Searching for verbal irony in historical corpora: a pilot study of mock and scorn in the Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse

Graham Williams
University of Sheffield


This pilot study investigates the feasibility of searching for verbal irony in historical corpora – specifically for the Middle English period (c.1200–1500). As irony is not readily associable with any formal linguistic features, searching is performed using mock and scorn – words shown to have been associated with the concept of verbal irony before the word irony had been anglicized. By searching for variations of mock and scorn in the Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse, this study exhibits how informed indirect searching can be employed in order to successfully extract historical examples of verbal irony from digital corpora.

1. Introduction

The central aim of this paper is to test the possibility of using corpus methods to locate verbal irony in earlier stages of English, namely the late medieval period (c.1200–1500). The rationale behind this study is derived (in the first instance) from a broader interest in the history of verbal irony in English and a desire to better understand how it was used by speakers and writers from earlier periods. A prerequisite for any linguistic study is having an adequate amount of data on which to base analysis; so, before being able to address larger questions of the forms and functions of verbal irony in earlier Englishes, it is imperative to locate as many examples as possible from the textual evidence we have for those periods. Particularly in the case of verbal irony – an object of investigation that is highly dependent on pragmatic clues and frequently lacks any predictable formal elements – data collection leads immediately to issues about methodology. For while literary-based close reading has made it clear that examples of verbal irony from the late medieval period do indeed exist (see e.g. Lindahl 1987: 87–123; Knox 1989; Gaunt 1989), it is unclear whether extraction of further, lesser known examples is possible by any other means than completely qualitative searching and analysis (i.e. reading the entirety of medieval texts in order to discover whether or not they contain instances of verbal irony). Therefore, my purpose here is to explore to what extent qualitatively extracted data may be supplemented with quantitatively based methods derived from historical corpus studies. To do so, I will be using the Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse (CMEPV). Such an undertaking is well-placed within current topics in historical pragmatics, particularly in relation to humor and (im)politeness studies, and also adds to the continued expansion of what can be achieved using historical corpus resources (see Dynel 2011; Culpeper & Kádár 2010). In the following sections I will: 1) begin with specifying what I mean by verbal irony, using recent work by Kapogianni (2011) as a basis for my description; 2) outline a lexically based approach to searching for verbal irony in historical corpora; 3) give the results for my corpus searching; and finally, 4) reflect on the feasibility of quantitative searching for verbal irony in historical corpora and consider the possibility of future investigations using this method to further augment data.

2. Describing verbal irony

Verbal irony is a theoretically dynamic area of pragmatics: as Barbe (1995: 12) observed in her monograph study, “A lot has been written on verbal irony from many different points of view”, and much has been written since she made that statement. A complete survey of the micro-theoretical approaches to verbal irony is beyond the remit of the current study; however, some examples include: echoic mention (Sperber and Wilson 1981), pretense (Clark and Gerrig 1984), “sarcasm as theatre” (Haiman 1998), implicit display (Utsumi 2000), and relevant inappropriateness (Attardo 2000) – for a succinct survey of most see Simpson (2011). Most of these approaches ask specific (and oftentimes different) types of questions about verbal irony, and while all offer helpful contributions to the larger discussion, in the end there is a great lack of convergence between these studies and the definitions they propose. Furthermore, I see the enterprise of defining (in the strict sense of the word) as somewhat misleading, especially considering recent trends in linguistics to describe aspects of language by way of prototypical characteristics instead of rigidly demarcated definitions (see especially Taylor 2003). This distinction is especially important for the diachronic perspective, as “language change […] entails a change in the understanding of linguistic concepts, including the concept of irony, and thus renders many definitions dated” (Barbe 1995: 9). Of course, this is not to say that describing verbal irony is not possible – indeed, it is necessary to do so in order to study it – but I would suggest it is perhaps more realistic to think in terms of “characterizing”, as Barbe does.

As no historical study of verbal irony in English has yet been attempted in any depth (see, however, Jucker 2000; Jucker and Taavitsainen 2000, which touch upon irony very briefly in terms of speech acts), the description used for the current study must come – at least for the moment – from modern theory. And, as suggested above, we need a broader, more global description of irony than is offered by previous micro-theoretical approaches. Kapogianni has recently provided such a description, and I will be basing my (prototypical) characterization of verbal irony on her pragmatically orientated work in the field. Perhaps the greatest benefit of Kapogianni’s description is that it is clear and relatively simple (even considering irony’s inherent complexities). In particular, she lays out three necessary conditions for verbal irony (Kapogianni 2011: 54–5):

    1. duality and contrast
    2. unexpectedness, or “inappropriateness”
    3. speaker’s act of evaluation.

The first condition applies to irony as an umbrella term (including situational, tragic and verbal irony) and refers to an “easily detectable contrast between two counterparts”, which, in verbal irony, is separate from the contrast between what is said and what is meant (2011: 54). An example which illustrates such a contrast is the discrepancy between the hopes and expectations (of the ironist and/or his target) and reality, if someone were to ironically state “Lovely day for a picnic” when it was raining heavily outside (based on the expectation that most people prefer sunny weather). The second condition, unexpectedness, relates to the way in which “the ironist says something that does not conform to the assumptions and expectations created by the context” (2011: 54). For example, if I were to say “I love people who drive carefully” directly after being nearly run off the road by a speeding motorist, the inappropriateness of the utterance would indicate ironic intention. Finally, the third condition, according to Kapogianni (2011: 55), is important in distinguishing between irony and other nonliteral tropes – “irony is then an implicit act of evaluation of a specific target” (in the previous examples, of the weather and the speeding individual).

