Thanks for your letter. In answer to your question: No, we don't ever
run out of subjects to discuss. Sometimes, though, it's a cow-like
thing where a subject is regurgitated and the cud is chewed again. As I
have mentioned before, this alt.usage.english newsgroup is frequented by
both Americans and Europeans. There's a goodly number of Brits that
post to the group, so it's not surprising to see "irony" as a cud that
comes up frequently.
Great Britain, as you will remember from your history classes, was once
a world power. The Brits had presence and influence anywhere the sun
was shining. (Some of them had presence where the sun doesn't shine,
but we will put that subject to the rear for now.) Over the years, the
Empire has declined, and the United States has assumed their role of a
global power. We have done so by hijacking everything from their
language to their exploitation of colonialism to their primitive
attempts at an industrial revolution.
Quite naturally, the British are desperately trying to retain some
measure of superiority. The Union Jack - now functionally reduced by
need to the size of one of those flags-on-a-toothpick in a Pimm's Cup -
continues to wave over only their one area of retained superiority:
irony. Irony is the last stand of the Empire. Granted, they have
managed to retain this bit of British glory by subterfuge and chicanery,
but it is still a purely British concept.
The subterfuge and chicanery are accomplished by never really defining
the concept. A typical discussion might go:
Brit.....I was being ironic, me old China. You wouldn't understand.
Yank.....What do you mean? I fully understood the reference.
Brit.....Indeed. I'm sure you thought you did. But, as it was ironic,
it was completely beyond the grasp of a Colonial.
Yank.....Beyond the grasp, my ass! It was perfectly clear to me.
Brit.....In a sense, perhaps, but Americans just don't do irony. It's
not on at all. Perfectly all right, though, I'm sure you were able to
muddle through and grasp the basic thought. Some of you can be
remarkably clever at this.
The reader should be able to sense, at this point, that the American is
very close to the boiling point. The Brit, on the other hand, grows
cooler as the conversation progresses. The Yank, invariably, will then
launch into a lengthy analysis of irony and sarcasm including the
familiar points of wounding comments, saying the opposite of what was
meant, the difference between "irony" and "ironic", and cite dictionary
definitions that categorically prove that he understands irony and all
the subsets of the meaning of the word. The Brit, meanwhile, is
affecting a mien of distracted tolerance and gentle amusement. His
reaction will be similar to the reaction he might show had you brought
with you a Corgi that had been taught to balance a teacup on its nose.
Then, the conversation would resume:
Brit.....Quite good, dear boy. You certainly have convinced me that you
understand the broader definitions and general framework. But, that's
not really what it's all about, is it?
It's...erm...the...erm...subtleties that define "irony" as we British
know it. Sadly, that's really what it's all about. I do so wish I
could explain it to you. It's just that it's, well, a British thing
that doesn't translate into your American way of speaking.
Yank.....God damn it! I understood what you said, I understood the tone
of the way you said it, and I understood what you meant when you said
it. What is there about it that you don't think I followed?
The Brit is now in full control. The American cannot rebut a definition
that is never truly articulated, and the Brit is languidly hand-waving
and avoiding any definition. To bring in another topic discussed here
recently, the Brit's intent is to make irony an "eye floater" that darts
away at any attempt at examination or scrutiny. The more prosaic
American wants clear delineation of the concept; a sort of a "i before e
except after c" rule.
There is no real way of telling if all Brits - or, indeed, any Brits -
are actually capable of irony in the British sense. Since we don't know
what it is, we don't know if its being employed. The Brits, of course,
constantly refer to their own use of irony, and to the use of irony by
other Brits, but it well could be an elaborate charade. Every Brit
could be completely ignorant of what constitutes British irony, but too
ashamed to admit it. That would be - in both the American and British
sense - ironical.
Tony Cooper aka: Tony_Co...@Yahoo.com
Provider of Jots & Tittles
Dear Miss Cooper,
I feel your brother's pain. Would that all knowledge could be extracted
from a dictionary or googled from the web!
English irony, what is it? Well, imagine you're a US sailor on shore
leave at Subic Bay in the Phillipines. You're starved for recreation
and, as the English say, you're gagging for it. You and your shipmates
go to a bar. All the bars in Subic have a certain character because the
clientele of those bars all have a certain character.
You and your shipmates sit down at a table. This signals the female
employees at the bar to crawl underneath the table, one for each man
sitting at the table. This is the Subic equivalent of irony, a game
called Smiles. The first man to smile loses. The last man to smile
wins. There's no better analogy to English irony on the planet.
In English irony, the girl under the table is your interlocutor. He's
guaranteed to say something stupid or to talk nonsense. That's always
the case in any conversation. Americans conversational style is
naturally charitable and readily overlooks conversational failings.
It's tolerant and PC. English conversational style - as your brother
rightly observes - is about retaining superiority. The trick of English
irony is to notice the faults and defects of one's interlocutor without
displaying the overwhelming sense of superiority and glee one feels.
Smiles without the girl under the table.
Hope that helps.
Another humdinger, T.
Though it's ironic that I detected a tone of unconscious irony there which,
I presume, you didn't realise you were conveying. Well done, old chap!
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