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Feb 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

Aspects of British Humour

Tim Bowen is a free-lance teacher trainer, materials writer and translator. His main interests in the field of language teaching and linguistics are etymology, philology and pronunciation.




We have probably all experienced a situation when someone from another country has told a joke and delivered the punch-line to baffled looks from his or her listeners. Having to explain the joke, which is no doubt hilarious in their own language or culture, rarely helps and generally has the effect of defeating the object. So, can humour be characterised as language or culture specific and, if so, does British humour differ radically from the humour found in other countries? In this article, we will attempt to answer these questions by looking at certain aspects of British humour, starting with those aspects that seem to be shaped most of all by the English language.



The fact that many English words have multiple meanings has always been of great assistance to humourists. Consider these examples: ‘I would tell you a joke about chemistry but I’m worried that I wouldn’t get a reaction’, ‘I used to be a banker but then I lost interest’, and ‘The past, the present and the future walked into a bar. It was tense’. Whether you find these amusing or not will almost certainly be a matter of personal taste but the different meanings of reaction, interest and tense are used as the basis of the humour. The same principle can be applied to words or phrases that have a figurative or idiomatic meaning as well as a propositional meaning, as in these examples: ‘She had a neck brace fitted last year and she hasn’t looked back since’, ‘I’m reading a book about weightlessness. It’s one of those books you can’t put down’, and ‘My grandmother covered my grandfather’s back with lard. After that he went downhill fast’.



Words with the same sound but a different spelling and meaning also provide fertile ground for British humour, although clearly they work better when heard rather than read. Here are a few examples: ‘I only know 25 letters of the alphabet. I don’t know ‘y’’, ‘Police were called to a local kindergarten this afternoon because a four-year old was resisting a rest’, and ‘He’s found a job as a baker because he needs the dough’. Shakespeare also made use of homophones, with one of the most famous examples being the opening line of Richard III: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York’.



Words with a similar sound but an entirely different spelling and meaning have led to the wide use of puns for humorous effect both in literature and in comedy. Some groan-inducing examples are: ‘He’s become so obsessed with The Lord of the Rings that he’s started tolkien (talking) in his sleep’, ‘I wouldn’t worry about it. It seems to be quite a harmless hobbit (hobby / habit)’, and ‘As far as I’m concerned, having to read Tolkien was mordor (murder)’. Closely related to puns are malapropisms (the name deriving from the character Mrs Malaprop in Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals, a character who, in an effort to sound more erudite than she really is, frequently uses words that are not quite right). Used intentionally, malapropisms can work as puns, as in ‘Good punctuation (punctuality) means never being late’, ‘Having only one wife is known as monotony (monogamy)’, and ‘The problem was that he kept going off on a tandem (tangent)’.



Boasting about one’s achievements is widely seen as a negative characteristic by many British people and running oneself down has long been a device that humourists, and particularly stand-up comedians, have turned to. Some examples of this feature are: ‘I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself today. I bought a jigsaw that said 3-5 years on the box. I finished it in six months’, ‘When I was a child, I told my parents that when I grew up, I wanted to be a comedian. They just laughed. They’re not laughing now’, and ‘You know that feeling when you meet someone and you both fall madly in love? No, neither do I’.


The Absurd

Finding humour in the absurd is another feature of British humour and, seemingly, the more absurd the suggestion, the better. For example, people were urged to celebrate National Stationery Week by not going anywhere (note the use of the homophone stationery / stationary). Likewise, you could eliminate the need for time-wasting security checks at airports by always travelling naked and, while you’re about it, why not convince your children that you work for a budget airline by dropping them off at a different school?



When reacting to a sarcastic remark, people often use the quote “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit” in the mistaken belief that the author of the quote believed this and would never employ sarcasm as a result. Unfortunately, the words they quote are only half of the original quote, made by that expert practitioner of the art of sarcasm, Oscar Wilde. The full quote is: “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence”. Wilde and George Bernard Shaw both used sarcasm to great effect. One of the former’s best-known examples is ‘Some people create happiness wherever they go. Others whenever they go’ while Shaw gives us ‘He knows nothing and thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career’.



Defined as the use of statements with a second possible meaning, usually referring to something sexual as a joke has been a mainstay of British humour for many years, embodied, in particular in the Carry On series of films, which seemed to be largely based on innuendo. The device works by enabling what is on the surface an entirely innocent remark to be taken in an entirely different way as a result of the context. One technique to expose the use of innuendo is to add the words ‘as the actress said to the bishop’ or similar to the end of one such remark. This will turn seemingly innocuous questions or statements such as ‘Are you sure that’s the right way to hold it?’ or  ‘I’ve never seen one like that before’ into something much less innocent and … hopefully funny.

Please check the Using Humour in the English Classroom course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the British Life, Language and Culture course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the 21st Century thinking Skills course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Pilgrims courses at Pilgrims website.

Please check the English Course for Teachers and School Staff at Pilgrims website.

Tagged  Humour 
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