Another important distinction made by Kapogianni, which also sets her apart from previous micro-theoretical approaches, is that she distinguishes between typical and less typical types of verbal irony, while also accounting for both. More precisely, she demarcates a sub-categorical distinction between meaning reversal irony (typical) and surrealist irony (less typical). The former can manifest itself as negation, understatement, and/or overstatement. Negation is clear (for example) in the “Lovely day for a picnic” statement given in the previous paragraph. As an example of understatement, consider the remark “Looks like you’re a bit wet” said to someone who has just come in soaking after getting caught in a rainstorm. For overstatement, consider the statement “You shouldn’t have gotten so dressed up” said to someone who has clearly underdressed for a formal occasion. Surrealism operates slightly differently from these in that it does not involve meaning reversal, but is based on an appreciation of the absurd. An example of this, also cited by Kapogianni (2011: 57), is the conventionalized counter-statement “And I’m the Queen of England!” used to express disbelief on the part of the speaker (other conventionalized English phrases of the surrealist type include “When pigs fly!” and “When Hell freezes over!”). By keeping both types in mind while searching, we may in the end be able to say something with regard to how typical and less typical examples (by the standards of modern usage) play out in the corpus-based evidence for earlier states of English.

The function(s) of any instance of verbal irony in context are of course dependent upon unique sociopragmatic factors (e.g. the situation and relationship between interactants). However, some of the generally observable social/pragmatic functions of verbal irony in present-day usage include the dilution and (conversely) enhancement of condemnation (Colston 1997), humor, status elevation, aggression and emotional control (Dews, Kaplan and Winner 1995), face-saving (Jorgensen 1996) and “relationship work” (Seckman and Couch 1989). The purpose of this study has to do with methodological concerns, and I will therefore not be discussing at length the functions or intentionality attributable to examples from my data. I will, however, make some observations in passing that suggest similarities with present-day usage. But, as I say, this study is focused on finding those examples in the first place. This brings me to the next question: how to go about performing searches for verbal irony in historical corpora?

3. Searching for verbal irony (indirectly) with historical corpora

By its very nature verbal irony is an indirect way of conveying information, which is also heavily dependent upon contextual clues (see Kapogianni’s three criteria, outlined above). In speech, irony is sometimes signaled through extra- or paralinguistic cues such as intonation or a rolling of the eyes, which are, in large, absent from the written language. In this way, unlike many of the previously searched for categories of historical investigation using corpora (e.g. personal pronouns or verbal inflexions), verbal irony in writing is frequently non-explicit in terms of formal linguistic elements that might be used as a way of conducting text-based searches for data. Taavitsainen and Jucker faced the same methodological challenge in relation to speech acts, observing that “less formulaic speech acts […] can occur in an infinite number of different realizations and are much more difficult to search for, if they do not defy automatic techniques altogether” (2007: 107). In order to address this quandary, Taavitsainen and Jucker “study the history of speech acts indirectly via an analysis of speech act verbs” (2007: 108). Here, I propose a similar indirect methodology for searching for verbal irony. More specifically, I will draw on techniques from Culpeper’s modern-day study of impoliteness (2011), and search for metalanguage (i.e. “language about language”) that has some likelihood of being associated with instances of verbal irony. Culpeper, in his most recent study of impoliteness in English, has shown the great value of studying metalinguistic markers for the way in which it illuminates the socio-cultural evaluations and understandings of language and communication, and for its adaptability to corpus methods when searching for objects of investigation based on the interpretation of discourse in context (2011: chapter 3). In this way, focusing on markers such as rude, impolite and verbally aggressive, Culpeper uses “corpus-based techniques to realize examples, but a more qualitative approach to analyse them” (2011: 101).

In more modern historical English corpora, this type of indirect searching for verbal irony via metalanguage would yield results quite readily (cf. Barbe 1993). For example, searching for variants of <ironically> in the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) results in 1,993 hits. In most cases, these hits in COHA are directly related to an instance of verbal irony captured in reported or quoted speech, as in one from the novel Fairy Fingers (1865): “‘Very generous and romantic on your part,’ replied the countess, ironically”. Presumably, searching for <sarcastically> in COHA would yield even more examples of verbal irony. Unfortunately, however, the words irony and sarcasm are not recorded in English before well into the sixteenth century, and even then for the most part only in rhetorical works. Therefore, based on the knowledge that verbal irony did indeed exist before the modern word for it entered the language, we must find a Middle English equivalent. Finding words associable with verbal irony that might also serve as metalinguistic markers in Middle English texts is possible through a carefully measured corroboration of data in the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (HTE), the Middle English Dictionary (MED), the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and the Lexicons of Early Modern English database.

Perhaps because there is no one word in Middle English which has “verbal irony” as its primary sense, the most obvious categories in the HTE, those which are explicitly labeled with the concept “irony” are of little use for the current investigation. [1] But by going back a step, from the more specific HTE category (the mind > mental capacity > contempt > derision, ridicule, or mockery > caustic or ironic ridicule) to the more generalized (derision, ridicule, or mockery), we find more lexical items relevant to Middle English entering the field. Within the [noun] heading under (derision, ridicule, or mockery), we find, for example, scorn, scoff, bourd, and, of course, mock (all of which are defined semi-analogously in the OED as examples of “mockery”). Each of these words had currency in late medieval English. However, it is possible to delimit our searching even further, to a set of words that we know were associated with verbal irony.

For this, it is helpful to recall that irony comes from Latin ironia – a word that would have been known in England long before it was anglicized. Therefore, a possible source for clues is bilingual entries from Latin-English dictionaries, for which I have used the Lexicons of Early Modern English database, which covers lexicons from the late medieval and early modern periods. The earliest Latin-English translation comes from Thomas Elyot’s The Dictionary of Sir Thomas Elyot (1538):

(1) Ironia, is a fygure in speakynge, whanne a man dissemblyth in speche that whyche he thynketh not: as in scoffyng or bourdyng, callynge that fayre, whyche is fowle in dede, that good, whiche is yl, that eloquent, which is barbarous. Semblably reasoning contrary to that I thinke, to the intente to mocke hym, with whome I doo dyspute or reason.

