sarcasm and irony

I’m very happy to welcome my first guest blogger, a student who’s finished the work for her Sussex degree in English Language and Film Studies, which included a dissertation comparing British irony and sarcasm to American—the latter of which has seen more academic attention. Rather than twiddling her thumbs while awaiting her result, she has graciously allowed us some insight into her work. Gentlepeople, I give you Solo:

As I’m sure you’re aware, the British are very fond of saying that ‘Americans don’t get irony’ and expressing over-inflated national pride in our astounding power of sarcasm. It of course isn’t the case that Americans don't get irony [see this past post--ed.], and while BrE applications of sarcasm can be very subtle, we’re not the unequivocal masters of the form. For example, I always thought the typically AmE expression ‘I could care less’ to be a particularly stupid grammatical error on their part, until this week when I saw it pointed out here, that the expression is in fact intended sarcastically (see also this past post, which is not so kind to Americans--ed.). Perhaps we misinterpret this because in our arrogance we Brits don’t expect sarcasm from Americans without all the attendant cues, bells and whistles. Or maybe because I’ve mainly seen it written down in novels and forums, rather than heard it said aloud.

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

To put it another way, 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 ☺

In AmE ‘sarcasm’ seems to be very much a subordinate term for a specific type of pragmatic use. (Many theorists will argue it’s a subcategory of verbal irony, but I won’t go into that here.) But in my (humble) opinion it has a much broader application BrE. Thoughts would be much appreciated.

I shall furnish this largely speculative theori{s/z}ing with some spurious exemplification:

If a friend of mine were to be self-deprecating above and beyond the call of Britishness, I might say something obvious like “Yeah, cos (=AmE ’cause--ed.) you’re the worst national award-winning photographer St. Martin’s [a top art college—ed.] has ever had,” in a heavily sarcastic tone. Equally I might agree in a very sincere sounding way with “Yeah, you are quite sh*t.” Or I might say “Don’t say that, you’re actually really good,” or “You’re not that bad”--both in a way that made it sound like I didn’t think they were good at all. Then again I might feign ignorance and comment “You were lucky to get in really,” or ask “How did you manage to pass the course?” in an ingenuous fashion.

All of these I would quite happily and definitively class as sarcastic utterances, but my research suggests that under the AmE theoretical rubric, they would fall into other categories. I think our predilection for teasing each other and continually (BrE) ‘taking the piss’ has come to be associated with sarcasm as an everyday conversational form in a way that it has not in AmE, where there seems to be more of a time and place for it.

Regional and gender differences in production of sarcasm have been quite conclusively demonstrated in the literature. Megan Dress and others (2008) carried out some research comparing attitudes to sarcasm and likelihood of use between Northern USans, from upstate New York, and Southern USans from Memphis. They found that the Northerners were far more likely to find sarcasm amusing and assume friendly intentions than their Southern equivalents and therefore much more likely to use it spontaneously. The difference was even more marked between the two sets of men. The Northern perspective seems to be much closer to the British attitude, though the sources Dress et al(.) provide suggest that the examples of use may still not be as broad as the unofficial BrE definition seems to allow. A majority of respondents in this study mentioned the negativity of sarcasm, though not an overwhelming majority. This might suggest that the insistence on sarcasm as a negative form is generated by linguists and literary types more than speakers.


  1. That's really interesting stuff. Thanks. (And I really mean that!)

  2. Well! A lot of interesting information, but a bit too diffuse. Gimme some strong conclusions (generalisations)!

    Brits like dry understatement. Americans make bigger, bolder, less nuanced statements, which can come across as shouting to British ears. Maybe this, rather than preferences for sarcasm, satire, irony or slapstick, account for national humour differences?

    Neither country's sense of humour is better or worse. Some of the best comedy on British TV comes from programmes like Frasier or the Daily Show. American humour can be unexpectedly cruel, but often comes across as PC. The public world of US television performers is sometimes smooth and bland, whereas the private opinions of US bloggers are sometimes quite shocking and strident to more tolerant British ears.

  3. I think generalizing AM sense of humor misses how much variation there is across the country, and in different socioeconomic groups. I come from Detroit, where sarcasm (saying one thing while obviously meaning the opposite) is a near art form. But even there, some folks just didn't get it.

    I thought people in Utah just didn't have sarcasm, but have found it does exist here, in small pockets, and with a very different flavor. Stealth sarcasm, so as to avoid the notice of the dominant religion, easily explained away as an innocuous statement.

    It seems to be a matter of "Well, we get it, of course, but the next tribe over is too dumb to understand, they don't have sarcasm."

  4. I heard my favourite piece of sarcasm from a teacher in Scotland when I was in primary 7 (age 11-12). If somebody was trying to show how clever they were without beig able to show evidence of their knowledge, they'd say "a little knowledge can be dangerous". It wasn't until many years later that I learnt the riposte to this - "then you must be Britain's most wanted!"

  5. I'd disagree about the St. Bob example. In my experience is IS meant with contempt. Most people I know who use it really do hate him.

  6. I often find that the Brits who read my American-in-the-UK blog take everything literally and tend to get offended by tongue-in-cheek remarks or comments clearly intended to be sarcastic (which apparently they miss or choose to ignore). I've been perplexed by this, not understanding where the famous British sense of irony and humor is. I can't seem to figure out how I would have to write things differently for them to "get the joke" compared with the Americans who seem to see when something is meant as non-literal.

  7. I wouldn't think that spoken communications involving the more sarcastic put-down can every really be transferable to an anonymous written post, especially seeing as there is so much flaming (or near flaming) to confuse the issue. I have found that it is hard for me to write things that I would say without fear of being misunderstood (unless it's self deprecating), without them sounding harsher than I intended.

