November 02, 2003

Improve your love life through the power of pragmatics

In an earlier post, I mentioned a college roommate who regularly committed "reverse sarcasm" as a sort of a joke, for instance tasting a new dish and saying "mm, disgusting!" with a blissful smile.

David Beaver offered an insightful analysis of the general issue, concluding that "you can sarcastically express a departure from a salient hope, not from a salient fear."

In a subsequent email exchange, David observed that "[i]f this roommate acts that way on a first date, I'm predicting he is still single." Actually, my old roommate has had a normal history of long-term committed relationships. However, David's comment does suggest that the field of linguistic pragmatics has missed a significant market opportunity: self-help books on how to have better relationships through better communication. (I'm sure that there are many such books, it's just that they're not written by academic practicioners of the discipline of linguistic pragmatics, as far as I know :-)).

Here's the whole exchange:


I wonder... whether it's exactly hope and fear that are involved. Why should it be this emotional scale (as opposed to joy vs. pain, or pride vs. envy) whose expressions are subject to positive-to-negative inversion? Is it something special about hope/fear (such as the property of looking forward in time)? or are you using hope/fear to refer to some more abstract property of attitudes towards states of affairs?

David Beaver:

I agree that its not exactly hope and fear that are involved, although it seemed like a good way to put it. So it's fortunate that I said "You can sarcastically express a departure from a salient hope, not from a salient fear", rather than "You can *only* sarcastically express a departure from a salient hope...." Looking forward in time seems relevant, but I think the generalization is that you can be sarcastic about situation X just in case something other than X would have been preferable.

"This is so delicious" (of a packet soup that tastes of cardboard, sugar and salt)
= "If the soup had tasted delicious/significantly more delicious, it would have been preferable"

"That's so tiny" (of a cellphone that is too large to fit in a pocket.)
= "If the cellphone had been tiny/significantly tinier, it would have been preferable"

"That's so huge" (of a plot of hotelroom that's barely big enough for the bed)
= "If the room had been huge/significantly huger, it would have been preferable"

I have to admit that this scheme breaks down on your roommate. Perhaps his is some sort of second order sarcasm - "I'm playing a game whereby I like to be served disgusting stuff and by saying sarcastically that this is disgusting I'm implying that in fact it fails to live up to the levels of disgusting-ness which I would like. Hence it tastes good." But this feels like over-analysis. I think it may be crucial that there was a pattern involved in his behavior. If this roommate acts that way on a first date, I'm predicting he is still single. My scheme also fails for cases of understatement.

As for Kerberos, I also find the devil's words hugely but pleasantly confusing. I started off with Addams Family scenarios in my mind, but found it impossible to figure out whether I'd expect the writers to use "good" and "bad" to mean "bad" and "good" or vice versa when sarcasm is included. (There is an implied sarcasm on the part of the script writers when Morticia calls something hideous "beautiful", but Morticia is portrayed as meaning it, not as being sarcastic.)

Here's what I always thought my roommate meant: "Sarcasm is supposed to be meaning the opposite of what you say, but I've noticed that it doesn't always work, and I'm pointing this out to you, cleverly, by attempting an inverted communication that fails (and thus, paradoxically, succeeds)."

I could ask him about it, but I bet he's forgotten the whole thing; it would certainly be the first time that I ever asked anyone to explain a joke that they performed more than three decades earlier. In the category of being slow on the uptake, this would be a new personal best :-).

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 2, 2003 10:56 AM