Other sixteenth-century examples include:

(2) Ironia. Dissimulatio, is a mockyng whi­che is not perceiued by the wordes but eyther by the pronunciacion, or by the behaueour of the person, or by the nature of the thyng, as: You are an honest man in deede.
(Richard Sherrey, A Treatise of Schemes and Tropes, 1550)

(3) Irōnīa, æ, f.g. p.l. A figure in speaking when one meaneth contrarie to the signification of the worde, or when a man reasoneth contrarie to that he thinketh, to mocke him whome he reasoneth with: a mocker, or scoffer.
(Thomas Thomas, Dictionarium Linguae Latinae et Anglicanae, 1587)

(4) Ironia, a figure in speaking when one meaneth contrarie to the word, a mocking or skoffing.
(John Florio, A World of Words, 1598)

Admittedly, works of this kind, i.e. early modern “hard word” dictionaries, are notorious for copying each other, which may partly explain the repetition of particular aspects of these definitions. Yet nonetheless, it is significant for the purposes of the current study that several vernacular terms are given alongside the Latinate entries for ironia. In particular, mocking is repeated in each of these sources as a way of describing ironic language in English. These sources are later than the period under investigation; however, mock was in use during the fifteenth century, and there are MED entries for both the noun (‘a jest, joke, or trick; the act of jeering or laughing in scorn or derision’) and verbal forms (‘to scorn [somebody or something] deride, disparage, ridicule; jeer or speak scornfully’ and ‘to jest, joke, banter; make sport of [something], joke about’). The modern definitions for these words do not specify verbal irony, although the possibility is implied, and indeed encouraged by the sixteenth-century dictionaries cited above. In extension, the MED entries for mock suggest a close semantic proximity to scorn; this in turn is reflected (via lexicographical circularity) in MED listings for scorn itself: ‘contemptuous treatment, mockery, abuse’; ‘mockingly, derisively’ (for ‘in scorn’). From an Anglophonic perspective, scorn (first recorded in English c.1200) is a significantly older word than mock (c.1425), and by including it as a metalinguistic marker, I will be able to broaden my search to cover roughly the late medieval period. Therefore, while other possibilities remain (e.g. scoff and bourd), for the purposes of this pilot study, mock and scorn seem to be good candidates to submit for corpus searching. I will discuss my results for each of these in the sections that follow.

4. <mok*>, <mock*> and <moq*> in the Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse

The Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse is a large, approximately 15 million-word corpus of late medieval texts that covers many of the genres of writing that survive for the period (c.1200–1500), both literary and non-literary. This makes it a highly representative corpus with the highest possible chances of producing results. In order to locate possible spelling variants for mock, I referred to entries in the MED for the noun (mokke) and the verbal form (mokken). Three wildcard search items are needed to cover all possible spelling variants: <mok*>, <mock*> and <moq*> (using the asterisk at the end of the word to indicate various word endings in the CMEPV). Fortunately, there are no other words in Middle English that begin with any of these letter combinations, which minimizes unwanted, non-relevant hits in the search results.

The overall results for my searches in the CMEPV were 91 hits (found in 27 different texts) for <mok*>, 77 hits (from 12 texts) for <mock*> and 1 hit for <moq*>. The total of 168 results is a feasible number in consideration of the fact that each result had to be qualitatively evaluated for relevance and for discerning whether or not it was indeed connected to an example of verbal irony through quoted or reported speech in the immediately surrounding text. A number of examples were found to be related more generally to the Middle English sense for the verb mock which meant ‘to deceive (somebody), delude, trick; make a fool of’. Many of the results from the CMEPV were clearly related to linguistic behavior (i.e. mocking an addressee in speech). However, even when the correlation between mocking and spoken language was clear in the text, there were not always specific examples of speech reproduced in the surrounding text itself to let us know whether or not the mocking actually involved verbal irony, or was just related to verbal jesting more generally.

Following the qualitative evaluation of each of the 168 hits for <mok*/mock*/moq*>, the total number of examples of verbal irony found in the results was nine. Seven of these come from medieval romance texts, namely Generydes, a romance in seven line stanzas (c.1440), The right plesaunt and goodly historie of the foure sonnes of Aymon, translated from the French by William Caxton (c.1489), and from Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte Darthur (also from the fifteenth century). One result comes from the Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry (compiled for the instruction of his daughters), translated from the original French in the fifteenth century during the reign of Henry VI – i.e. sometime between 1422–61, or, less likely, during the short restoration in 1470–71 – by an unknown person. [2] And finally, the only non-fictional example comes from a letter from John Paston II to his brother, John Paston III, written in 1472. [3] I will exhibit each of these briefly in turn, beginning with the romance texts.

4.1. Mock: knightly taunting

Forms of the word mock appear numerous times in Middle English romances and the activity of “mocking” seems to have been a common aspect of interactions between knightly characters in these texts. In a wider sense, mocking meant making a fool of one’s opponent or enemy. And for most of the results from the CMEPV, “mocking” is referred to vaguely in this sense, as in the four sonnes of Aymon, when King Charlemagne refers to two renegades who have cunningly eluded him (here and throughout bolding is my own):

(5) Thenne sayd the kynge Charlemagne, ‘lete all this alone; I telle you for certeyn that I shall never be your kyng / but ye yelde to me Reynawde or Mawgis, the cursed theef / that hath mocked me soo often’ (359) [4]
‘Then King Charlemagne said, “Leave all this alone. I tell you for certain that I shall never be your king unless you surrender Reynawd or Mawgis to me, the cursed thief that has mocked me so often”’ [5]

These types of examples (which make up the majority of discounted results) do not provide any direct link to reported speech that might be used as data for a historical study of verbal irony. However, it is clear that mocking was frequently conceived of as a linguistic behavior. Furthermore, it could involve verbal irony, as evidenced by the seven examples I have extracted through a combination of (quantitative) searching and (qualitative) reading of results from the CMEPV. Because reading around the lexical hits is necessary to grasp the connection to verbal irony, I will quote the relevant sections of text surrounding each of the hits:

