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.
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trucks and lorries

Three years ago when I started this blog, I wrote:
Dictionaries of British/American English mostly cover well-known variants like truck/lorry and elevator/lift But these are just the tip of the iceberg. What I intend to cover here are words/phrases/pronunciations/grammatical constructions that get me into trouble on a daily basis.
But as we've seen already with chips and crisps and jumper and sweater, it's often the case that the relationship between these 'well-known variants' is far more complex than the cross-dialectal dictionaries and word lists give credit for. Such is the case for AmE truck and BrE lorry, as Molly discovered recently. She writes:
I teach translation from Italian to English to language majors [in Italy]. I am lucky this term to have three women in my class on the Erasmus project [EU student exchange system--ed.] who are from the UK. They told me today that British English for "pick-up truck" is "pick-up truck". I asked them "What about a lorry?" and they told me that a lorry is much bigger.
I hope they told Molly that a lorry is much, much bigger, as many of the things that AmE speakers call trucks are not lorries in BrE. This is a lorry (from

And so is this (also from the links will be put in the text):

The really big kind of BrE lorry is an articulated lorry, which has several names in AmE--but I've covered those before, so have a look back here.

An AmE speaker will start to go wrong with their general lorry-for-truck translation rule when they get to this:

This is a (BrE) van--but never an AmE van.

Think of it this way, if it's referred to as a lorry, you'd need to have a special (AmE) driver's license/(BrE) driving licence to drive it, whereas the kind of thing that you could (AmE) rent/(BrE) hire in order to move your worldly belongings from point A to point B would have to be called a van in BrE. [But maybe not--see comments for details!] But in BrE, you might instead opt to hire a man with a van to do your moving for you.

In AmE, van is limited to referring to things like this:

And it refers to those things in BrE too--though they may be called transit vans (after the Ford Transit). In the UK, the white variety of these vehicles (as pictured) are the typical vehicle driven by tradespeople, and a stereotype has arisen for the (BrE) white van man as an unsavo(u)ry character. You can read more about that here.

While/whilst this next vehicle would be called a van or a minivan in AmE, it would be more likely to be called a people carrier in BrE:

As Molly was informed, there's no particularly BrE word for (orig. AmE) pick-up trucks, but then again, there are few pick-up trucks in the UK. Now don't--please don't--get me started about people in the US who use comically large pick-up trucks to do little more than drive to work and through the Taco Bell (orig. AmE) drive-thru. I've lived in Texas. If I start, I might not be able to stop. (But the BBC h2g2 site has a fairly good take on it.) I have only seen one of these monsters in the UK, and if you don't think they look silly in their American context (in [AmE] parking lots/[BrE] car parks full of similar things), then you'll just have to come and see one in the UK. They're hilarious. Or wrist-slittingly depressing. Something like that.

An antipodean P.S.: In South African English, a pick-up truck (just about always a little Japanese model) is a bakkie.
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'can I get' redux

This is for an MA student at our university. Here's her plea:
For my dissertation, I'm looking at the recent increase of young Brits using 'can I get' for requests, rather than 'can I have..', which old-school speakers like me use. I'm assuming that the 'can I get..' form is American, but I'm not sure if Americans see the two forms as having any difference in meaning. To me, and older British speakers, 'can I get a glass of water?' means 'do you mind if I help myself to...' if I'm in someone's house. It therefore seems odd to use it in a cafe or a pub, unless you plan to go behind the counter and help yourself.

A quick look at an American corpus seems to suggest that American usage of 'can I have...' is used more for questioning if you are allowed something. Is this really the case? I'd be really interested to hear what Americans with an interest in linguistics have to say!

Thanks very much.

So, please help her by discussing in the comments. Here's my posting on 'Can I get a latte grande?' from some time ago.
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crisps, chips and tortillas

My friend the Maverick received a news item about this bird through an evolutionary psychology e-mail forum:

The video, from the BBC, refers to the Doritos that the seagull eats as (BrE) crisps, but the source that Maverick read refers to them using the AmE term chips, which, of course, is the BrE word for AmE (french) fries.