    As it happens, last night I ran across a terrific example of the type of British irony I like best, and (because I'm American, perhaps) can never seem to master:

    "On the morning of 17th August a Cabinet meeting at Downing Street agreed that a Royal Commission should discuss the railwaymen's grievances. Now Royal Commissions are notoriously slow; their deliberations have been known to last for two or three years, and their findings, though just in the main, usually appear long after the need for them has passed. The Cabinet, therefore, could scarcely have hit upon the likeliest means of appeasing a group of men who happened to be in a hurry. None the less the Prime Minister... hurried off... to inform the Unions' officials of this luminous solution."

    As an aside, I think that the fine word "facetious" should be here employed to describe irony which is perceived by another, but thought inappropriate, or otherwise unnecessary.

  8. As a youngster in upstate NY some 40-odd years ago, I learned the term irony as a generic for saying the opposite of what you mean, with sarcasm as a subset of that when the intent is to demean. However, the latter could be used humorously with a friend, one of those "normal social customs don't apply to us" interactions. You say that upstate NYers are more likely to find sarcasm amusing. I don't know whether that's because the meaning of the word has changed over time, or whether it's less often used in the intentionally demeaning way in recent times. But then, those two possibilities are linked, so perhaps it's impossible to say.

    In any event, I think there are not only regional and gender(? Never noticed that) differences but differences based on microculture, such as age group and ethnic identity. That's probably what can make sarcasm so risky for any public use in the US, such as blogs. Perhaps British attitudes are more homogeneous.

  9. @notfrom: It's possible that the problem is just that you're American. I have this experience too--even in spoken interaction. My hypothesis is that the British person thinks 'American. Must be very literal-minded.' and so they are temporarily blinded to non-literal intentions.

  10. @NFAH: Honestly I think what you have is a couple or at the very least one cyber stalker determined to take EVERYTHING you say the wrong way and troll your blog. That you didn't ban their IP address/es months ago just proves you're a much better person than me. Perhaps they view their trolling as ironic British performance art, but it's still trolling. Unless you want to meet him in person and open up a can of Minnesota nice on his ass, banning seems the only solution.

    @ actual topic:
    affectionate insults or criticisms of others (even those we don’t know, which I think may be the most fundamental cultural difference).This rings true to me as an American. My friend calling me a bar slut is funny. My friend calling my roommate's date a bar slut when they've never met, well, it's still funny, but mostly just mean to a person who probably doesn't deserve it.

    I tend to think this phenomenon goes a long way towards explaining the bells and whistles sarcasm and irony Americans are accused of. People aren't always great judges of whether they need to hang a lampshade (or how big a lampshade?) on their irony, so they ere on the side of causing the least offense.

  11. Isn't sarcasm usually a quick verbal remark, while irony takes a bit longer and is usually a more considered comment?

    Thus, long ago in the UK, schoolteachers were well-known for being 'sarcastic': Well, Smithers, we won't ask you for your opinion, since you have been gazing out of the window all afternoon.
    By the end of the term, they might be saying: It's ironic that Smithers, who appeared to take no interest in class, has scored top marks in the exam.

    The sarcasm gained a cheap laugh, while the irony acknowledges a reversal of expectation.

  12. One difference between Englanders and their near colonial minions and Americans is that Englanders et al think neologisms like "USans" are clever and useful.

  13. I suggested the USans, not the English author of this, as I was concerned that her 'Northern Americans' might seem to include Canadians. So, you've laid the blame in the wrong place, I'm afraid.

  14. Another difference is that Americans tend to use ridiculous terms such as "Englander", and endlessly overplay the former-colonial aspect when referring to themselves.

  15. "we are mocking his interminable altruism and campaigning, but we also respect all his charity work and dedicated parenting!"

    Speak for yourself. It's all mockery as far as I'm concerned.

  16. @latest Anonymous: I'm not really sure what you're talking about, but could we keep the discussion to the topic at hand? If you'd like to see another topic discussed, please email me the suggestion.

  17. From a British perspective, I think of irony as more subtle than sarcasm. Basil Fawlty is sarcastic but not ironic. A comedian such as Paul Merton uses irony.

    No-one has mentioned adding "not" at the end of a statement. Eg I am the world's best lover. Not.

  18. One issue that I think has some real truth to it is along the lines of the section talking about defining irony. Especially the "American's don't get Irony" idea.

    American's of course get irony. We just don't find it particularly funny. Pithy, maybe. Amusing, probably, but not funny.
    (Sarcasam is funny...irony is amusing. And while they are surely related, I believe they are seen as very different things.)

    Irony, for Americans usually falls more along the line of "Hunter killed by deer." Or "Jumbo Shrimp." That sort of thing. Whereas sarcasam is just as it has been outlined by the OP and responders.

    My understanding is that "Hot Fuzz" was a lot funnier to Brits because while the idea of a huge shoot out and conspiracy in a tiny English town has a lot of irony and comedy in it, it is a comedy that we understand, but don't really laugh at. It is like "OK that is a funny premise, but is what happens in the movie funny?" Whereas I am assuming that the a funny premise carries a lot further for audiences across the pond. (for the record I loved "Hot Fuzz.")

    I don't know how cohesive what I just wrote was, but I hope the point got across.

  19. I'm 23 and have spent my life in and around US East Coast cities, except for three years I spent living in the English Midlands.

    In my experience, AmE and BrE irony differs most in how aggressive or "destabilizing" uses of irony are to the conversation. British conversations are saturated in humor, and BrE irony is almost always an invitation to respond in kind. BrE speakers will carry on long exchanges in which everyone participates in the mutual game of constructing some alternate world that all know to be false.