(6) lucas ffull sone Manessen had aspied,
With sheld and spere he dressid hym full right,
And ranne to hym in all that euer he myght.
The stede was good that lucas rode vppon,
And suche a stroke he gave hym with a spere,
That thorough the harnes and the shulder bon,
Thorough owt his bak and slew hym ther;
Thanne to the kyng he seid in this maner:
‘Take yow here this present or ye goo,
And I shall do my part to send yow moo.’
Tho wordes toke the kyng in Mokkery,
And made hym redy with spere and sheld,
(Generydes 2476–2487)
‘Lucas very quickly spotted Manessen,
With shield and spear he dressed himself well,
And charged towards him with all of his might.
The steed was good that Lucas rode upon,
And such a stroke he gave him with a spear,
It passed through the harness and the shoulder bone,
Out through his back and slew him there;
Then to the King he said in this manner:
“Take this present before you go,
And I shall do my best to send you more.”
These words the King took in mockery,
And made him ready with spear and shield,’

(7) The kyng ayenward strake Generides
Vppon the side, and perisshed the harnes
Vnto the skynne; the blode ranne down therby,
Butt, as god wold, he felt no harme in dede.
Thanne saide the kyng sum what in mokkery,
‘Maister,’ quod he, ‘thy side begynne for to blede,
Wherefore this is my councell and my rede,
ffor this mater noo lenger for to stryff,
Go home ageyn and thu shalt skape alyve.’
(Generydes 3366–3374)
‘The King struck Generides in return
Upon the side, and destroyed the harness
Unto the skin; the blood ran down there,
But, as God would have it, he in fact felt no harm.
Then the King said somewhat in mockery,
“Master”, he said, “your side begins to bleed,
For which this is my council and my advice,
Quarrel no longer for this matter,
Go home and you will escape alive.”’

(8) Reynawde was not contente whan he vnderstode the yll wordes of Rowlande, and shoke all for angre; and Incontynente ranne vpon Rowlande, and gaaff hym suche a stroke vpon his helme that he all to brused it; and the stroke slided vpon the shelde soo that he cut of it a grete quarter, and of the courset of stele also, but he cut no thyng of the flesshe / And whan Reynawde had gyven Rowland that stroke, he sayd in maner of a mocke to Rowland, ‘what saye ye bi my swerde / doo it cut well or no? for I have not myssed at that stroke / Now kepe ye well fro me / for I am not suche a chylde as ye take me for’
(the foure sonnes of Aymon, 303)
‘Reynawde was not content when he understood the ill words of Rowlande, and shook with anger; and immediately charged Rowlande and gave him such a stroke upon his helm that he badly bruised it. And the stroke slid upon the shield so that he cut off a great quarter, and some of the steel corset also; but he cut no flesh. And when Reynawde had given Rowland that stroke, he said in manner of a mock to Rowland, “What do you think of my sword, does it cut well or not? For I did not miss with that stroke. Now keep well away from me, for I am not the child you take me for”’

(9) And whan aymonet sawe the nose of his enmye falle to the erthe, he mocked hym, and sayd, ‘By god, constans / it is worse wyth you than it was afore, for ye shall never be wythout a mocke for that, that this stroke hath doon to you / Flamberde that slewe your fadre / and soo shall it doo you, & it playse god.’
(the foure sonnes of Aymon, 561)
‘And when Aymonet saw the nose of his enemy fall to the earth, he mocked him and said, “By God Constans, it is worse with you now than it was before, for you will never be without a mock for that which that stroke did to you. Flamberde slew your father, and so will it do to you, if it please God.”’

(10) And sythen he hath no name / I shall yeue hym a name that shal be Beaumayns that is fayre handes / and in to the kechen I shalle brynge hym / and there he shal haue fatte broweys euery day þt he shall be as fatte by the twelue monethes ende as a porke hog / ryght soo the two men departed and belefte hym to syr kay / that scorned hym and mocked hym […] There at was sir Gawayn wroth / & in especyal sir launcelot bad sir kay leue his mockyng / for I dare laye my hede he shall preue a man of grete worship /
(Le Morte Darthur, 214)
‘“And since he has no name, I will name him Beaumayns, that is fair hands. And I will bring him into the kitchen, and there he will have fattening stews every day so that he will be as fat by the twelve month’s end as a pork hog.” Thus the two men departed and left him to Sir Kay, who scorned and mocked him […] This made Sir Gawayn angry, and in particular Sir Launcelot told Sir Kay to stop his mocking, “for I dare lay my head he shall prove a man of great worship”’

(11) So as they rode by the way / Kynge Mark thenne beganne to mocke sir Dynadan and said I wend yow Knyghtes of the table round myȝt not in no wyse fynde their matches / ye say well said sir Dynadan / as for you on my lyfe I calle you none of the best knyghtes / But sythe ye haue such a despyte at me / I requyre you to Iuste with me /
(Le Morte Darthur, 429)
‘So as they rode by the way King Mark began to mock Sir Dynadan and said, “I suppose you knights of the Round Table can in no way find your matches.” “You speak well”, said Sir Dynadan, “as for you, on my life, I rank you among none of the best knights; but since you have such contempt for me, I require you to joust with me.”’

(12) Thenne syre Tristram asked syr Gawayne and syr Bleoberys yf they met with suche a Knyghte with suche a cognoyssaunce with a keuerd shelde / Faire syr said these knyghtes suche a knyght met with vs to oure grete dommage / & fyrst he smote doune my felawe syre Bleoberys & sore woūded hym / by cause he badde me I shold not haue ado with hym For why he was ouer stronge for me / That strong knyght toke his wordes at scorne and said he said it for mockery / And thenne they rode to gyders / and soo he hurte my felawe / And whan he had done so / I myght not for shame / but I must Iuste with hym /
(Le Morte Darthur, 416–17)
‘Then Sir Tristram asked Sir Gawayne and Sir Bleoberys if they had met with such a knight, with such an emblem with a covered shield. “Fair Sir,” said these knights, “such a knight met with us to our great loss. First he smote down my fellow Sir Bleoberys and badly wounded him because he told me I should not have ado with him because he was too strong for me. That strong knight took his words in scorn and said he said it for mockery. And then they rode together, and so he hurt my fellow. And when he had done so, to avoid shame, I had to joust with him.”’

