Irony: Is it just a UK thing? - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Irony: Is it just a UK thing?

The Almost Drug Deal and How I Discovered Irony Doesn’t Always Go Down Well With An American Audience

So here’s the tale…..

I was in Annapolis with my five year old son having a mooch (as in to wander) about the streets and lanes around the waterfront before boarding the Pirate Adventure ship. Annapolis is a lovely, genteel, historical place of nautical heritage and views of the Chesapeake, vintage shopping and waterfront eateries. It is wealthy and rather quaint, that’s what this Brit thinks.

As we are mooching along from our restaurant, having enjoyed fish tacos whilst overlooking the harbour, two youths, who were on the other side of the road, spoke to us thus: “Blow or sauce?” I shook my head and carried on and they asked again, so I said “No thanks” and off we skipped on our merry way.

(I confess I had to double check ‘sauce’ on Google to make sure that they weren’t actually offering me bottle of ketchup at a great deal, but as I thought it confirmed I was being offered cocaine.)

What I found interesting was the reaction to this event on Facebook, which I brushed off with the following thought process: no harm done, Harry had not a clue, the lads were not in my face, yes I was surprised by it, and a little shocked that it had happened in pretty little Annapolis, but such is life and at least I could blog about it later 😉

Annapolis - a tranquil haven ...  (Photo by Claire Bolden)

Annapolis – a tranquil haven …
(Photo by Claire Bolden)

(BTW, in case anyone is worried, I did tell the Pirates and they wanted to go out and get them with their cutlasses and hook hands, but then decided it was better just to call the police to inform them 🙂 )

So, I put this about it on Facebook after it had happened: ‘Two young gentlemen just asked me if I wished to purchase some ‘blow or some sauce’. I declined politely. This is Annapolis! My sensibilities are rocked 😉‘ (Note the intentional wink!)

A reaction that I received from an American friend read thus: ‘Claire, why do you refer to these two people as gentlemen? They are drug dealers, and it does you no harm to refer to them correctly as dealers, not gentlemen. A gentleman is concerned about you and your well being. A drug dealer just wants your money and doesn’t give a damn about you. As for Annapolis, I would think it is a great place to sell drugs, the people are well off and naive, and they don’t report dealers.’

So, he’s right, of course, they are drug dealers, but that is not what stood out for me about this response. It’s nothing to do with the drugs, but about the difference between the American and British senses of humor and the use of sarcasm and irony.

I was being deliberately sarcastic about these two lads being ‘gentlemen’. Of course they’re not gentlemen! I was being intentionally ironic about their status; that is I was using the word ‘gentlemen’ to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning (which is probably ‘scumbags’).

So this leads me on to the subject of irony….

Why do the Brits use it so much more than Americans?

British irony looks like this…..

Receiving an award at the Oscars – his second of the night – Ricky Gervais proffered the statuette and said simply: “Two bookends. Excellent.”

Los Angeles-based British actor Tim Curry didn’t pause for a second when asked what he missed most about the UK. “Irony,” he replied.

However, mega-hit shows such as The Simpsons, Friends, Seinfeld and Frasier, consistently use ironic situations to create comedic moments, and us Brits love them, right?!

Stand-ups such as Billy Crystal use irony as a staple of their act and the glorious M*A*S*H, from the 70s, had scripted banter dripping irony. How we loved M*A*S*H in the UK!

... or a drug den? (Photo by Claire Bolden)

… or a drug den?
(Photo by Claire Bolden)

A reminder about irony again…..

“Ill-timed or perverse arrival of event that is in itself desirable”
“Literary technique in which audience perceives meanings unknown to the characters” (Both from OED).

But some purists argue irony has wrongly become a synonym for sarcasm (oops, naughty me!).

Yet, in the UK we still believe that most Americans don’t get irony — I think my Facebook friend didn’t get my ironic intention in just that way.

David Freedman, a US comedy writer who now lives in the UK, believes the truth lies somewhere in between.

He says: “Americans do get irony, but to them there’s a time and a place for it. The time and place is in the evening, sitting down in front of the latest blockbuster sitcom.

“Where you get into trouble is dropping irony into an everyday conversation in America. In Britain you hear it all the time — irony and its more unsophisticated cousin, sarcasm.

“Americans, and I include in this my mom, take themselves too seriously to appreciate irony in everyday conversation. They don’t have time for it.”

What I find interesting is that The Office, Ricky Gervais’ masterpiece, was remade in the US, with different scripts and actors, and while it is very, very funny and brilliantly characterised, it doesn’t have quite the same tone to it. But you gotta make it for the audience, right?!

But despite it all, Freedman concludes: “There’s no doubt the Americans have a sense of irony. If we didn’t we’d have thrown out Rhode Island years ago. That’s not a state. You can walk across it in about five steps.”

Interestingly (ironically?!), the best, and most witty, response to my Facebook status was from another American friend: “It must be a nice area, otherwise they would have offered you rock or crystal!”


About the author

Claire Bolden

Claire Bolden McGill is a British expat who lived in Maryland for three years and moved back to the UK in August 2015. Claire wrote about her life as a British expat on the East Coast and now works in travel and hospitality PR in the UK. She still finds time to blog about her repatriation and the reverse culture shock that ensued - and she still hasn't finished that novel, but she's working on it. You can contact Claire via twitter on @clairebmcgill or via her blog From America to England. Contact the author.


  1. EmmaK says:

    An example that you probably have noticed is that even Alanis Morissette did not understand what irony is even though she wrote a bleedin song about it. No Alanis, a black fly in your Chardonnay is not an ironic situation. Nor are all the others you mention

  2. Joe Hepperle says:

    Claire, Claire, Claire, Claire. At the risk of committing the same error that I will here describe, here is one possible explanation. The reason we Americans don’t view your use of the word ‘gentlemen’ as irony is this: When you wrote your sentence, you wrote it with a British accent. But, when we United Statians read it, we read it with an American accent. When read with an American accent, it reads as if you truly meant ‘gentlemen’. But when we read it with a (fake) British accent (and even a fake Aussie accent), it kind of, sort of, maybe sounds a little bit ironic.


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