British Humour


Sarah Waseem, London

British humour is hard to define but it is what makes us quintessentially British- that mix of irony, sarcasm, understatement and self-deprecation, each asserting itself in subtle flavours like strawberries and cream, at once sweet and yet tart.

I believe this stems from being a small island nation with a rich legacy – we have been invaded and colonised and we have also ruled vast swathes of the world. Our humour reflects these changes in fortune in our use of sarcasm to both attack and hide our insecurities. The comedian Ricky Gervais ( 28.7.15) writes, “Our brashness and swagger is laden with equal portions of self-deprecation. This is our licence to hand it out”.

I don’t think it is possible to underestimate the role of the British weather as an influence on British humour. As an island nation, we have learnt not to rely on our weather or our transport systems at times of problematic weather! We have learned that we are not entitled to assume that tomorrow will be a pleasant day. If it is, then that is an unexpected bonus. Note how many social encounters begin with comments about the weather, especially in those moments of social awkwardness – “ It’s a nice day . Summer’s finally come!” or “ What’s with the weather ?!

I think that is why our humour is replete with self-deprecation. Unlike some of our European cousins living in land locked countries, we believe we must be ready for any eventualities – good or bad, because our weather is unpredictable. We know we may not win and so we are ready to celebrate our failures as we do our successes. We relish in celebrating the underdog until the underdog becomes a winner. And when we win , we have to be cautious, because it might be a one off. So unlike our American friends, we do not embrace success comfortably. We know that everyone cannot become President (thankfully!) and we know that the ‘rainy’ day constantly lurks around the corner.

This makes us masters of the understatement and we heartily dislike brashness and arrogance. So we project our emotions, our hopes, our fears and our envy, onto our language, subtly transferring them into our words as in this quote reportedly from Oscar Wilde – “It is clear that humour is superior to humor”.!


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