In each of these examples the verbal irony takes the form of what we might call “taunting”. In terms of their placement within the narratives in which they are found, they occur directly in relation to fighting between speaker and addressee, either just before combat or after a successful blow has been made. The exception is (10) in which a nameless boy is given the title “Beaumayns” (in French, ‘fair hands’) in mock praise, before being sent to work as a servant in the kitchen (with his fair hands, etc.). But even here, the narrative build-up has to do with the boy becoming a “man of great worship” and ultimately proving himself by way of combat. In this way, in all of these examples, the words said in mockery seem to be crucial to the action in that they serve as the cue for an adversary to attack, or as parlay which happens in extension to the combat itself – a joust of words, as it were.

In (6), the non-congruence of Lucas’s speech (actually mock deference) to the King with respect to the action of the scene makes the verbal irony of his statement (via negation) clear when after slaying one of the King’s men he says, “Take this present [i.e. the dead man’s corpse] before you go, and I shall do my part to send you more”. In (7) the contrast between Generydes’s desire to gain honor in battle and the King’s desire to maintain power over Generydes serves as the background for the King’s ironic counsel, which he gives to Generydes after drawing blood from his side, mockingly referring to Generydes as “Master” and then advising him to return home and escape alive. In fact, this contrast of duality (Kapogianni’s first criteria for verbal irony) – the vying for power, honor and success in combat – serves as the background for all the knightly taunts in the romance texts. The exchange in (8) displays meaning reversal by way of understatement, when Reynawde asks Rowland, “What do you think of my sword, does it cut well or not?”, directly after slicing off half of Rowland’s armor in one stroke. In (9), Aymonet sarcastically mourns the loss of Constans’s nose, which he (Aymonet) has in fact intentionally cut off with his sword (named “Flamberde”). This also has to do with negation; however, here the meaning reversal has more to do with the pragmatic content of the message – the inappropriate attitude of Aymonet given the context – rather than the actual semantic content of what was said, which results in mock sympathy intended to bring further shame and embarrassment to Constans. In (11), King Mark mocks Sir Dynadan (the latter being a Knight of the Round Table) by ironically stating how the Knights of the Round Table cannot find their match in battle. Sir Dynadan immediately interprets this as an ironic compliment, and “requires” King Mark to joust with him. Similarly, in (12), the mocking (as it was interpreted by the mysterious knight “with a covered shield”) takes the form of an ironic compliment, which involves meaning reversal, and more specifically negation of the literal content of Sir Bleoberys’ comment on how the knight with the covered shield was too strong for Sir Gawain and therefore he (Gawain) “should not have ado with him”. Whether or not Sir Bleoberys originally meant what he said literally (i.e. as a warning to his friend, Gawain, that the knight was indeed too strong for him) is not known; however, the important thing is that the knight with the covered shield “took his words in scorn and said he [Sir Bleoberys] said it for mockery”. This clearly causes offense and instigates jousting with the result that “that strong knight” smites down both men.

4.2. Mock: La Tour-Landry’s book

Being made a fool of by someone else’s mocking language becomes a central concern in The Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry. However, here, it is no laughing matter, as the book was meant to serve as an actual guide of conduct for the Knight’s daughters. [6] For the most part, this book is a collection of brief anecdotal stories, or chapters, each of which illustrates by way of example the ways in which women should and should not act in a world perceived by the author as generally male-centered and hostile towards women. The stories usually focus on a woman or two women (as a way of comparing good and bad behavior) whose experiences are used as exemplars. Interestingly, being “mocked” is identified from the very beginning as one of the key things women must try to avoid. In the opening, for example, the “litell boke” warns:

(13) For there be such men that lyethe and makithe good visage and countenaunce to women afore hem, that scornithe and mockithe hem in her absence. And therfor it is harde to knowe the worlde that is now. (3)
‘For there be such men that lie and make good face and countenance to women in person, but scorn and mock them in their absence. And therefore it is difficult to know the world as it is now.’

This quote exemplifies the way in which the two main senses of mock in Middle English might be conflated – as here there is a sense of mocking as in ‘making a fool of’ in language, but also more generally to do with deception. The word is reiterated throughout the chapters of the The Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry, but one example in particular illustrates how a woman might be shamed by a man’s use of verbal irony. The title of the chapter from which this example comes is “Now the knight saide unto his doughtres that thei shulde not beginne furst to take new gises of rayement” (‘Now the knight said unto his daughters that they should not be the first to take up new fashions in clothing’) (29–31). The moral of the story – which comes at the very end, and is where the <mock*> hit originated from in the text – is not to be so quick to take on the fashions of strange lands as “that causithe mani to be mocked and scorned, as ye may see bi this knight that spake thus to his lady” (‘that causes many to be mocked and scorned, as you may see by the speech of this knight to his lady’) (31). In order to follow up this promising search result, I went back to the text preceding the hit for <mock*> in order to decipher whether the knight’s speech contained verbal irony, which it did.