    AmE irony, by contrast, seems to be more about aggression or disruption. American conversations contain more sincere, non-ironic statements per minute than British conversations, which creates possibilities for disruption that don't exist in BrE. A pattern of sincerity builds up over time, and then a speaker can destroy it by injecting some ostensibly disturbing non-sequitur like "my father died that way." The conversation never continues uninterrupted after something like this, in the way that British conversations continue after someone makes a joke. Instead, people laugh, and then the sincere statements resume, building tension for another disruption.

    American speakers, in my experience, also ironically "inhabit characters" more than British speakers. Americans will borrow from the idioms of speakers whose perspective is not theirs. Whereas BrE constructs fantasy worlds, AmE constructs fantasy perspectives or speakers. So an AmE speaker might reject a friend's proposal for Friday night as "the same tired rhetoric and the same failed policies."

    A final sweeping, tenously related claim: Form in humor is more important in BrE than in AmE. Unpredictability and novelty is crucial to American humor, in my experience. (Is this a recent development?) American speakers will sometimes create an obvious setup for a joke and then omit the punchline. The joke is that there is no joke. I can't recall ever hearing a British speaker do this. Rather, BrE emphasizes traditional forms in humor (hence the love of puns and wordplay) rather than disruption.

    I suppose all this is likely false ... I wish I had data to support it. But does it strike a chord with anyone else, particularly younger readers?

    1. I know it's been almost nine years, but I wanted to say that your comment is a great description of how humor works.

  20. Was not that last anonymous being sarcastic/ironic?

    My understanding was that there's a difference between irony as discussed here and the dramatic irony of 'hunter shot by own gun'.

    I too had noticed the 'USan' usage - I just thought it was a bit of academic jargon (another language altogether...)

  21. Do we at least all agree that Alanis Morrissette (raised Canadian, currently dual Canadian-American) got it wrong? That a black fly in one's chardonnay is a lot of things but not ironic?

  22. This bit of sarcasm on Slate the other day had me laughing out loud (and it's apropos to this blog's theme):

    "No doubt the new political appointees can handle the job. ... Obama's appointee to Great Britain, Louis Susman, speaks fluent English."

  23. Sorry for the cut and paste, but this is from this morning's Herald:
    "So," said the chap in the pub the other night, "that poor doctor in America who carried out abortions was shot dead by some American pro-lifer."

    He added: "Who says Americans don't do irony?"

  24. A friend of mine renamed alanis's song "Isn't it a Bummer", which is fair enough, but I must say I think the concept of meeting the man of your dreams (in her case) and then meeting his beautiful wife is beautifully ironic. She has spent her life looking for her soulmate, finds him, and then in an ironic twist of fate, finds that someone else got there first.

  25. Some of these references are passing me by, but never mind. I'm not bitter.

    Earlier comments about homogeneity and regional US differences resonated with me. In the UK I think there is more of a common cultural frame of reference than in the US. It may come in different colourways in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but the basic pattern is similar. The US is more diverse. This may account for some differences in national humo(u)r.

  26. The 'setting up a joke' comment reminded me of what I consider to be a very ironic (and very American) film, Napoleon Dynamite. I believe the film has generally been less popular in the UK, although perhaps this is mostly due to cultural references. I wonder what a comparison of the irony in N.D. and maybe Hot Fuzz or Monty Python would show. Also, the New Zealand film Eagle vs Shark seemed to me to have a lot in common with N.D. in terms of ironic tone, which got me wondering where other English-speaking countries fall on the irony spectrum. Actually, The Gods Must Be Crazy from South Africa & Botswana has a prety ironic premise, too... Sorry for the disconnectedness.

  27. Another time when I noticed a difference between the US and UK "definitions" of irony happened in Bridget Jones' Diary...

    Forgive the paraphrasing, but the dialogue was something like...

    "I said I loved you but I was being ironic."

    I don't think a US English person would have said it in this way, they would probably have said, "I was just being funny." or "I was only messing with you"

  28. Martin, I think your observations and theory that American humor depends more on surprise or "disruption" is possibly quite astute. I think all that sincerity creates tension that is then dispelled with a disruption. This definitely seems to be a style of humor. I'm American - and it is a style of humor that I appreciate and practice. There's a bit of a rebellious feel to it whereas my sense of British humor is that it is more traditional, somehow- clever and wordy, punny and nerdy. Why do I have this impression? It fits with your observations though, I think.

    I'm wondering about the NOT! reversal that often comes after a statement that sounds sincere. Or at least should, for the NOT to have more of an effect. What are the origins of this? (Did Madonna start that, somehow? Anyone remember?)

  29. The "NOT" phenomenon as it were, was made famous by Mike Myers and Wayne's World. madonna used it in the one sketch with Wayne that parodied her Justify My Love Video.

    However, as a bit of dorky trivia, Steve Martin used the same thing in the 70's on Saturday Night Live.

  30. Thanks, Bill. On leaving this site I immediately looked NOT! up. Wikipedia says some interesting things to say about it. That it's not new, for one - only the pause before it, maybe.

    Speaking of pauses. The "USans" gave me pause. It took me a few beats before I figured out what it was - I saw Sans and thought it was the French "without." Being American, I still assume even when I should know better. When I was doing volunteer work overseas, I was assigned to work with two guys. They asked me where I was from. I told them I was American. They said, Oh, they were American too. I said, Oh, where from? They said, Uruguay. Oh. Would a Canadian ever mistake him/herself for an American? It's a US of American, not a North American that it's referring to, no?

  31. Or South American for that matter.

  32. Very interesting, the comments about sincerity. British people don't do sincerity in the same way, so perhaps there isn't the same build-up of pressure that needs to be relieved.

