March 31, 2008

#01-091: Jocular Insults

black-and-white publicity photo of a balding man grinning broadly
American comedian Don Rickles, one-time King of the Jocular Insult

Note: We can sometimes tease others, but we have to be careful not to hurt their feelings. Read more about this sensitive issue.

Get Ready: Do you ever insult your friends or family in a joking way?

When I started teaching nearly 27 years ago, the first principal I worked for was famous for his educational "proverbs." One of these was: "It takes 10 years to make a teacher." Somewhere around Year 12, I realized how right he was!

One of my (many) first-year mistakes involved a wrong assumption. You see, in my family, an insult is a way to show you love someone. As these insults are actually meant to be humorous, I have come to think of them as "jocular insults." ("Jocular" is an adjective form of "joke.")

For example, whenever I saw one of my aunts, she would say, "Hello, uglier-than-me. How much do you charge to haunt a house?" With that, I knew she loved me.

Or when I would bring home a girl to "meet the family," my dad would say to her, "Honey, you seem smart. And you're certainly pretty. So what are you doing with him?" (indicating me). I would beam: Dad loves me!

So I made the mistake of doing the same thing to my students when I was a new teacher. I would greet a favorite student, "Hey, dummy!" or "What's new, funny-looking?"

These were teenagers, who weren't used to this, so I was sometimes striking them on their insecurities.

I am writing this now for two reasons: If you are teaching English to students from another culture, please be aware that they may not "get it," no matter how big your smile or how warm your tone.

If you're a student, remember: the smile and tone may say more than the words.

What I am not recommending is that non-native English speakers try this. It's very dangerous.

There are two ways to look at our understanding of language: active and passive. Active language includes speaking and writing; it's what we use to express ourselves. Passive language is what we can understand by reading or listening.

So I want you English learners to understand jocular insults, but it would be a rare case when you would use them. You would need to have a lot of experience with another culture, and know someone from that culture a long time, before you would dare to try this.

But it can be fun to listen to two foreigners trading barbs! It's kind of like a clumsy form of "foreigners' crosstalk." Just try to remember: it's all in fun!


Read more:

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. assumption
  2. barbs
  3. beam
  4. clumsy
  5. insult
  6. dare
  7. dummy
  8. haunt
  9. insecurities
  10. passive

  1. supposing something to be true
  2. smile broadly
  3. rude remark
  4. feelings of self-doubt or lack of confidence
  5. stupid person (often said jokingly)
  6. visit like a ghost does
  7. not active; receiving, not transmitting
  8. cutting remarks
  9. have the courage; be bold enough
  10. awkward; not graceful

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for March 31, 2008, as we prepared for April Fools' day.

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. a; 2. h; 3. b; 4. j; 5. c; 6. i; 7. e; 8. f; 9. d; 10. g