The story recounts a conversation between “a baronesse that duelled (‘dwelled’) in Guyen” and a “lorde that was a wise knight and a malicious [knight]”. It begins with the baroness telling the knight that she has met with his wife in “Britaine” and that she was shocked to see that the knight’s wife was not “arrayed like as ladies of this contrey of Guyene be”. In particular, she specifies how the wife’s “hodes, taylles, and sleues be not furred ynowgh after the shape that rennithe now” (‘hoods, tails and sleeves are not furred enough after the latest fashions’) (30), with the implication that it is the knight’s fault. At first, the knight responds by assuring the baroness that “forsothe ye shall haue nomore cause to blame me, For y will make arraye her as nobly as ani of you all, and as queintly” (‘truly, you shall have no more cause to blame me, for I will array her as nobly as any of you, and just as fashionably’). Up to this point, we might think that the knight is agreeing with the baroness’s criticisms of his wife’s dress. However, we soon learn that these first several sentences were meant ironically, as after the initial agreement he goes on to mock the baroness for chiding him, saying that he will certainly not have his wife fashioned after “unthrifty and evil women of their body and chambers” (i.e. whores) – even if the baroness and “princesses and ladies of England” insist on doing so. As a result, the baroness is left speechless for shame. In relation to the speaker’s act of evaluation (Kapogianni’s third criteria for verbal irony), the knight’s own judgment of the baroness’s fashion advice is realized by way of meaning reversal – specifically, through a combination of overstatement and negation. In the first instance, the knight over-embellishes his willingness to accept the baroness’s sense of style to the point of absurdity, saying that while the baroness has only half of her garments furred, he will make sure his wife has everything furred, even going so far as to suggest it will be done with the “hair outward” (a purposefully ludicrous suggestion that in reality would make he and his wife look like fools). The negation is to do with his initial statement and promise that “you shall have no more cause to blame me”, with the ironic meta-message becoming clear in juxtaposition to the explicit shaming speech that follows (wherein he effectively tells the baroness that she dresses like a whore). It would seem that the pragmatic function of the knight’s irony here is to enhance his condemnation of the baroness – a feature that has also been observed in modern-day usage (cf. Colston 1997).

4.3. Mock: John Paston II’s letter to his brother

My final example for mock also has to do with a woman (ostensibly) being mocked by a man, only in this instance it is the man who finds himself anxious with shame for fear of having been interpreted as expressing irony inadvertently. This is also the only example from my searching that is derived from a non-fictional text (assuming the anecdotes from the The Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry are indeed fictional). It comes from a letter from John Paston II to his brother, John Paston III, in 1472:

(14) Worshypffull and weell belovyd brother […] I praye yow feele my lady off Norffolkys dysposicion to me wardys, and whethyre she toke any dysplesure at my langage, ore mokkyd ore dysdeyned my wordys whyche I hadd to hyre at Yarmothe be-twyen the place wher I fyrst mett wyth hyre and hyre lodgyng. Fore my lady Brandon and Syr William also axhyd me what wordys I had had to hyre at that tyme. They seyde þat my lady seyde I gaff hyre ther-off, anf [sic] þat I sholde haue seyde þat my lady was worthye to haue a lordys soon in hyre belye, fore she cowde cheryshe itt and dele warlye wyth it. In trowthe, owther the same ore wordys moche lyke I had to hyre, whyche wordys I ment as I seyde. They leye to þat I seyde she toke hyre ease. Also I scholde haue seyde þat my ladye was off stature goode and had sydes longe and large, so that i was in goode hope she sholde bere a fayre chylde; he was nott lacyd nore bracyd jne to hys peyn, but þat she lefft hym rome to pleye hym in. They seye that I seyde my lady was large and grete, and that itt sholde haue rome jnow to goo owt att. And thus whyther my lady mokk me or theye I woote nott. I mente weell, by my trowthe, to hyre and to þat she is wyth, as any he þat owythe heere best wyll in Ingelond. If ye can by any meene weete whethyre my ladye take it to dysplesure or nowt, or whether she thynke i mokkyd hyre, or iff she wyght it but lewdnesse off my-selffe, I praye yow sende me worde, for I woot nott whethyre I maye trust thys Lady Brandon ore nott. (449–50)
‘Worshipful and well beloved brother […] I pray you investigate my lady of Norfolk’s inclination towards me, and if she took any displeasure at my language, or mocked or disdained my words which I had with her at Yarmouth between the place where I first met with her and her lodging. For my lady Brandon and Sir William also asked me what words I had with her at that time. They said that my lady said I gave her thereof [i.e. gave her displeasing language], and that I should have said that my lady was worthy to have a lord’s son in her belly, for she could cherish it and deal warily with it. [7] In truth, either the same or words very similar I said to her, which I meant as I said. They maintain that I said she took her ease. Also I should have said that my lady was of good stature and had sides long and large, so that I was in good hope that she should bear a fair child – [as] he was not confined in his pen, but that she left him room to play in. They say that I said my lady was large and great, and that it should have room enough to go out at. [8] And so, I don’t know whether they or my lady are mocking me. I meant well, I swear, to her and that [child] she is with, as any who owes her the best will in England. If you can by any means discern whether my lady took it in displeasure or not, or if she thinks I mocked her, or if she believes it to be unmannerly of me, I pray you send me word, for I do not know whether I may trust this Lady Brandon or not.’

To reiterate: John II describes how he met Lady Norfolk (while on the road, travelling) and spoke to her of her pregnancy. Although John II seems to have difficulty remembering precisely what he said to her, it is clear that it was something along the lines that Lady Norfolk “was worthy to have a lord’s son in her belly, for she could cherish it and deal warily with it”. This seems complimentary enough. However, ambiguity in John II’s speech arises as he goes on to comment with some detail on Lady Norfolk’s physical dimensions, commenting how she was “of good stature” with “sides long and large” so that the child would have plenty of “room to play” inside of her. Furthermore, Lady Brandon and Sir William – apparently present at the interaction and/or through conversation with Lady Norfolk herself – recall him having said that Lady Norfolk “took her ease”, and that “my lady was large and great, and that it [the baby] should have room enough to go out at.”