    Perhaps that is why we don't think Americans do irony, and why we don't expect the disruptive or cruel comment - we assume that Americans are hard-wired with a kind of gregarious sincerity.

    I agree that British people do like wordplay, and other intellectual games. The Times newspaper is full of crosswords, sudoku, mental arithmetic tests, and the like.

  33. @Maggie et al.: Quoting from myself in a comment on the 'I love this guy' post: "There's the famous example of people assuming that post-sentential "NOT!" comes from the film/movie Wayne's World when in fact it goes back to at least 1860. (New Scientist did a little piece on this phenomenon a couple of weeks ago, referring to Arnold Zwicky's Language Log posts that dub this the Recency Effect.)"

    On the general discussion of Americans and sarcasm--Better Half has a very hard time with my 'teasing' which is typical in my family. I.e. putting one another down jocularly. One could say it's sarcastic but opposite-wise, in that we're saying something mean with friendly intent. My impression is that this kind of thing requires more intimacy in BrE than in AmE, but that it just doesn't sit right with some BrE folks (probably less so with southern and midwestern USans too).

  34. Is this pronounced United Statian? Like Haitian?

  35. Or perhaps, United Statesian, to rhyme with Cartesian?

  36. How are South Americans who call themselves American "mistaking" themselves for Americans? They are from SOUTH America. And their countries are certainly members of the Organi(s/z)ation of American States, which has nothing to do with Texas, Rhode Island, or any other states of the US.

    Do citizens of anywhere other than the US mistake their country for an entire continent?

  37. @Martin,

    I think you might have something there. It would certainly make sense of why my humor attempts at irony fall flat so often. I'm American, but rather than the single-statement disruption-style sarcasm, I sometimes add onto whatever they're saying--I guess building a world, as you described it. This almost always earns me an "I was being sarcastic." To which I usually have to say, "Yeah, I know. I was too."

    To whoever posted this: "No doubt the new political appointees can handle the job. ... Obama's appointee to Great Britain, Louis Susman, speaks fluent English."

    I find the humor in it, but--I suppose fitting with one of the elements of American humor that the OP theorized--I wouldn't call it sarcasm per se. I would still consider it dry wit, of course, but... hmm... it just doesn't quite suit my mental definition of sarcasm?

  38. Cameron, I think they were just teasing me. When I say I'm American, I'm meaning, not that I'm from North America, but that I am from the United States of America - which is a mouthful. People from Canada say they are Canadian, people from Uruguay are Uruguayan (I think). People from Mexico say they are Mexican. USers makes more sense to me than USans - along the line of Englanders which was made fun of earlier. Or maybe I'd be happier with USAans. Uruguay is a country that is a member of the Organization of American States the way England is a country that is a member of the European Union...

    ...What are you taking such strong objection to, again?

    If I were referring to the continent, not the country, I would say I was North American.

  39. i agree with Anonymous
    "Brits like dry understatement. Americans make bigger, bolder, less nuanced statements, which can come across as shouting to British ears. Maybe this, rather than preferences for sarcasm, satire, irony or slapstick, account for national humor differences?"

    its just a case of where you
    were brought up
    and the TV
    shows you watched in your youth..

    which in turn affect the humor of
    people around you and so on

  40. England is no more a member of the European Union than Texas is a member of the Organisation of American States: Britain is, though.

  41. "American speakers, in my experience, also ironically "inhabit characters" more than British speakers. Americans will borrow from the idioms of speakers whose perspective is not theirs. Whereas BrE constructs fantasy worlds, AmE constructs fantasy perspectives or speakers. So an AmE speaker might reject a friend's proposal for Friday night as "the same tired rhetoric and the same failed policies.""

    This is a fascinating claim. I'd love to know if there's any research on it.

  42. @Cameron: someone's going to say it anyway so it might as well be me. Britain's not a member of the European Union either; the UK is. :)

  43. Thanks, Kelv, for clearing that up.


    Is it something about me (and if so, what) that draws such irate exactitude? --Now that is a unique trait that I have only experienced first-hand in some Englanders, never from anyone else hailing from anywhere else... Sorry to say. - Don't mean to change the topic or know whether this is even topic-worthy. Just a phenomenon I'm suddenly recognizing...

  44. Kelv, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the full offical title of the country, which is more briefly known as Britain (or indeed as The United Kingdom). Just as The Federal Republic of Germany is generally known simply as Germany (or, dare I say it, as the United States of America are almost universally known simply as America, although that is complicated by it also being the name of two whole continents!).

    Maggie, the reason people are getting mad at you is because you are calling our country by a name it does not have, which is in fact the name of just one of its constituent nations: it's as though I were to say Texas or California when I meant the entire US. You would pretty soon get annoyed if I did that. I am British. I am NOT English; I am Scottish. I come from Britain; I do NOT come from England. In calling the whole country England what you are in effect doing is wiping Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland out of existence, a sort of linguistic genocide! Totally ignoring the existence of three entire nations. Not polite and of course not appreciated.

    PS "Great Britain" is technically just the largest island in the group, the mainland of Britain, but it's never used as such any more and most people are completely unaware of it.

    PPS I would just as surely correct you if you said Scotland when you meant all of Britain.

  45. (Great) Britain = England + Scotland + Wales

    United Kingdom = England + Scotland + Wales + Northern Ireland

    To use "Britain" when meaning the UK would be just as incorrect as saying "England" when meaning Britain.

  46. Kelv, technically I agree. However, Britain is sometimes used loosely to mean the UK, as in GB (an abbreviation that appears in many international designations, eg for patents), Grande Bretagne (although admittedly sometimes Royaume Uni), etc. The British Isles includes both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, as well as islands such as the Isle of Man which is not technically part of the UK.