However, the BrE crisps = AmE chips equation is not as straightforward as it might at first seem. This is demonstrated to us by the (UK) Daily Mail's story about the bird:
The rest of the flock flap around, begging for titbits (=AmE tidbits) and diving for scraps.
Not this fellow. He simply pops to the shops.
And his tastes, it seems, are rather particular. It has to be tortilla chips. [...]
He is now so popular that customers have started paying for his chips.
Crunchy fried potato slices are always (potato) crisps in BrE, but Doritos and other (AmE) tortilla chips are not so straightforward. When taken collectively with the other (BrE) packets/(AmE) bags at the front of the (BrE) corner shop/(orig. AmE) convenience store in the video, the Doritos are crisps, but when referring to Doritos and the like on their own, BrE speakers often use the American import tortilla chips. This is doubly foreign, since not only does chip mean something different than in AmE, but in BrE tortilla more often (in my experience) refers to the Spanish egg-and-potato dish than to the Mexican flatbread. (The 2007 draft entry in the OED also informs us that use of just tortilla to mean 'tortilla chip' is 'chiefly' BrE, and that the term Spanish tortilla is also used for the frittata-like dish--from the quotations, it looks like the Spanish prefix is mostly AmE.)

Better Half and I have a favo(u)rite Mexican restaurant in Brighton, and when we order chips and salsa there (which BrE BH pronounces with a first syllable like Sal and I in my AmE way pronounce with a first syllable more like Saul), we have, more than once, been asked to clarify whether we mean tortilla chips or (BrE) chips/(AmE) spite of the fact that their own menu reserves the term chips for the tortilla kind and uses fries for the thicker/softer potato kind. Tortilla chips is the more common term in BrE, with 31,500 UK Google hits--but with 14,500 hits, tortilla crisps has a respectable presence.

Cultural side note number 1: Americans are often surprised by the size of crisp/chip packets/bags in the UK. The largest bags in the UK are probably the size of the smallest bag that's not meant for individual consumption in the US, and often at parties in the UK, the host will have opened several individual-size bags (which can be bought in variety packs) into several small bowls. In the US, the biggest bags are comparable to a pillow in size and at parties the chips/crisps are presented in large, deep bowls. This does not--oh no, it does not--mean that the British are unenthusiastic consumers of wafer-thin fried potatoes. They consume, on average 7.2 kg per person per year, as opposed to 4 pounds (1.8 kg) per typical American. I presume that the limits on bag size in the UK have something to do with the limits on supermarket shelf space and home storage space. Because there are no (orig. BrE slang) ginormous bags of crisps/chips in the UK, there's also no need for the chip clip, which Americans use to keep their chips/crisps crunchy between pantry-raids.

CSN 2: British crisp/chip flavo(u)rs are more popular (in relation to plain, salted) and more imaginative than American flavo(u)rs--which, when I was growing up (i.e. before the dawn of 'gourmet' potato chips/crisps), were limited to salted, unsalted and barbecue. Cheese and onion is the nation's favo(u)rite (editorial note: [orig. AmE] ick) and salt-and-vinegar (which was available in New England in my youth, then spread to other parts of the US) must be close to the top. Flavo(u)rs that involve meat (steak and onion, chicken and thyme, prawn [AmE shrimp] cocktail) seem very popular too--a trend that has reached its peak, or perhaps its nadir, in the current offering of Cajun Squirrel flavo(u)r. (orig. AmE) 'Fess up: who among you has tasted them?

An unpleasant side effect of CSN 1 and CSN 2 is that when one's host pours the contents of more than one little crisp/chip packet/bag into a larger bowl, chances are that they'll have mixed together two flavo(u)rs, only one of which will be gag-inducing.

CSN 3: Pringles are served unironically at parties in the UK.

