Whose bright idea was this? Irony and dictionaries

Posted by on March 22, 2012

In his recent post on speech acts, Orin made the point that “many of these formulas … can be used to convey a meaning very different from the one they’re usually used for; sometimes just the opposite”. A good example is the expression Yeah, right, which people use to signal that they don’t believe what someone is telling them. Like many of the speech acts Orin mentions, this is an example of irony. And it’s kind of ironic to be hearing about this from our U.S. blogger, because there’s a widespread belief in the U.K. that  “Americans don’t get irony”. Anyone who has ever watched The Simpsons, Curb Your Enthusiasm, or any of a raft of other American comedy shows will know that this is nonsense. Nevertheless, there are differences in the way Americans and Brits employ irony. British comedian Ricky Gervais dismisses the notion that Americans don’t understand irony, but adds that “what is true is that they don’t use it all the time. … Americans don’t use it as much socially as Brits”. Gervais is right that, for many British people, a form of jokey, ironic banter is almost a default conversational setting.

This means that a lot of what we say can be meant ironically, and we rely on context and tone to tell us the speaker’s true intention. Which makes irony something of a minefield for lexicographers. If any positive remark (“That’s so helpful”, “How marvellous”, “What a fascinating lecture”) has the potential to be used ironically, how can dictionaries deal with this? In most cases they can’t, but if we apply our usual criteria – looking at how frequently a given linguistic feature occurs in corpus data – we can find cases where the ironic use is common enough to be worth recording. A nice example is bright idea. On the face of it, this sounds like a good thing – and often enough it is. But a quick scan of the 500-odd instances in our corpus suggests it is used ironically in perhaps a quarter of cases, in examples like this:

He asked me to have a few publicity photographs taken, but unfortunately, someone had the bright idea of taking them up on the roof of the cinema – on a wet, blustery afternoon!

Consequently, we added a second sentence to the definition in the dictionary, saying that it is “often used for showing that you think an idea is stupid”. (You can find similar examples at the entries for princely sum, bright spark, ray of sunshine, and just what I always wanted.)

And of course, there are the various ways of saying “Thank you”, any one of which might be employed ironically. Orin mentions thanks a lot, which is probably the one most likely to convey the opposite message (so it actually has two definitions in the dictionary, one positive, one negative). Thank you very much can usually be taken at face value, but it has a more specialized use too. When used at the end of a clause or sentence, it can convey irritation with someone who is interfering or offering unwanted help or advice:

American consumers have an independent mind and they’ll wear and buy what they want, thank you very much.
Just shut up. I can speak for myself thank you very much.
I told him I had all the triple glazing I needed, thank you very much, and suggested he cleared off.

Finally, there seems to be a clear British/American divide in the use of thanks a bunch. To me, this is unambiguously ironic (like the more explicit thanks for nothing) but apparently not. I was familiar with its “sincere” use in the movie Fargo, whose heroine Marge Gunderson uses it repeatedly (along with various Sarah Palin-esque expressions like heck, okey-dokey, and you betcha). I took this to be a Coen brothers spoof on the way people talked in small-town Minnesota, but I’m assured that thanks a bunch is regularly used in the U.S. to express genuine gratitude, and the corpus backs this up, with examples like these from American sources:

You did a fantastic job with absolutely no notice at all. Thanks a bunch, we really appreciate it.
I’ll cut this short here, but again, thanks a bunch for your ideas and thoughts. Keep up the good work.

So to any American readers, thanks a bunch for getting this far. And to everyone else, a plain thank you will have to do.

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Comments (4)
  • I have always thought that when I was being ironic in English, being a Spanish speaker in the first place, I was sort of translating from Spanish into English, since these expressions are really common in our language. As I read this I feel as if I am reading a literal translation of the phrases from one languange into the other which is not very frequent. I have always been a bright spark, I know, but I prefer to call myself ” the candlelight in the blackout . LOL

    Posted by Maria Bovino Mallmann on 24th March, 2012
  • I loved Maria’s “caldlelight in the blackout ” translation. Unfortunatedly, the bright spark fell a little flat.
    However, I like to repeat what I have hear about what the French think about just speaking/talking in general – It is NOT WHAT YOUR SAY, BUT HOW YOU SAY IT! (tone not just the words)
    The tone which one uses to say: You’re right; yeah, right; b.s., sure; etc., can really make a world of difference. From hate to love; funny to stupid.
    I enjoy it all.

    Posted by Sherian Bowyer on 28th March, 2012
  • […] us who to follow is grammatically fine. At Macmillan Dictionary Blog, Michael Rundell explored irony and dictionaries, Stephen Bullon gave us the story behind jerrycan, and guest poster Heng-ming Carlos Kang compared […]

    Posted by This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words on 6th April, 2012
  • […] Ironinen ilmaisu voi muuttua niin tavalliseksi, että se banalisoituu kun totumme siihen. Tällöin ironisesta merkityksestä tulee ilmaisulle tavallinen merkitys. ”Thanks a bunch” brittienglanniksi tarkoittaa, että ”olipa paskamaisesti tehty.” Näin voi tapahtua myös tuolle ”Kiitos sinulle …” aloitukselle. Vastaavia ilmiötä on monia (kuten käy ilmi esimerkiksi tästä Michael Rundellin blogikirjoituksesta). […]

    Posted by Kiitos sinulle, joka tämänkin artikkelin kirjoitit… | Mestaripuhuja on 3rd September, 2014
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