Do Americans Really Understand Irony?

Let me start by saying that 'I am an American' Ok, there I have admitted it. But let me go on to make myself slightly more unpopular by suggesting that our American society does present us with a range of valuable and positive aspects. (no - I am not being ironic yet) Before you stop reading, let me counter that by suggesting what I see as the greatest fault of our modern society. A self absorbed US-centric attitude? A destructive ill conceived foreign policy that is destroying our reputation across the globe? No, neither of these. In my opinion the greatest tragedy is the lack of widespread irony in our daily lives and conversations.

So what is irony? Let me start by explaining the concept, so that at least my fellow Americans can understand the idea even if they do not get it. Merriam Webster Dictionary ( provides several definitions, with the following providing a succinct and accurate explanation: "the use of words to express something other than (and especially) the opposite of the literal meaning. So if I trip over and say 'Gee - I'm co-ordinated today', that would be an example of irony. The act of falling over is opposite to the literal words. I have used this example, because some of you may be thinking 'Hang on, but isn't that the same as sarcasm?' I could of course answer by saying 'Gee- aren't you clever today', but I will stick to the shorter answer of 'no'.

Although I have provided a single definition of irony above, there are in fact several forms of irony. Sadly, for those people who mix and match these concepts - sarcasm is not one of these forms. The difficulty is that sarcasm is 'usually' said in an ironic way, but this is not always the case. In short, it is possible to have either sarcasm or irony without having the other. Going back to my original example where I fell over, if you had mocked me and said 'Gee - you're co-ordinated today', that would be sarcastic because of the scornful snigger. But as you will remember from above it is also defined as irony. However, if you had mocked my poor mishap by saying 'Gee - aren't you unco-ordinated', then you will have lost the touch of irony and simply descended to the lowest form of wit - sarcasm. (For a further explanation of the difference between these two concepts see

So in essence irony can be misunderstood as sarcasm because the two concepts do overlap. Sarcasm must have the mocking or sneering tone, and the confusion therefore arises because so often sarcasm occurs when making ironic statements which are positive when clearly something negative is intended. Just to be confusing, I note the potential for both parody and satire to incorporate both irony and sarcasm for even greater effect. (

So, do Americans really not understand irony? It would seem unlikely given its close connection with sarcasm, but still possible. It is true that many English comedians find the American circuit more difficult for this very reason. The fact that irony is used to different effect in the US does not mean that it is not used to significant and striking purpose.

The world wide success of shows like The Simpsons and Seinfeld is partially attributed to their fantastic use of irony. These shows both allow ironic humor to seep out, in stark contrast to the more traditional comedy setups of so many American sitcoms, which are far more gag focussed.

To conclude this section of self congratulatory praise for how us Americans DO actually understand and use irony, I note the two (American) Golden Globes awarded to the very ironic English sitcom The Office (

What is that you say? The Globes are voted for by Hollywood's foreign press too, and this is likely to have been a big influence, especially given the relatively small scale success of the show in America. Ok, a fair comment I guess. But secondly, and far more distressingly, The Office has been remade for the US market. So, firstly we heap accolades on this fine piece of television and then we deconstruct it, de-irony it, Americanise it and repackage it. Perfect! I think the whole argument could be lost on this sad point alone.

Do not distress however, the surge of irony is coming, and will not be stopped. It has been said that Americans take themselves too seriously to drop irony into everyday conversations. Well, there is little doubt in my mind that this is changing. Lines from shows such as The Simpsons are being copied and used by millions of children across this great land, and slowly but surely the old gags that amused former generations will give way to this higher form of humor - 'irony'.

Well, I think that cleared up issue - not!


Michael Watson studied English Literature at University, where he gained an interest in literary criticism particularly relating to drama and prose fiction. Michael has more recently focussed on genres of literature and literary techniques. As a side interest Michael manages


  • home | site map
    © 2013