It’s hard to define ‘wry’ humour as opposed to just ‘dry’ humour or irony. The OED, in fact, defines it as ‘dry, or especially mocking, humour’, so use it as a synonym for ‘dry’ if you want. But an older meaning of ‘wry’ is ‘turned to one side’, which is where the wryneck gets its name – it faces one way but looks another (as birdwatchers know, of course, this applies to nearly all birds), and I like to think wry humour does something similar: it says one thing, but makes you think another. It hardly even implies that thing, it just seems to face that way. It is as if the writer is turning towards the reader with a raised eyebrow.
The English are supposed to be quite wry – this despite Benny Hill and Mr Bean – and in particular the upper and upper-middle classes. George Orwell, though not wealthy, belonged to this class (I think he described himself as ‘lower upper-middle class’) and his non-fiction work provides some good examples of wryness. Let’s look at three from the extract we’ve been looking at this week. The first is one we’ve seen before:
‘We have been looking for someone to practise our English on,’ he said. ‘Our clients are all Americans, and the only English we know is –’ He repeated something that little boys write on the walls in London. ‘You may be useful. Come downstairs.’
The intrusive aside edits out the chef’s speech for our benefit – writers in the 1930s couldn’t include obscenities – but Orwell knows that we have a good idea what it is. Mentioning ‘little boys’ the way he does could suggest that Orwell thinks ridiculous the convention of editing obscenities from books for adults.
The second example, again in an aside, comes in the following description:
There seemed to be miles of dark labyrinthine passages — actually, I suppose, a few hundred yards in all — that reminded one queerly of the lower decks of a liner
Orwell uses a melodramatic simile only to deflate the sense of drama with a bit of pointed realism. His younger self might be the target of his irony here, or he could be trying to distance himself from the sorts of novels that use such dramatic similes casually (see the post ‘Orwell’s Rules’ ).
After describing a series of impressions of the hotel, Orwell sums up with wry understatement: ‘It seemed a queer sort of a place.’ In a future society where irony is dead and wryness and understatement obscure subjects studied by English PhDs, Down and Out in Paris and London will have to be rewritten, and that sentence will be translated, ‘it was messed up Dude.’
Describe your place of work, wryly.