November 01, 2003

How does the devil admonish Kerberos?

I've gotten a lot of mail on the reverse sarcasm thing. "Reverse sarcasm" is clearly a bad name, and so I started using "scalar inversion" instead, but David Beaver argues convincingly that no explicit scalar predicates need to be involved.

I described someone who comes home from a long hard day to find that the puppy has pooped on the rug, and says "oh, terrific!" (or "wonderful" or "great" or similar positively-evaluated adjective), meaning the opposite; and contrasted this with the same person finding a bouquet of roses, and saying "oh, disgusting!" (or "ugly" or "annoying" or similar negatively-evaluated adjective) to mean the opposite. I argued that the first is normal and the second is weird. David responded:

[L]et me first point out that this has nothing to do with adjectives. As you observe, there's a very general process going on, so that the particular positive expression does not seem to matter very much. The pooped ironoclast with the pooped-on rug could equally well utter any of the following less adjectival variants on your original examples:

"Just what I needed!"
"That's exactly what I wanted."
"I wouldn't have asked for it any other way."
"At least someone still loves me."
"I knew there was something missing from my apartment."
"That's what it takes to make a house into a home."
"Now I have everything I hoped for."
"Praise the lord!"
"Thank you, Rover!"
"The magic fairy has granted my wish once more."

So far then: no to adjectives being crucially involved, but yes to positives being used sarcastically to express negatives rather than the other way around. However, positives and negatives, while largely common across humanity, vary according to the details of context. It's all a matter of goals.

If you think small is good, e.g. for a cox, a jockey or a cellphone, then when you say "This one's really tiny!" you can sarcastically mean that this one is very large. I would not commend the smallness of your cellphone by saying "It's so large!" However, if I was interested in finding the tallest building in the city, and you showed me an eight story block, I could say "That is HUMUNGOUS" and mean I thought you were rather provincial. But if you showed me a 200 story block, I couldn't commend your choice by saying "It's tiny!" So "small" is negative when er um, well, when it's negative. Otherwise it's positive. And contrariwise for "big". Similarly for most other classic cases of positive adjectives: "hot", "tall", "long", "wide": in all these cases one can easily use reverse sarcasm provided ones goals are themselves inverted. Nothing particularly specific to the nature of adjectives in this, although perhaps it does shed light on the nature of sarcasm.

There may be some adjectives that are inherently to do with positive goals. "Good", an old philosophical chestnut, would seem to be the obvious example. For cases like"good", "nice", "wonderful", it's hard to find cases where our goals can be inverted. Even the devil, when his plans come to fruition, may rub his hands with glee and say "Good!" And when he admonishes Kerberos, he surely says "Bad boy(s)", not "Good boy(s)."

However, even "good" can be inverted at times. Sometimes the devil could use what seem to be positive adjectives negatively and vice versa, though in doing this he surely risks misinterpretation. He might just about sarcastically say of someone who he had sent out to wreak havoc in the world but who had only managed to squash a fly "That was REALLY evil!" But suppose this malefactor managed to commit multiple atrocities, steal from the mouths of millions of poor people and become president of the greatest coutry in the world (not necessarily in that order). If the devil, suitably impressed, said "That was really, really good", then he would not be using this as a means to praise with sarcasm, he would just be praising simpliciter (on a conventional use of "good" coinciding with his goals, albeit that they are perverted goals).

So here's my latest thesis: you can sarcastically express a departure from a salient hope, not from a salient fear. There's a correlation with adjective choice just to the extent that some adjectives correspond to what we normally hope (prefer, desire, set as a goal, believe ought to be the case), and other adjectives correspond to what we normally fear (disprefer, do not want, avoid, believe ought not to be).

One of the nice things about teaching undergraduates is that they ask questions that have such interesting answers!

I keep thinking about Satan (or should it be Pluto?) rebuking Kerberos by shaking his finger sternly and saying "No! Good dogs!" But wait, shouldn't he smile and pat the critter's heads and ... No, I'm confused.

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 1, 2003 07:29 AM