P.S. FuelMyBlog recently saw fit to interview me on my blogging habits. Click on if you see fit to care!
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I've been teaching a new course in Pragmatics this year, and this past week we ended it with a discussion of this article:

Jefferson, Gail (2002) Is ‘‘no’’ an acknowledgment token? Comparing American and British uses of (+)/(-) tokens. Journal of Pragmatics 34: 1345-83.
The author was an important name in conversational analysis and an American who lived for years in the Netherlands. In Dutch, it's common to use nee 'no' as an acknowledg(e)ment token, that is, something that you say to indicate that you've heard what your conversational partner has said. A negative token, like nee, would be used to acknowledge a negative statement.

Knowing about the Dutch nee, Jefferson decided to check how no is used as a minimal response in English, but when she started looking at a set of British conversational data, what she found didn't sit well with her own intuitions about how no is used as a conversational support. To find out why, she compared four sets of data: British doctors and patients, British 'civilians' (her term), American doctors and patients, and American 'civilians'.

Jefferson found that British civilians responded to negative statements with negative tokens 86% of the time, whereas American civilians did so only 27% of the time. British doctors did it 37% of the time, and American doctors not at all. American civilians most usually responded to negative statements with positive tokens like uh-huh, yeah (both originally AmE) and mm-hmm. So, American civilians use negative tokens at similar rates to British doctors (the 10 percentage-point difference is not statistically significant), and both of these groups use it far less than in everyday British conversation.

Jefferson next looked at whether British and American speakers use these nos for different things. She found that AmE speakers use no as an affiliative token, but not as just an acknowledg(e)ment token. That is to say, if an American says no in a conversationally supportive way (as opposed to using no more literally to disagree with the previous utterance) in response to someone's negative statement, they mean to show some empathy for the situation the speaker is describing. An affiliative token tells your conversational partner that you have not only heard them, but that you understand where they're coming from (orig. AmE). For instance, if I say I hurt my back and you say Awww, you'd be showing me that you've not only heard me, but that you feel my pain, as it were. Compare that to a simple acknowledg(e)ment token like mm-hmm, which would seem rather cold to say in such a circumstance.

BrE civilians used no as an acknowledg(e)ment token, where AmE civilians would have to use a positive form. To give a flavo(u)r of how this might lead to cross-cultural misinterpretation, here's a made-up example:

Better Half: I haven't heard from Matt.
Lynneguist: No...
If this were affliation, one would interpret my no as 'I know what you mean--that Matt is pretty bad about keeping in touch'. That would be the way an AmE speaker would probably use it.

But if it were just acknowledg(e)ment, then all I'd be saying is 'I heard you say that you haven't heard from Matt'. If I meant that, though, as an American, I'd have to say it a different way:
Better Half: I haven't heard from Matt.
Lynneguist [without lifting her eyes from New Scientist]: Uh-huh.
British me would be able to say no there without tearing myself from my magazine--but American me could not.

In their professional roles, BrE doctors seem to be careful to use no only for affliliation--that is, they don't use it for mere acknowledg(e)ment. It's possible that they do not use the negative form for acknowledg(e)ment because they need to be careful not to sound like they're affiliating when they're not. In Jefferson's data, American doctors don't even use it to affiliate--though there were some differences in the types of doctors in her two corpora, so I'm going to stop short of making any hypotheses about that.

So, I asked my students, what do you think happens when these cultures meet? The British shouldn't have much of a problem in understanding the Americans' affiliative use of no, since they use it affiliatively too. But the Americans aren't used to hearing it used as acknowledg(e)ment, and so should interpret it as affiliation. If that's the case, what will they conclude about the British? One of the students came up with the same perception that I have about what happens. (I'm eager to hear yours in the comments.) It's possible that the American would feel they'd been cut off. Once someone affiliates with you, they're essentially saying 'You don't need to explain this to me because I get it (orig. AmE)'. This whole business reminded me of my troubles with the BrE use of never mind.

To tell the truth, I'd never noticed [on a conscious level] the extra nos, in conversation with BrE speakers. But I recogni{s/z}ed the accuracy of Jefferson's observations as I started to think about it consciously--and I even thought that if I were to have imitated certain English acquaintances then I'd probably have been liberal with the interactional nos. I wonder if anyone out there has had any SbaCL moments courtesy of no. Do let us know!
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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)