    We should be sensitive to Scots who dislike the name England being used for the UK, even there is a long historical tradition of doing this. Other dislikes include referring to the Scots as Scotch (which must only be used for whisky, broth (soup), eggs, etc).

    People who are ignorant of these preferences can be politely corrected, but ignorance is not a crime.

  47. Coal, thank you for being sensitive to people who insist on the right name being used for their country rather than one which is wholly wrong.

    There is a long tradition of people getting all sorts of things wrong, but it doesn't make them right. This country is not called England, and everything I said about doing so is correct, as is everything I said about the name of the country, whether you and Kelv "agree" or not. I could agree with someone who said 2+2=5, but it would not make it right. I suggest you both look these things up: you will discover that I am right about them and you are both wrong.

    If you choose to disbelieve me, you can google them. I say that because I imagine you would probably sniff and tell me Wikipedia is unreliable if I just gave you this link:
    although perhaps you might find this one more convincing:
    or maybe this one:

    And for completeness' sake, here is "Great Britain: UK tourist information":
    and also one last Wikipedia page, about the ninth largest island in the world, to make sure non-British visitors to this blog have enough accurate information to counter inaccurate information they may have received:

    Apologies for all the copying and pasting some of you may have to do to visit those; I do not know how to include hyperlinks in here, but I feel accuracy is worth it. And remember, if you don't trust the sites I have given you here, it's easy to google terms like Britain, United Kingdom, Great Britain or even, should you feel out of typing practice, Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

  48. PS One thing you ARE right about is that ignorance is not a crime.

  49. PPS Grand Bretagne is French for Great Britain. Royaume Uni is French for United Kingdom. Both, as far as I know, simple literal translations. I'm sure any French speakers here can let me know whether I'm right about that, as I don't speak French. And PPPS Lynn, sorry about all this digression, but as I said, I think sometimes accuracy is important.

  50. I apologize for this digression as well.

    The first time I used England in error - I apologize. The second time, I meant England as when I have experienced that exactitude it was from people from England. (That Cameron is Scottish means that this is not solely an English phenomenon.) When meeting people they would often identify themselves right off as being Scottish, Welsh, English, or from Northern Ireland and skip or bypass British or UKish (wink). Do people of the UK identify themselves more closely to being British or being English/Scottish/Welsh/Northern Irish? Or maybe I was traveling among mostly British people and so they were making distinctions among themselves. That may very well have been the case.

    I appreciate being corrected. However, I do notice the way in which I'm corrected. The mention of England was a minor, tangential, unfinished aspect of the point that I was trying to make and focusing on it while ignoring my main concerns just seems... well, missing the forest for the tree.

  51. Maggie, I appreciate that it's a minor point to you, but to a Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish person, it is wiping out the existence of their nation, which is not minor at all. I dare say we would soon hear you complain if we started referring to all of North America as Canada.

    As far as self-identification goes, I am first European, second Scottish and a distant third British. Well, really I'm first Human, but that's another issue.

  52. I think you are being overly kind about the American use of 'I could care less'. The expression works when it is used sarcastically, but in by far the majority of cases I've heard it used, there is no evidence of any intended sarcasm. Indeed, when I've challenged Americans on their use of the phrase, they have expressed surprise and then said they've never thought about what it actually means.

  53. "Do people of the UK identify themselves more closely to being British or being English/Scottish/Welsh/Northern Irish?"

    As a loose, and tounge in cheek, rule of thumb, the Scots, Welsh and Irish identify more closely with their 'constituent country' rather than Britain and the English, at least until recently, don't distinguish between English and British. (The big exception being in cases involving a sport with an English rather than British team.)

  54. Maggie: As an American (that is to say, a resident of the United States), I assure you I can be as down on terminological inexactitude as any Englander (hey, if Little Englanders are a subset, then Englanders are the superset, surely?), or any Britisher for that matter. Per(s)nicketiness is not a national characteristic.

    Coal Porter: Despite Wikipedia, the nation-state is called Ireland (in English), though it may be described as the Republic of Ireland, since it is a republic and it is named 'Ireland'.

  55. There is considerable confusion even among residents of the British Isles about the names of the various bits and combinations, and if we ourselves stumble we can't expect others to be word perfect.

    As to England and Britain, in the 21st century it would be insufferably rude of me as an Englishman to use the lesser for the greater, since I am fully aware of the offensiveness of this practice to many of my fellow-Britons.

    But we should be, perhaps, more forgiving of others who have no reason to be particularly attuned to the sensitivities.

    I have been known to call the Netherlands "Holland", I'm afraid.

  56. Picky, I always try to avoid using terms I know would be offensive to anyone in these issues, as I'm aware of the sensitivity of England/Britain. "The Netherlands" is awkward because of the "the" and the s at the end but I do try never to call it Holland. I usually (I think) refer to U.S.Americans. And so on.

  57. @Cameron
    "I suggest you both look these things up: you will discover that I am right about them and you are both wrong."

    Except, of course, the reverse is true, and the defintions I provided are the correct ones:

    (Great) Britain = England + Scotland + Wales

    United Kingdom = England + Scotland + Wales + Northern Ireland

    That you've found a handful of websites which also get it wrong proves nothing. I can find plenty of websites (and people) which confuse England with Britain; still doesn't make them correct.

    My final word on the matter: I'm Welsh, so it infuriates me just as much as you when certain nationalities repeatedly lump us all together as "England".

    However, I always think you get further by remaining polite when pointing out someone's error. I also think it important to be damn sure exactly which countries belong to what (including the difference between Britain and the UK) before trying to correct someone else.

