Strategies and tactics for ironic subversion

If you’ve ever made use of the simile “About as useful as knickers on a kipper” then, knowingly or not, you could have been indulging in a spot of ironic subversion. Dr Tony Veale BSc MSC PhD, who is a the Principal Investigator of the Creative Language System Group at University College Dublin School of Computer Science and Informatics, discusses such phrases in a chapter of the 2013 book Developments in Linguistic Humour Theory, xiv, pp. 321–340, Dynel, Marta (ed.) part III, New theoretical approaches to established forms of humour. It’s titled : ‘Strategies and tactics for ironic subversion’

Dr-Veale-UCDIronic descriptions subvert the norms of descriptive language. Norms have highly salient exemplars – shared stereotypes – on which speakers can draw to create a vivid description, but ironic speakers instead construct their own counter-examples, often identifying exceptional cases where the standard inferences do not hold. One can thus hone one’s facility for irony by studying the ironic descriptions of others. Indeed, specific tactics for implementing a particular strategy for irony can be acquired by observing how others use words to subvert our own expectations. In this chapter we provide the computational foundations for uniting these ideas into a single analytical framework.”

As part of the chapter, Dr. Veale provides an extensive list of similes which take the form “About as useful as […]”, some familiar, some not quite so :

Some examples (from an original list of 20,299) “About as useful as :

● A chocolate teapot
● A fish on a bicycle
● Knickers on a kipper
● Handles on a banana
● An inflatable dart board
● Knees on a fish
● An ashtray on a motorcycle
● A coalman on a maglev monorail

Ironic subverters (and others) will find many many more in the chapter, which can be read in full here :

BONUS: Dr. Veale and colleagues have also created an online facility called ‘Idiom Savant’ – which is “a linguistic magnet for finding the sharpest needles in the haystacks of the internet.” Go here and input your query…

A complete list of the group’s current projects can be found here.