When I was still young enough to be unable to tell the difference between pretension and cool, Tom Stoppard came to give a talk at my university. His slightly RP/Czech fusion drawl made me think of his comparative linguistic knowledge so in the Q&A, my hand went up. Eventually he pointed at me. “Is there anything you think the English language lacks?” I asked. The baggy eyes gave me a once over. “A typeface for the ironic,” he answered.
“Cool,” I thought.
Of course this was the early 90s, the internet still sounded like a dolphin clearing its throat and social media was a bunch of Bulletin Board System nerds leaving earnest messages about packet protocols and chess moves. The idea that, through this system, speech would be superseded by instant text as the dominant form of communication in the developed world was unthinkable. And although Stoppard was, no doubt, using “ironic” as a polite way of saying “sarcastic”, lacking a typeface for sarcasm seemed a minor problem, writing was always in a long enough form for context to suggest intent.
Indeed, one of the strengths of spoken English is that any statement can be made to mean exactly the opposite through intonation and facial cues. We also have traditional sarc-signals like any sentence that begins with “Nothing would please me more than to…”
The potential ambiguity of sarcasm is also a classic facesaver. When you’ve just said something stupid, cover it with, “it was just a joke… Of course I don’t want a threesome with your sister.” Or better still make it all their fault: “Can’t you take a joke? Jeez.”
But, the faceless, incessant, short form of social media has meant we’ve had to find new ways of communicating all the things we used to do with body language. The emoji was born to cover a multitude of these but we still have nothing to denote sarcasm. Following a piece of sarcasm with a facepalm or winky emoji is as tone-deaf as air quotation marks with your fingers to indicate you’re saying the opposite of what you mean; all subtlety is lost.
Possibly the sarcasm emoji hasn’t emerged yet because neither in East Asia nor America, the origins of most emojis, is it a particularly popular or understood form of wit. “Sarcasm”, from the Greek σαρκάζειν (sarkázein) “to tear flesh, bite the lip in rage, sneer,” is a particularly vicious and decadent form of irony, less suited to those more optimistic cultures. Indeed, for a while, Americans would employ the word “Not” after a sarcastic comment just to make sure it was understood.
The long running sitcom Frasier made hay with American sarcasm naivety for years with almost every episode featuring a Crane brother saying something sarcastic, another character saying something like “Really?” and the comeback being a frustrated, angry or prim, “of course not.” But as Twitter is mostly a call and response platform: statement leads to troll, troll, troll etc. And even if, as Oscar Wilde said, “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit” – it’s the highest form of trolling.
Take this brilliant troll of an anti-vaccination crusader from Twitter user ‘Brandon’:
In social media where brevity, banter and wit is point scoring, sarcasm is the lifeblood. For every popular disseminator of wisdom there is a mock account parodying them. But, with no “typeface for the ironic” so many people fail to tell the difference between the sarcasm and the original that there will almost always be a response somewhere in any thread where someone helpfully points out “parody account”. The only exception to this is @realDonaldTrump whose tweets are so consistently nonsense, several accounts like @niceDonaIdTrump simply tweet what a proper responsible diplomatic President should tweet – and it’s very funny.
The dictionary has a strangely unsatisfying definition of irony: “the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.” Much more clearly to my mind is: irony is a truth found in the least expected place.
So some jokes work ironically: “Apparently 50% of marriages end in divorce. But, the other 50% end in death – so you might get lucky.” Whilst others: “A male blue whale produces 40 tonnes of sperm but only 10% makes it into the female. And you were wondering why the sea tastes salty.” They’re just jokes. Can’t you take a joke?!
The truth coming out unexpectedly was never more spectacularly evident than when, in the face of anti-Semitism accusations, Jeremy Corbyn was shown kindly offering to teach English Jews, or “Zionists” as he called them, the use of English irony. They “clearly have two problems,” he said. “One is they don’t want to study history, and secondly, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, they don’t understand English irony either … So I think they needed two lessons, which we can perhaps help them with.”
Which in itself was a masterclass in unintentional ironies. The most obvious is that irony is probably one of the most well known aspects of Jewish humour; the mocking of whatever has just been said by repeating it as a question. “And I need lessons?” Secondly, the idea that someone famous for having never knowingly cracked a joke could teach irony, even if it were teachable, has both verbal and poetic irony. And lastly, Corbyn’s vision of English Jews as being somehow still foreign, showed a truth about the way he thinks in a place he least expected it to and, for all that, was completely ironically appropriate.
The launch of The Independent Group, (named in honour of the newspaper that has done the most to support them?) with antisemitism target Luciana Berger leaving Corbyn’s labour to be its helmswoman, was clearly just a matter of time.
So do we need a typeface for the ironic? I think the signalling of “incoming” sarcasm or irony would somehow defeat the “unexpected” aspect of it. We can’t have a typeface for the ironic because where would be the pleasure of having to stop and think for a moment? Wait. What? Did he just really say that? The little disconnect, the meta-moment before we realise the truth is being amplified by the implied joke of it all.
For years I thought Stoppard was right. But then I thought he was cool too.
A version of this article first appeared in print in