Most countries have a particular sense of humour, finding some things much funnier than their national neighbours. That is certainly the case with the British, for whom a sense of irony and enjoyment of sarcasm – often known as ‘banter’ is a common and often hard to interpret trait.
When we study English online, it is normal that things mean what they say; the words in front of you are to be interpreted as they are written; but British humour frequently inverts the meaning, taking the words but communicating the opposite. We can come across this in the works of some of Britain’s greatest writers – Charles Dickens and Jane Austen being cases in points; in the comedy seen on TV and in everyday conversations with people. Even strangers in Britain will use both irony and sarcasm with people they do not know. It can be confusing.
In this article we will show how to spot this kind of humour, understand it and even use it yourself. We will also look at some other types of typically British humour.
What Is Irony?
This is a tool of language where the meaning of a phrase is the opposite, or near opposite of the words’ literal meaning. It is usually used for comic effect, and often to emphasise a point.
The use of irony in British humour is often used about oneself. British humour is often self-deprecating, in other words, directed by the speaker towards themselves.
So, let us consider an example of each of the above. Firstly, irony in a general form. Imagine you have been to see your favourite football team, and they lost 5-0. You get home and your partner says:
‘Did you enjoy the game?’
You reply: ’Yeah, it was great.’ Clearly, you did not enjoy the game, because your team lost, and you employ irony to stress your disappointment.
For the self-deprecating example, imagine you are visiting the new house of a friend or relative, and get lost. On arrival, your friend says:
‘You found us OK then?’
You reply: ‘No problem.’ The word ‘no’ is slightly stressed, or you indicate the alternate meaning with a smile, or raised eyebrow. In this example, you clearly did have difficulty getting to the house, and you are implying that the problem lay in your own direction finding.
The use of irony in these situations does have an important role to play in the way British people use language. Let us take the first example to illustrate this.
Instead of replying that the match was great, let’s imagine you use the words literally, and say: ‘No, the game was terrible. We lost 5-0.’ Such a statement will often be interpreted in a way not intended. The expectation of the reply is that it will either be positive, or funny (ironic, we would say.) When the reply is literal and negative, the implication is that the speaker is cross, or angry. While the ironic reply would receive a smile, or a nod of understanding, the literal reply could either be met by excessive sympathy, or disapproval, because it seems as though you are making too much fuss.
Sometimes it can be hard to interpret irony. Take the following imaginary exchange, when you are trying to divide up the cost of a meal between four people. The bill is handed to you, and you do not want to work out the individual costs.
‘Eighty-seven pounds sixty, plus a tip’ you say, ‘Who is good at maths?’
Person one replies: ‘I’ve got a Masters Degree in Applied Mathematics,’ which will normally mean that the speaker does not want responsibility for working out the costs. He or she has used irony to overstate their response.
This can be difficult, particularly when you are learning to speak or read English. Look for:
- Overstatement – the response seems extreme.
- A smile from the speaker.
- An exaggeration on certain words: ‘A bargain!’ said on receiving an excessive garage bill for a car repair.
- A facial expression, such as a twitch of the eyes, a slightly open mouth, or lips too firmly pressed together.
Irony is a tool that ensures conversations stay light – it is not unique to Britain, of course, although it is widely used here. Australians also frequently employ irony in their speech, as do other nations.
When Irony Turns Nasty – Sarcasm
Mostly, irony is used for pleasant humour to keep conversations light and friendly, or to laugh at targets who deserve some pointed observations, such as the pompous or politicians. (The same thing, of course? Spot the irony?)
But there is a form of irony which is less pleasant, and that is sarcasm. It is found in spoken English and is a form of irony intended to insult, put down or mock another person. It is far less pleasant, but because the speaker wants his subject to know they are being insulted, it is much easier to spot. Whereas, in Britain, irony is usually used against oneself, sarcasm is used to deride another.
Imagine a pupil has worked hard on a piece of homework, but the teacher does not like it.
‘That’s outstanding…’ The underlined word is really stressed to make it clear that is in not outstanding. The pupil is upset, they worked hard on that piece.
Or, when a driver hits the kerb, and the passenger says:
It is not pleasant to be on the receiving end of sarcasm, and it is not a kind trait to be one who enjoys giving it out. Often, sarcasm is excused as ‘banter’, which is fine, as long as all parties enjoy the process.
There are other types of particularly British humour which might cause confusion to somebody seeking to learn English, rather than a comfortable speaker.
A pun is a play on words. In fact, for a person learning the language, to find humour through the use of puns really helps with vocabulary, and spotting differences between similar sounding words. It is a fun exercise to do, which will be very beneficial.
Here is an example of a pun. A lady goes into a grocer’s shop.
‘Can I have a pear, please,’ she asks.
‘Here you are madam,’ says the grocer as he hands over a ripe green fruit. The lady stands waiting, and an awkward silence grows.
‘Is everything OK, Madam?’ asks the grocer
‘I asked for a pair, and you only gave me one,’ complains the lady.
The joke is, of course, that the words ‘pear’ and ‘pair’ sound the same (they are homophones) but mean completely different things.
Somebody learning English can seek out homophones and create their own puns using them.
Puns often crop up in comedy shows on TV. The comedian Milton Jones is famous for using them. One of his best is as follows:
‘Our daughter has a very large stripy head. We called her Melanie.’
The Double Entendre
Quite similar to the pun is the double entendre, which is also a play on words. This form of comedy is very popular in Britain, again often seen on TV but also used in everyday conversations. In these situations, the person making the double entendre often does so without realising it and can be surprised by the reaction of those he is speaking to.
The double entendre is usually slightly rude, or smutty, and provokes a smile, or comment, rather than huge laughter.
An example could be, in a conversation about dogs, your friend says:
‘We’ve just got a German Shepherd puppy, he’s quite small at the moment, but he’ll grow.’
To which you reply:
‘Oh, I’ve got a big one already.’
You mean a large dog, but the double entendre is that a ‘big one’ can be a piece of slang for genitalia. It’s funnier when said, rather than read!
The final type of British humour we are looking at is, sadly, dying out. However, it is a clever play on words in which letters are changed over to make the sound or effect funny. Again, as with puns, practising spoonerisms is a great way to get familiar with English as it is enjoyable and makes you focus on the sounds you are forming. Just remember the correct form when you need it for a serious conversation!
The Spoonerism is alleged to have been invented by Albert Spooner, who was born with a speech defect. A famous example of a spoonerism is:
‘It is customary to kiss the bride.’
This is said as:
‘It is kisstomery to cuss the bride.’