Mr Bizlike’s finely developed sense of Irony15 September 2009


Some years ago, I was trying to explain the British (or more specifically, the English) sense of irony to a German. Because he was an engineer and much given to scientific method, we created the grid shown above to set the concept within the general context of “jokes.”

We decided that, whatever our nationality, we can make jokes about ourselves and about others. These jokes can be about a permanent or a temporary condition. This gave us three different joke types:

• Two stereotypical types of joke, where the “permanent condition” is indicative of a national or cultural characteristic. For example, on seeing the proverbial glass, an optimist says it’s half-full. The pessimist says it’s half-empty. But the German says its 50% over-engineered. Regardless of who makes this joke (self or others, a German or me) its still about one of their national characteristics, the stereotype of reliable (see VW ad ) engineering
• What I call “clowning” where the joke is about myself and concerns a temporary condition. Once, whilst running a session, I had to pause part way through an explanation because I was unable to pull the top off my flip-chart pen. I announced that the pen was the Excalibur of felt-tips and I would never be King… Despite the pre-requisite knowledge of Arthurian legend and a tone more tragic than comic, my remark showed a willingness to let others have a little fun at my expense
• The delightfully named “Schadenfreude” – or joy from others’ sadness. A man walks into a bar. Ouch! It was an iron bar. Includes fart jokes (embarrassment), banana skins and other physical comedy scenes.

To illustrate the concept of irony, my German colleague and I chose the topical subject of Iraq. Having spent the spring and summer of 2003 defending UK foreign policy to my colleagues from the rest of Europe, I’d arrived at a stock response:

The British are an island race. Tony Blair says: “I land troops wherever George Bush tells me to.”

Taking one definition of verbal irony – that speakers communicate implied propositions that are intentionally contradictory to the propositions contained in the words themselves – I suggested setting this joke up with an opening assertion:

The British attitude to European unity can be understood by the fact that we are an island race. (This implies that there are geographical and historical reasons for our permanent condition of separateness.) Tony Blair says: “I land troops wherever George Bush tells me to.” (The punchline contradicts the original meaning by showing that our permanent condition is in fact to be in thrall to the US.)

The skill in using irony, we concluded, lies in how well the speaker subverts stereotypical expectations. A criticism of “us Brits” is that it’s often hard to know when we are being serious – we say one thing and then immediately go on to imply the opposite. This may explain the stereotype about our notorious “sense of humour.” No one gets irony the way we do…

This gave us a fourth category to add to our grid:
• The ironic stereotype where a permanent condition of self or others changes meaning in the telling.

Take the ever-popular subject of beer. It’s an old stereotype in the rest of the world that our beer is inferior to other nations’ products:

English beer tastes so bad its best to pour it straight down the toilet and cut out the middle-man.

By incorporating another stereotype – the notion of British inefficiency – we can mean the opposite of what we say:

English beer is a wonderful example of British efficiency – it tastes so bad its best to pour it down the toilet and cut out the middle-man.

So now you know. How to make funny jokes and both use or fully appreciate irony. Handy, eh?

One Response to “Mr Bizlike’s finely developed sense of Irony”

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