  58. Kelv, "Britain" and "Great Britain" are not the same, there's an additional word in Grweat Britain, which I do not believe you haven't noticed, which is presumably why this time you have changed what you said. You said BRITAIN=England, Scotland and Wales, NOT Great Britain. You were and are wrong. Try and find a remotely reliable website that says otherwise. You won't be able to, because it isn't truth or reality.

    You were and are wrong. Get used to it.

    A final word: there is NO difference between Britain and the UK. They are both, as I originally said, short forms of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As the British government knows even if you don't.

  59. If you can't play nice, I'm going to have to start deleting people. I've tolerated the off-topicness for quite a number of posts now, but have to wonder if it was an error to do so.

    Can we turn our attention back to sarcasm, please?

  60. Sorry, Lynne. (And sorry for misspelling your name earlier). A final (peacemaking) word:

    I have found a page on Wikipedia which does in fact state that "Britain" can be used for the island of Great Britain AS WELL AS for the country of the UK as a whole. I have never come across that before, but am more than happy to acknowledge that Kelv and I were both right in our usage of the name Britain, and each wrong to accuse the other of being wrong.

  61. I’ll start by saying my post wasn’t actually about irony at all, I only mentioned it to say that I wasn’t going to talk about it. It’s a whole different kettle of fish. Nonetheless I would have said that “None the less the Prime Minister... hurried off... to inform the Unions' officials of this luminous solution." was sarcastic rather than ironic. In my experience "facetious" is used by adults to chastise a child for being a (BrE) smartarse/ (AmE) smart aleck (?) but yes, it could equally identify misplaced irony.

    Anyway, back to the case in hand.

    Jo and Ginger Yellow: Point taken, maybe Saint Bob was a bad example, but you get the point right? I just meant we can be ‘a bit sarcastic’- it isn’t an absolute in BrE.

    NFAH: I’d agree with Lynne, it’s that British attitude that leads to missing your use of ironicism. The leading academic thought suggests that if you expect non-literal language from people you will identify and process it far more easily. If you don’t expect it you are much more likely to mistakenly take it literally, regardless of personal aptitude or likelihood of use.

    Posters seem to be affirming my main generalisation, albeit in indirect and tangential fashion, that the AmE definition of sarcasm is very much negative and related to (BrE?) *getting at* others. @ Rick S- I hadn’t personally noticed a gender difference in sarcasm use, but all the US-based research suggests that men will use it more.

    Biochemist: I’d disagree almost entirely. I think it’s possible to be ironic without saying anything, or when saying very little, and sarcasm doesn’t have to be quick, or cheap (though it does have to be verbal yes.)

    Bill: I think the ‘comedy’ in Hot Fuzz (I, for the record, thought two hours was a long time to string out a sketch show joke) derives from the juxtaposition of big guns American action conventions and a genteel British village. But most people I know thought it was hilarious, so presumably the premise is much funnier for us.

    Martin: A lot of that rings true to me, although I’m not sure about how much Brits rely on form. Omitting the punchline is fairly common practice I’d say, trailing off at the end with something like “…and he’s an Everton [British football/soccer team] supporter so…” Is that what you meant? But I don’t think we see sarcastic interjections as disruptive in the same way, so your intuition still holds true. Food for thought, I’ll keep an ear out for it in future.

    "Obama's appointee to Great Britain, Louis Susman, speaks fluent English." I’d say this was dry wit if he does indeed speak fluent (Br)English and sarcasm if he employs a Bush-esque mangling of the mother tongue. So it depends on the writer’s personal opinion of Susman really.

    Joel: To my knowledge 'Napoleon Dynamite' was hugely popular in the UK and 'Eagle and Shark' has made a reasonable showing on DVD. Would probably describe them as ‘offbeat’ more than ironic, but that’s probably just me.

    Coal Porter: That is partly what I was trying to say. Sincerity as a national trait.

    Lynne: That surprises me, I would have thought teasing (and taking the piss) was more British than ‘USan.’ My friends and I certainly do it to each other and at work (in all my many walks of employment) I know we always do it to new people.

    As an end note, I would have to take exception to the Wikipedia {spits on ground} definition of *Taking the Piss* which misses entirely the jocularity often intended and other applications of the phrase. It’s probably the subject of an entirely new post but… if a BrE speaker were to make a joke about another person, who then took umbrage at the comment, the Brit might defend themselves by saying “Alright, I was only taking the piss.” Conversely, if you’re being messed about, say by a plumber who keeps turning up late, increasing his quotes etc, you might tell a friend “He’s just taking the piss now.” Not entirely relevant but I felt the need to mention it.

  62. Rather than being an entirely BrE/AmE issue, I think the (UK) family I married into just has more sensitive souls than the (US) one I was born into.

    In other words, we make lots of generali{s/z}ations on this blog, and if they're good generali{s/z}ations, they work in general, but not always in specific!

  63. Solo: That wasn't quite what I had in mind. I'm thinking of cases in which the setup for the joke is so clear that the humor comes from the absence of the expected punchline, possibly replaced by something "straight."

    I actually just watched an old Simpsons* episode where this style of humor was used nicely. Near the beginning of the episode, cut to Bart on the phone with Principal Skinner. Skinner: "Well, as a matter of fact, my refrigerator *wasn't* running. You've spared me quite a bit of spoilage. Thank you, anonymous young man."

    The humor comes not from the traditional form but from the subversion of it. I never saw British people enjoy this kind of joke, which is why I started to think that they appreciate the traditional forms more. But maybe I'm not thinking about this the right way.

    * It's a separate theory of mine, equally unsubstantiated, that The Simpsons changed the American sense of humor. Comedy before the Simpsons feels in a way foreign to me, and I have to fight against my natural responses to find it funny.

  64. The ironic humour in the premise of Hot Fuzz is pretty obvious, but the film isn't just the premise. It has jokes in it too. And lots of pop culture references. And funny characters. And so on. Obviously not to everybody's taste, but that's humour for you.

