Sarcasm,Idioms and Black Humour

Posted on April 25, 2013

For some reason, this week I have spent much of my time observing the language of fellow humans and how it affects the way they converse and gets them through the day. You should really do this yourselves, it is great fun, because it soon becomes apparent how reliant we are on sarcasm, idioms and black humour, even in the most basic of conversations.

Sarcasm and irony is the staple diet in conversations throughout offices, pubs and clubs, with words such as joy, fantastic, brilliant, marvelous and great, often, in fact almost always, meaning totally the opposite of their original meaning. I have never, for example, heard someone expressing “deep joy” without it meaning something that they are really not looking forward to.

Sarcasm is now so popular that almost every word we use as a description is often used for the total opposite effect. I don’t know where this trait comes from and why it is so, but it probably stems from the British weather, centuries of multiple invasions and in my case, a childhood watching Fawlty Towers, a British sitcom based purely on vicious sarcasm from start to finish.

The use of idioms is another part of our culture that often goes unnoticed, at least until they are mixed up, often causing great hilarity and *mickey taking. In the last week alone I have heard one person claim that the country was “Up to its eyebrows in debt” and another describing a refurbished lawnmower as“The best thing since sliced milk.” 

These are pretty poor in comparison to when my sister once accused me of always Sitting on the tree” and a cleaner in my mother’s pub who claimed that one of the customers was not even capable of “Organising a pizza in a brewery.” I can’t claim an intellectual higher ground here; until about a year ago I would always describe a poor party or dull football match as a “damp squid.” 

That leads me to assess that the humour we all enjoy the most derives from laughing at others failings as a form of relief that this time it was them and not us who had looked like a total clown. There was a classic example of this on the radio yesterday that had me laughing with empathy for a music teacher, who with intentions that I am sure were good, caused chaos in his Year 9 Cambridgeshire classroom.

Somewhere in the school curriculum for music, there must be a section where children should be taught how background music is used to emphasise a scene in a movie. This is fantastic, because the poor sod obviously went into a great deal of thought about how he could get across to the children how  music can enhance drama.

What film did he play on the projector? Why It’s obvious of course…He showed the shower scene from the movie Pyscho.

Sadly, this masterstroke backfired, leaving half the class traumatised and one poor lad vomiting and unable to attend school for a few days. I find this funny because I can imagine being that music teacher, lying in bed trying to come up with some sort of maverick inspiration that would set me apart from the other mere mortals in my profession. I guess he achieved that, but not quite how he hoped.

What made this farce all the more enjoyable to me was that when the mother of the traumatised child was interviewed on Radio 5, I was treated to a lady of intelligence who had actually had empathy with the guy but just wished he had been more subtle. It turned in to a brilliant piece of spontaneous radio entertainment with the conversation between her and the excellent Nicky Campbell going a bit like this.

NC:”Why use Psycho? Why not The Sound of Music” perhaps?

Mother: “Precisely Nicky.  Why couldn’t he have used Jaws or something?”

NC: “JAWS…I’m not sure I would recommend that, it’s a terrifying film?”

Mother: Yes I know, but I don’t think even my son would be up all night expecting a shark to come crashing through his bedroom door with a knife.”

Brilliant stuff.

It is worth noting that whilst we think we are funny by using sarcasm as our highest form of wit, we are not as globally popular for it as we may think. I read a post whilst researching British sarcasm on Google (presumably by a South African) saying that British people were obsessed with perpetual sarcasm and irony, making us rude and difficult to understand in conversation because when something genuine was said (“Hey, I went to a great wedding last week!”)  It was hard to decipher whether it was sarcasm or not.

His argument was that whilst some British TV can be humorous, British people are not; they are just rude and downbeat in conversation and always face the prospect of bad news with a ferociously negative and sarcastic use of positive words (“Oh that’s just fucking great that is”). His name was withheld, but my guess is he was called something like Rudolph Van Der Klak and he found his own source of humour came from shooting black people.

Go on do it, observe people in conversation for one day; it really is fascinating stuff seeing how we communicate with each other. In a way the guy I mentioned above is actually quite right, because if you are not an indigenous Brit or at least lived here for several decades, it must be really hard understanding a typical British conversation which is laced with sarcasm, idioms and black humour.

Anyway, I’d better finish there as I have loads to do…Oh Deep joy, I can’t wait…Oh well; I suppose there is nothing I can do about it…That’s just the way the cuckoo crumbles.

*Taking the Mickey derives from the term ‘taking the piss’, which became known in cockney rhyming slang as ‘Taking the Mickey Bliss’.

Sadly, I have no knowledge of who Mickey Bliss was.

2 Replies to "Sarcasm,Idioms and Black Humour"

  • Dickie Van Der Klak
    April 26, 2013 (8:22 am)

    More stereotyping of South Africans, we don’t shoot black people anymore, it’s the other way round. You must be one sand wedge short of a picnic.

  • Trevor
    April 28, 2013 (8:47 am)

    Funnily enough me and my father-in-law heard another mixed up one just the other day. We were in a hardware store and overheard a lady as she turned to her husband and say, “This shop has got more customers than staff!”. You kind of had to hope she was right otherwise it was always going to be a bit of a problematic business model for the store.

Got something to say?

Some html is OK

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.