Irony and Sarcasm

zn29jMy generation is noted for its fondness for irony and sarcasm. This makes us delightful dinner guests and witty travel companions. But it also makes kids and students hate us. The problem is this: kids don’t pick up on irony, for the most part—same is true of those who are new to the English language. Both frequently conclude that the literal meaning of your witty little remark—the obvious meaning, the meaning on the surface—is the intended meaning (i.e., what you really meant to say). Thus, liberal parents who mouth racist remarks—within earshot of their kids—in a mocking tone of voice (a Southern accent, perhaps) frequently communicate to their children (inadvertently) that they hold these racist views in earnest.

Same thing happened to a Jewish professor at Concordia University. He made a few anti-Semitic remarks during a lecture on Depression-Era America. He did so to make fun of the stupidity (and asinine reasoning) so often found in antisemitic thought. I was thus shocked to discover, after class, that a francophone student (a friend of mine, studying in English for the first time) thought the professor (the Jewish professor!) was a flaming Nazi. Indeed, he went so far as to suggest that we file a complaint against the professor with B’nai Brith Canada. Naturally, I dissuaded him and clarified the professor’s meaning.

This experience (and countless others) have convinced me that irony and teaching don’t mix, unless you’re teaching privileged kids with a strong grasp of the English language. What’s true of irony is, I suspect, doubly true of sarcasm. Children and new English speakers invariably miss the subtleties of the sardonic style. Hate to be the one to break it to you: but all they hear is senseless meanness. They don’t think you’re cute. They just think you’re an asshole. Alas, though the charms of irony and sarcasm are undeniable, confining them to the company of peers is prudent, and forgoing them altogether in the presence of children is wise.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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