    I liked it, but not as much as Shaun of the Dead, because I'm a big zombie movie fan, whereas I can take or leave buddy cop movies.

    And I'd also concur that Napoleon Dynamite was very successful over here, at least among the same sort of crowd that liked it in the US. It's one of my favourite movies of recent years.

  65. As far as "I could care less" goes, I think I've heard it used in a sarcastic tone, but most people do not and are generally unaware that it isn't grammatically correct. I always say "I couldn't care less," and I hear it said that way quite a bit (perhaps this is because I live in the Northeast. If it means anything, we use the "Great Lakes" dialect here in central New York State).

    Interestingly, my father tends to say "I could care!" (not with sarcasm, but usually anger/frustration) as a short form of the phrase when someone is whining to him about something. It's pretty effective.

  66. I didn't read all of the other comments because I couldn't differentiate between those being intentionally sarcastic and those being unintentionally dull.

    I think saying "in America, there is a time and place for sarcasm" is spot on. I'm sarcastic, but I dated a girl who was always sarcastic and it drove me mad. Introductions to my family and coworkers were always awkward because they had just met her and saw her humor as disrespectful and out of line.

    Also, sarcasm can be quite insensitive or inflammatory when used at inappropriate times. One of my exes and I had just got a dog and for some reason this dog's ears were extremely sensitive to contact. My ex's roommate had invited over a male guest whom I had never met before and as he was playing with the dog, I heard her (the dog) scream in agony. I told him to be careful around her (the dog's) ears. He responded (sarcastically) "I'll make sure to pull them real hard then".
    I didn't laugh. I thought he was an asshole. Had he been a close friend of mine, perhaps I would have appreciated his joke, but in this context he was simply obnoxious. Maybe I'm too sensitive, but I don't sarcastically rib relative strangers.

  67. Re: setting up a gag and omitting or subverting the punchline. I thought Monty Python were the first to do this as a regular type of humour. The Flying Circus programmes are full of unfinished jokes and sketches, the most famous being the dead parrot sketch.

    I seem to recall this drew negative reactions from the more traditional crowd, so presumably it wasn't recognised at the time (1960s) as being a "proper" form of comedy.

  68. You sound like an american.

  69. piThe English are a very moody, passive aggressive bunch based on my experiences with the same. My friend bores easily and thinks nothing of making offhand remarks full of ridicule, contempt and meanness. To and fro's with him become a competition and honestly I think the vast swaths of water from the Atlantic separate us in many ways. Americans are taught that if we shoot our mouths off too much we'll get our clocks cleaned...the English don't seem to care if they're offensive because it's second nature to them. Find the Scots and Irish to be much more direct and but the English have an insidious, spiteful side to them that belies their inflated sense of themselves.

  70. My experience, on the contrary, is that the English are very reluctant to critici{s/z}e anyone directly. But there's plenty of individual variation on both sides of the Atlantic. As well as lots of stereotyping!

  71. Being late to the game and off topic, I probably should be refraining from commenting, especially as my comments won't pertain to the subject of this post (BrE v AmE), but I found the discussion in the comments about USans and Americans and English and Scottish and British quite (AmE) interesting.

    Having traveled in Latin America I know that Spanish does have a PC term for citizens of the United States that flows rather more easily off the tongue than USan, namely "estadounidense," and perhaps that term exists because the Spanish-speaking Latin Americans feel themselves to be as American as the estadounidense.

    But having lived in Germany I know that when Germans say Amerikaner they generally mean a citizen of the United States. Yes, German too does have a PC term for US citizens, US-Amerikaner, but really Germans don't use it as much as they do just Amerikaner.

    And a Scotsman surely knows it's a lost cause to try to get the US Americans to stop claiming the general term American for the US when he can't even convince his fellow Scots (or Britons or UKers) to stop using the term American to apply only to the United States.

    Lastly I've noticed that our host here, perhaps because she herself is American, uses the tag AmE, and not USE. That could be because she's not worried about offending non-US Americans, or it could instead be because of the general awkwardness in English of referring to US American people and things without appropriating the term American. USE doesn't work at all as well as AmE because it's all capitals and US-AmE is not as easy to type as BrE, and really no one thinks she's talking about English as spoken in all of North and South America when she says AmE, right?

    Sorry for being a naughty (US-)American and fanning the flames.

  72. David Lauri

    Posting arguments in a thread headed 'sarcasm and irony' doesn't exactly invite us to take you seriously. But if you are serious, there's a very practical answer. There's a great body of observed date under the headings AmE and BrE. It's easier to check perceptions against impressions than, say, comparisons between Canadian and US English or the English of England and Wales. OK, such comparisons are not impossible, but they are not the focus of interest of Lynne's blog. Not are they excluded, of course,

    Nobody in Britain uses American to refer to the two continents of North and South America unless it's totally clear from the context. I presume the same is true for people in the US. If we want a noun, we say 'the Americas'.

    We do quite often use American to refer to the English language culture of North America — the US and Canada. I see no harm. If ever the US-Canada differences are relevant, it's perfectly easy and natural to speak of them in natural everyday English terms.

    A great many of us in Britain are intrigued by the variety of English we hear in North American media. Enough are us are interested enough to follow Lynne's blog. It's perhaps surprising that a large number of people who describe themselves as 'American' are similarly interested in British English.

    Only rarely is some unique feature of Canadian English of particular interest. The English of South America is not even a concept.

    You may not have read the blog much. Read a bit more and you'll see that within the groups of self-proclaimed 'British' and self-proclaimed 'American' there's interest in relating individual experience to the two alleged norms. BrE and AmE are constantly being redefined.