From a modern perspective, it seems difficult to imagine that anyone with their senses about them would say such things to a pregnant woman without expecting to be interpreted ironically, particularly with regard to the comments about her large size. However, it is worth remembering that in the fifteenth century pregnancy was a much more dangerous fact of life, and without modern birthing procedures (namely Caesarean section), having “enough room to go out at” was very often the difference between life and death for mother and child. Perhaps this is what John II had in mind, and he insists to his brother that “the same or words very similar I said to her, which I meant as I said”; and “I meant well, I swear, to her and that [child] she is with, as any who owes her the best will in England”. Nonetheless, doubt seems to have arisen when Lady Brandon and Sir William made John II anxious by asking him “what words I had had to her at that time”, suggesting that Lady Norfolk “took displeasure at my language”, or “think I mocked her”. Given that the Duke of Norfolk and his wife, Lady Norfolk, were the most important of the Pastons’ local patrons, it seems unlikely that either brother would want to offend them in any way. And considering John II’s consistently candid familiar writing to his brother on other occasions (evident in the many letters that survive between the two of them), it seems likely that he had in fact been misunderstood, perhaps choosing his words poorly (had he been drinking?). Or, as he himself suspects, he was being mocked (“made a fool of”) by Lady Brandon and Sir William, who were purposefully playing tricks with his memory and instilling doubt in him for their own entertainment.

As with all the other examples discussed thus far, the possible irony here would have had to do with meaning reversal, and again a mixture of negation and overstatement. Overstatement is apparent in that John II apparently reiterated Lady Norfolk’s large size to the point where (instead of remarking on her fitness for childbearing) it may have sounded as if he were calling her fat (or something along those lines), an attitude that may have been further emphasized if he had in fact said she “took her ease”, as Lady Brandon and Sir William said he did. If we consider this example in conjunction with the previous one, from The Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry, part of John II’s doubt may have had to do with the fact that women were not infrequently mocked by men in this manner, making it “harde to knowe the worlde that is now” (La Tour-Landry, 3).

In one way, the ambiguity that surrounds this result complicates it; however, I would argue that this complexity is actually of great value in that it makes for a rich portrait of an actual interaction, complete with metapragmatic commentary on the original exchange. For while the historical pragmaticist “cannot interview historical interactants about, for example, their communicative goals or the sincerity of an utterance” (Kádár and Culpeper 2010: 16), examples such as this are perhaps the closest one might hope to come to an interview. Locating more examples of this type would be of great significance for the historical study of verbal irony more broadly, as they provide us not only with data, but with information on how irony operated and was (mis)interpreted in earlier periods.

5. <scornf*> and <in scorn*> in the CMEPV

A wildcard search for <scorn*> (i.e. accounting for spelling variants with final -e, as well as many verbal, adjectival and adverbial forms) in the CMEPV results in 986 total hits, which is much more than those for mock, and too many for the current study considering the need to qualify each hit with close reading. Therefore, in order to narrow the results field, I limited my searches to two variations: <scornf*> for scornful/scornfully and the closely analogous <in scorn*> for in scorn. The former resulted in nine total hits, and the latter in 78 total hits. Subsequent qualitative analyses of these results revealed that both search terms provide hits which are related to instances of verbal irony in the surrounding text(s): one for <scornf*> and 23 for <in scorn*>. The one hit connected with verbal irony for <scornf*> and seven of the hits for <in scorn*> come from secular literature. These eight examples are all fictional, some literary and some from pseudo-historical sources: one example in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, the Polychronicon (written in the late fourteenth century by Ranulph Higden, and translated into English by John of Trevisa in 1387), The Brut, or The chronicles of England (first half of the fifteenth century) and the Prose life of Alexander (mid-fifteenth century); and two examples in both Merlin: or, the early history of King Arthur: a prose romance (c.1459–60) and Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (1380s). The remaining 16 hits are from religiously orientated texts (described below), including the Wycliffite English Bible. In the sections that follow, I will provide a brief summary of these results.

5.1. Scorn: literary texts

Again, several examples are from medieval romances. The example from Le Morte Darthur is related to the episode described earlier in the section on mock, involving the nameless boy assigned to kitchen duties, whom Sir Kay “in scorne named Beaumayns [‘fair hands’]” as means of mock-praise.The two examples from Merlin, however, represent new episodes. One of these includes the hit for <scornf*> and comes from a tale in Merlin about “the knighting of the dwarf” (635–38). The contextual prologue involves a maiden, “young and of great beauty”, who brings a hideous dwarf (the “foulest that any had seen, for he was deformed”) to the court of King Arthur, proclaiming him as her love and beseeching Arthur to grant him knighthood. In particular, the maiden’s sincerely worded claims that the dwarf is a “gentle young lord . . . come of great lineage” drives the court to laughter. Then:

(15) kay the stiwarde, that was an euell spekere and scornfull of wordes, seide all smylinge, ‘Kepe well youre leef, and holde hym nygh yow that he be not take from yow of the quenes maydenes, for soone myght thei do you that forfet for the grete bewte that is in hym’ (636)
‘Kay the steward, who was an evil speaker and scornful with words, said smiling [to the maiden], “Guard your love well and hold him close to you so that he is not taken from you by the Queen’s maidens; for soon they might steal him from you for his great beauty”’

Even to the modern reader, the ironic negation involved here is immediately clear (indicated by the context and metapragmatic commentary to do with Kay’s “scornful words” and smiling while he speaks). However, Kay’s use of entertaining impoliteness (cf. Culpeper 2011: 233–9) is apparently lost on the maiden herself, who takes his mock-advice literally, responding with assurances that the King would not allow anyone to take her love from her.

