main three types are dramatic, verbal, situational:
    Dramatic – A situation in which the audience knows something about present or future circumstances that the character does not know
    Verbal – A contradiction of expectation between what is said and what is meant
    Situational – A contradiction of expectation between what might be expected and what actually occurs often connected to a fatalistic or pessimistic view of life
    The intent behind the sarcasm can vary, as you point out, Chris. We might tend to employ more verbal irony in the UK, so there tends to be more ambiguity, so rules of what’s acceptable behaviour might allow for more barbed comments.

  8. The sarcasm society’s website includes a great list of sarcastic quotes, as well as some nice explanations about sarcasm, satire and irony.

  9. Thanks Evan. That site is a real gem!

    The ‘sarcastic quotes’ there are a great illustration of what I meant when I said Americans seem to apply the term ‘sarcastic’ to expressions Brits don’t. I think that if those quotes had been collected by a Brit rather than an American, they’d have described them as ‘witty’ or ‘funny’ rather than ‘sarcastic’.

    Fellow Brits, please do correct me if you think I’m wrong about that. Something else that site made me wonder as I looked through it is that I’ve often heard Americans say ‘I’m a pretty sarcastic kind of person’ – to indicate that they deviate from a non-sarcastic norm perhaps – or maybe some kind of warning perhaps not to be offended by anything they might say – or maybe simply to explain that they enjoy verbal irony.

    But ‘I’m a sarcastic person’ is not something I’d expect a Brit to say. More likely would be ‘Don’t be sarcastic’ or ‘He’s being sarcastic’ (so now temporarily, rather than as a permanent state) So I suspect ‘sarcastic’ might be limited to describing remarks in the UK, but it extends to describing whole people and states of being in the US.

  10. That idea about comparing US and UK ‘Little Britain’s was interesting, Stewart. I’ve just been checking out some clips. Many of the old UK scenarios and characters stay the same but they’ve added some new US contexts too – like the faith healing church, the army, the locker room. Like the UK skits, the US ones have plenty of sarcasm. But there seem to be times when outrageous behaviour seems to be blown up more in the US skits – maybe because there’s more of a requirement on the part of the people responding to interpret actions as if they are well meant over here. Or maybe it’s because more cut and thrust works in UK humour that just doesn’t translate. When I have more time, I’d like to return to it and compare them some more.

    As an aside, I wonder what American viewers made of Lucas and Walliam’s American accents. I’m not the best judge, but suspect they might induce some ‘Dick Van Dyke’- type reactions over here. Dick’s cockney’ accent became a legend in the UK – but for all the wrong reasons. Am I right in thinking some of the American accents they were putting on in ‘Little Britain’ were ropey?

  11. Okay, I’ll let you have that one (re: Saint Bob). Most of those quotes weren’t sarcastic at all though- they were just quips. Being clever and sarcasm aren’t synonymous. I’m starting to think you’re right about everything; I’d better give my degree back.

  12. Oh no, Solo, your degree was clearly well earnt and please hang around to help figure this out. After more than a decade here, I’m still surprised by what gets termed ‘sarcastic’ in the US.

  13. Having stumbled on your site (damn… another UK / US language site for me to get hooked on…)I (BrE) struggled at first to answer your question. Knowing the sort of context it was being used in I couldn’t quite see it as sarcasm, but couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Then it struck me I’d call it tounge in cheek.

    As Alanis Morissette got a mention, the classic commentary on Ironic is by Irish comedian Ed Byrne here

  14. Oh, a big welcome to you, Shaun. Tongue in cheek is a great description and I loved – really loved the link. Really loved it. Ha! Oh, that demands a post.

  15. When you described Geldof as an ‘oh so earnest political activist’, were you being sarcastic, catty or earnest? I am not sure anymore 🙁

  16. Welcome Tess. Wow! That’s a really interesting question!
    You’ve picked up on something that hadn’t struck me at all when I wrote it – but if I put my ‘merican hat on I can sort of see there’s a question there – what the heck did I mean? Ha!
    I think like a lot of Brits I applaud Geldof’s work to get more aid to Africa. And I think like a lot of Brits, I react poorly to earnestness.
    We don’t do earnestness. We think there can be too much seriousness in serious circumstances and taking anything too seriously is a no no. We prefer to understate.
    And I know that this next bit could sound unsatisfactory but was probably being all of the above AND none of them when I was saying ‘oh so earnest’. I was engaging in a common British pastime of ambiguity where we try to form connections to others by saying something original or controversial or that might be a bit insulting even, with the expectation that everyone else will be following the same conversational rules as us, and so understanding that everything is retractable and nothing should be taken too seriously.
    It’s a strange way of behaving, but I think it’s often how we try to make friends. My fellow Brits: sounds daft when you think about it, eh?

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

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