    I think it's about identity. We want to belong and yet have individual differences. We want to belong to the world of English-speakers and retain individuality for the two main branches (and, of course for Australian English etc.) But we also value the differences which mark out groups by region and/or by generation within each branch. They mean we belong to something small as well as something big. We are not alone.

    Those with an objective interest in BrE/AmE differences can go to the reference works. Here on Lynne's blog the questions are Where do I belong? Who are my sisters and brothers?'

  73. David Crosbie:

    I wouldn't invite you to take me too seriously. I try not to take myself too seriously. Life's not much fun if it's too serious.

    But seriously, it's not as if I chose a post here at random to comment on denonyms. Rather I commented on this post only having read all the comments on this post about what people living in the United States and in Scotland and England and Britain and the UK should be called, triggered in part by the post's author's use of the term "USan" (a term that our host suggested her guest writer use in this post to avoid the inclusion of other Americans, specifically Canadians, that using the more generally used term American might have implied), so my commenting here, albeit late, wasn't completely off target.

    Incidentally someone who did take denonyms overly seriously might argue that AmE could cover English in Guyana, where it is an official language, but I wasn't seriously suggesting that our host should not use AmE to mean English in the United States. I was poking a wee bit of fun at the seriousness of the comments about whether American could be used to mean US-American. Sorry for having taken a piss at anyone's expense (if that's the proper way to use that BrE phrase).

  74. I would think it is more about tone. When Americans are being sarcastic, we tend to overtone it so that the other person will understand (hopefully) that we are being sarcastic, not mean/rude. We do not want to offend people or hurt their feelings. We want them to know it is a joke, not how we truly think or feel

  75. Oh my goodness! Why so much hostility to US Americans calling ourselves Americans?
    What are we supposed to call ourselves(in your opinion)?
    In the USA, we are taught in School that we are Americans, People in Canada are Canadians, People in Mexico are Mexicans.
    We do not have a separate term for it because The Name of our Country is not the United States, but The United States of America.

  76. ok you made all this sound like if you British people where superior than americans in any way.Oud sarcasm may be different but it doesnt mean you are better or less im so fucking tired of you british people saying you are better at everything get over you trauma of inferiority and stopd trying to make everyone think you are better when in your insides you feel inferior

  77. I'm afraid as soon as I see phrases like: 'over-inflated national pride'
    or 'because in our arrogance we Brits don’t expect sarcasm'

    then I can't really take the rest of the article seriously without feeling there is an agenda going on somewhere. Some good points made but without neutrality one could believe that points will be made to back up the authors view rather than be a true study.

  78. Massachusetts-

    from anonymous
    This almost always earns me an "I was being sarcastic." To which I usually have to say, "Yeah, I know. I was too."

    I too tend to riff on someone's sarcasm, but if they stop to explain their sarcasm I'd be heavily tempted to respond "Were you? I hadn't noticed."

    While I do define sarcasm in the more narrow dare I say true to source AmE sense, That form of sarcasm is more often insulting than funny.

    I much prefer the dry understated wit that, while found on both sides of the Atlantic seems more treasured on the right.

    I especially like making a game out of using just the right tone, emphasis and phrasing that what I say is both true and understandable if taken either literally or metaphorically, but is only fully true and understood if taken on both levels.

    Americans will sometimes overstate their sarcasm in a vain attempt at making it idiot proof, but other times they might take part in some plausible deniability. My favorite form of sarcasm is when not even the speaker themself is sure whether or to what degree they are serious. That presents the ideal form of ambiguity that even the best puns fail to achieve.

    I also get a jolt of amusement from subject object reversal playing on stock phrases and cliches.

    Some of the least funny comedians from my perspective are those who think shock humor is nothing more than calling someone an !$#$^^&% ##^%#@.

    P.S. While further comments revealed that Maggie was in fact conflating England and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (et al),
    It was also possible in the context of her post that she incorrectly thought that England Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland each had direct membership in the EU.

    P.P.S. one source of confusion for Americans regarding the country of the United kingdom and the countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is that all 5 entities are considered countries. The USA is one country of many states. The concept of a country being part of another country is challenging.


    I wonder how denizens of " Papua New Guinea, East Timor* and portions of Indonesia"(Wikipedia)
    feel about being Australians?(i.o.w. Do they consider themselves to be Australian as Brazilians et al consider themselves (South) American?)

  79. You know, it's hardly as though ''cause' is exclusive to AmE, and in any case some people pronounce it rhyming with 'claws'.

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  81. It is absolutely NOT the case that Americans don't understand irony, we just tend to use that word differently. What Brits commonly refer to as irony, to most Americans is simply flat-out sarcasm. And in that, there are many instances an American would not find it socially acceptable to use sarcasm (as in a business meeting perhaps) so when it is used, the hearer might be caught off guard and look for genuine meaning, causing the Brits to employ their usual assumption that Americans are just too dumb to get it.

    Americans more often reserve use of the term irony in reference to historical, dramatic, or situational irony. Passing, casual, verbal sarcasm (which many Americans, depending on class, region, etc would use at length) would almost never be referred to as irony.

    BTW, American living in London here....having giving quite a lot of thought and analysis to this question. As one with a fairly sarcastic sense of humor, I have even been caught of guard by the use of sarcasm in situations I would never expect, and accused of 'not getting it.'

  82. As an American in the Midwest, I find that in my area sarcasm tends to be more caustic and immediate. Irony tends to be more deliberated and thoughtful.

    That is to say that while sarcasm is blunt and in-your-face irony tends to be noticed more on reflection.

    We yanks definitely understand and appreciate both. (at least those of us with a multi-digit i.q. What so many of my countrymen miss is satire, but that is another topic altogether.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)