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How to Talk About Joking in English

Image representing students learning about party etiquette in the UK

The English are famous for their “dry” sense of humour. The Australians are always “taking the piss” out of each other. Americans love their “pranks”. In every country in the world, laughter is important, but there are many different types of jokes, used in different contexts.

Here is a quick guide to understanding these different ways of joking and when to use them.

Wit

If a person is witty, it means that they use language in clever ways to make other people laugh. Having a quick wit also means that you can come up with funny, clever responses very quickly to things that other people say.

For example, a former Prime Minister of the UK, Winston Churchill, was famously witty. One of his well known quips (a witty comment) was when a woman who hated him told him, “If you were my husband, I would put poison in your coffee.” Churchill replied, “And if you were my wife, I would drink it!”

Sarcasm

To be sarcastic is to say the opposite of what you really mean for comic effect (to be funny). This can be difficult for non-native English speakers to understand, because the meaning of the words you are saying is different from the subtext, or the real meaning of what you are trying to communicate.

Also, some nationalities use sarcasm more than others. The British, Australians and New Zealanders tend to have a dry sense of humour (see below) and are particularly sarcastic. This can sometimes confuse other English speakers.

For example, I’m from the UK, and I was recently talking to an American friend called Ruby. I started singing the song “Ruby”, by the Kaiser Chiefs, because the chorus goes, “Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ahhhh.” After I sang that line, I said, “I bet no one ever sings that to you.” I was being sarcastic, because the song is very famous in both our countries and Ruby is not a very common name, so people probably sing it to her every time she tells them her name! However, Ruby didn’t realise I was joking, so she looked at me as if I was crazy and said, “Are you serious? People sing that to me all the time!”

Dry Sense of Humour

When someone has a dry sense of humour, this means that their jokes are very subtle (not obvious). Usually, part of the joke is that they say whatever they intend to be funny in a very normal voice, so that it takes a moment for people to realise that they are joking. This style of making a joke is also called deadpan.

Teasing / Taking the Piss

This is when you mock someone by saying things that could sound mean in another context, or make a joke about someone’s personality traits / something they are serious about. The point isn’t to upset them, though. Instead, you’re trying to get them to take themselves less seriously. In countries like the UK and Australia, friends often take the piss out of each other. It’s something you do with people you like, so if people tease you like this, it’s a good thing!

However, bear in mind that “take the piss” is a slang term and is considered a little bit rude, so don’t use it in a formal or professional context. Also, Americans and Canadians don’t use this expression and won’t know what it means, so stick to the word teasing in these countries!

Prank / Wind-Up

This is when you pretend that a fake situation is real, or lie to someone to see how they respond. Typically, the point is that other people around you know what you are doing and so are in on the joke, so they find it funny to watch!

Usually, the joke continues until the person realises what you are doing or you tell them that it’s not true. In the US, this is called pranking someone. In the UK, you would normally say that you are winding someone up, or that it is a wind-up.

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