British humour, defined


Section 9a.01, Hard Sarcasm

Sarcasm, or sharp, bitter, cutting expressions, have a long history in British humour, originating no later than the 16th Century, when Walter Haddon wrote: With this skoffe doth he note them … by a certayne figure called Sarcasmus (tr. 1581 by James Bell). Since the day of this sadly forgotten Anglo-Latin poet and orator, the use of sarcasm has become common to British poetry (“Muse, shew the rigour of a satyres art, In harsh sarcasmes, dissonant and smart”) as well as, more recently, its film, television and journalism. From the last we can find a more contemporary example, one that requires a familiarity with the John Terry Sex Scandal. Speaking to the footballer’s disgrace, Janet Street-Porter, columnist for the Daily Mail, writes:

Sick joke – John Terry was chosen as ‘Dad of the Year’ by Daddies Sauce. That’s a product I won’t be buying any more. A serial philanderer, a ‘colourful’ (ie loutish) character who routinely urinates in public, had sex with a fan in his car and who made a drunken display of himself in a hotel in 2001, where anxious travellers were watching the TV news after the planes hit the World Trade Centre in New York.

That’s the man our football authorities thought was perfectly qualified to inspire and lead the England team.
Let’s not forget his drug-selling dad and shoplifter mother – team Terry is a shambles, a bunch of cocky vulgarians who most of us wouldn’t invite in for a coffee, let alone select the prodigal son as the face of our national game.

Here, Street-Porter expresses contempt for both the actions of John Terry and those of England’s favourite steak sauce, made from the highest quality vinegars. However, she does so without the necessary humorous and aggressive taunts and gibes that are so necessary to sarcasm. For those, let us look to the Guardian’s Football Blog, which responds:

Isolating the single most witless comment on the John Terry saga thus far is a near-impossible task, but you have to think that Janet Street-Porter, 63, would be in with a shout. “Sick joke,” began her Daily Mail column on the subject. “John Terry was chosen as ‘Dad of the Year’ by Daddies Sauce. That’s a product I won’t be buying any more.”

In any sane universe, the correct response for anyone over the age of six would be to throw one’s head back and cackle: “Oh do grow up, Janet!” Instead, alas, the fashion of the times suggests we should react by saying that it is obviously a massive disappointment that the Street-Porter condiment cupboard will now be deprived of the brown sauce which was once such an integral player among its lesser sundry ketchups, but that nothing is more important than the harmony of that cupboard being maintained, so it is commendable – if inevitable – that Janet has taken such a tough moral stand and shown what she’s about as a larder manager.

See also, satire, irony, and Daddies Sauce.

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