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

  11 Responses to “Sarcasm”

  1. Interesting that an insult is mislabeled as sarcasm.
    The trading of insults is a modern American phenomena. that has gained popularity worldwide. This form of communication can be tough for mild-mannered Brits to adapt to, but if reciprocated it can build rapport in the same way as British banter.

    To succeed, one needs thick skin, a cool temperament and a sharp critical eye. Take it personal and you lose!

  2. Tommy! Lovely to see you!

    Well, I don’t fully understand this, but there seems to be good deal of consensus that AmE sarcasm is ‘bad’. So rather than mislabelling I think it’s probably different labelling.

    You raise a really interesting point with banter. There have been some papers written about insult trading in African AmE, where it goes to extremes from a British point of view. The curious thing about banter is that on the surface it appears to be offensive, but on a deeper level, it builds rapport, as you point out. So if you can insult someone and they think it is a joke, it proves what good friends you are.

    Hey Tom, I’m sure I read a paper about AmE ‘Yo mama’s so fat’ jokes. Hope you never had to trade them while you were here. 🙂

  3. Dear Vicki,
    Do you notice any differences in the way the people around you on the east Coast use (self-deprecating and teasing) irony compared to those in GB? When I’m in Washington the people I know use irony practically in every sentence; but that might be a Beltway phenomenon.

    I ran into some trouble with the phrase “that takes the cake”, which I use for things that are great. I’m starting to think it’s an error on my part that comes from being ironic so much of the time that I don’t even notice. Could this be an AmE/BrE issue?

  4. You know Anne, this is really interesting.

    One of the things that struck me in the responses to my research question was the quantity of irony in the AmE responses. I have only eyeballed it so far (I need to look at that data in depth when I have more results.) But my first impression is there is more irony in the AmE than BrE responses.

    Wow, that struck me as pretty interesting and I wondered if I might have inadvertently collected data on some humour differences here.
    You have inspired me to go look. Thank you Anne!

  5. Wow, like, super-insightful there, saying that Americans like, never use sarcasm ’cause it’s like, bad. Way to go, Einstein…

    no, just playing, I just discovered your site and it’s pretty fascinating. this topic just seemed like the most interesting to comment on.

    I think starting with my generation (just turned 31), the typical middle-of-the-road American sense of humor has gone to new levels, if not of crudeness, then of cruelty–at least as regards the type of sarcasm which is the bread and butter of what we commonly refer to as being a “smart ass”.

    Someone screws something up and you say, “Nice job”, or “Good one”, or “Smooth move, Ex-Lax” or “Way to go, Einstein”, or something similar, and on the inside you snicker your ass off. Good fun.

  6. Great to meet you Nicholas! I think you’re right that there could be generational differences here.

    I was delighted to see your blog starting up again. Good stuff!

  7. […] in the BrE sense. (Very briefly, BrE = the opposite of what you mean, AmE = nasty or unkind – see here and here for more on that […]

  8. Nicky, while I agree that Americans dont not use scarcasm, in the time ive lived in america ive found that for most poeple scarcasm stops at the smoothe move, and well done idoit level, to be frank the level were its just used to insult each other, ive found extremely few people who can cope with scarcasm being dropped into conversations as it is frequently done in the UK

  9. […] think I’d already twigged that one . While the AmE definition emphasi{s/z}es negativity and saying the opposite of what is meant, […]

  10. […] in the BrE sense. (Very briefly, BrE = the opposite of what you mean, AmE = nasty or unkind – see here and here for more on that […]

  11. […] think I’d already twigged that one . While the AmE definition emphasi{s/z}es negativity and saying the opposite of what is meant, […]

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