The second example from Merlin, related to a hit for <in scorn*>, also works via negation. Here, Sir Bretell and Sir Ulfyn (on a quest directed by King Arthur) come across two other knights who declare themselves “keepers of the ways” and demand “trewage”, or payment for their passage – specifically their horses and arms. Bretell and Ulfyn take the strangers’ demands as “nothynge curteyse”, and Bretell proceeds to strike down one of the knights so his horse collapses on top of him and he swoons: “And than seide he [Bretell] to the knyght in scorne, ‘Sir knyght, now maist thow loigge here be leyser, and kepe these weyes, that noon ne ascape with-oute paiynge of trewage’” (‘And then he said to the knight in scorn, “Sir knight, now you may set up camp here at your leisure and keep these ways, so that none may escape without paying for passage”’) (127). In this way, Bretell mocks the knight by quoting his own words (to do with keeping the ways and demanding payment for passage) back to him. This speech is clearly inappropriate given that the knight is wounded and unconscious, and it makes explicit Bretell’s evaluation of the knight’s demands as discourteous. It might be noted how this example from Merlin exhibits some of the features of Sperber and Wilson’s echoic mention theory of irony, specifically “cases where what is echoed is not an immediately preceding utterance, but one that occurred some time ago” (Sperber and Wilson 1981: 307).

The two separate hits from Troilus and Criseyde both come from Book I, and both have to do with Troilus’s fear of being scorned by others because of his newly-found, yet deep (and what he fears will be regarded as foolish) love for Criseyde. In the first example, Troilus speaks to himself:

(16) What wol now euery louere seyn of the
If this be wist, but euere in thin absence
Laughen in scorne and seyn, “loo, ther goth he
That is the man of so gret sapience,
That held vs loueres leest in reuerence. […]”
‘What will every lover say of you now
If this be known, always in your absence
They will laugh in scorn and say, “Hey, there goes he
That is the man of great wisdom,
That held us lovers least in reverence. […]”’

The second hit comes in the speech of Troilus’s friend (and Criseyde’s uncle), Pandarus, who expresses surprise at Troilus having fallen in love:

(17) For thow were wont to chace
At loue in scorn, and for despit hym calle
Seynt Idiot, lord of thise foles alle.
‘For you were fond of harassing
Love in scorn, and for spite calling him
“Saint Idiot, lord of all these fools.”’

In other words, Troilus used to mock Love (personified) by calling it (“him”) “Saint Idiot” of all those who fall in love.

5.2. Scorn: pseudo-histories

Several hits for <in scorn*> come from what might be termed medieval pseudo-histories. The Polychronicon, for example, was intended to serve as a universal history of the known world in the fourteenth century, but included many fantastic details, such as dragons. The section of this text relevant here comes from a description of the rulers of Syria, specifically, a feast scene. Hiracanus, son of the Treasurer, is set at the end of the table, where everyone else at the feast sends their meat bones once they have finished with them, which, the text says, they do “in scorne”. One Tryphon – who is described as “a japere”, or jokester – sees this and remarks: “Lo, lordynges, how þis childe haþ i-ete þe flesche of so meny bones; so his fader, þat is resceyvour and tresorer in Siria, spoyleþ money of men of Siria.” (‘See, my lords, how this child has eaten the flesh off so many bones – so his father, receiver and treasurer of Syria, wastes money of the men of Syria.’) (81, vol.4). The false, mock-surprise here is meant as a joke, suggesting that Syria’s treasurer is spending all the money on food for his son. In turn, Hiracanus replies with his own verbal irony, saying that “houndes eteþ þe bones wiþ þe flesche, as þy gestes doþ today; but men þat beeþ i-norsched and i-tauȝt spareþ þe bones, as ȝe seeþ þat I spare.” (‘hounds eat the bones with the flesh, as your guests do today; but men that are nourished and well educated avoid the bones, as you see I do.’) (81–83, vol.4). In this interaction, verbal irony seems to be serving the purpose of what we would now refer to as mock impoliteness or good-humored banter, meant to reinforce in-group solidarity (cf. Leech 1983: 144; Culpeper 2011: 207–15).

Unlike many of the other examples, which refer to specific utterances, the pseudo-historical example found in the fifteenth-century Prose life of Alexander includes an entire letter written “in scorn” from Darius, emperor of Persia, to Alexander the Great. Here, explicit impoliteness and name-calling is used in conjunction with Darius’s sarcastic advice that instead of waging war in Persia Alexander should go home and “sett the in thi moder knee” (‘sit on your mother’s knee’) (21). Alexander was relatively young – in his early twenties – when he set out to conquer Persia, and Darius’s ironic advisement was evidently based on this, with the intention of belittling Alexander’s efforts. This is supported by the fact that we are told that as enclosures with the letter, Darius sent mock-gifts: “a handball [i.e. a toy for children] & oþer certane Iapeȝ [other jokes] in scorne” (22). The story goes on to describe Alexander and his knight’s reaction and how “when þay herde þe tenour of þe lettres ware gretly astonayde and wonder heuy” (‘when they heard the tenor of the letters they were greatly astonished and very annoyed’) (22).

The final example from a pseudo-historical text comes from The Brut, which was, roughly speaking, a chronicle of the rulers of England from mythical times until the fifteenth century. In the section relevant here, we hear of how King Phillip I of France ironically mocked William the Conqueror during a period of discord in the latter half of the twelfth century:

(18) þe Kyng of Fraunce saide oppon a day in scorne of Kyng William, & saide þat ‘Kyng William hade longe leyen a childe bed, & longe tyme haþ restede him.’ And þis worde come to þe Kyng of Engeland þere þat he laye in Normandy, atte Roen; and for þis word was þo euel paiede for þat worde, & ek wonder wrothe toward þe Kyng of Fraunce, and swore þo by God þat, when he were arise of his gisyne, he wolde liȝt a þousand candelles to þe Kyng of Fraunce . . . & brent alle þe tounes þat he come by (137)
‘The King of France said one day in scorn of King William, “King William has long laid in childbed, and has rested a long time.” Word of this came to the King of England where he lay in Normandy at Rouen; and for those words he was greatly displeased, and also very angry with the King of France, and swore by God that when he arose from childbed he would light a thousand candles for the King of France … and burn all the towns that he came by’

Of course, Philip knew that William, being a man, was not in childbed, but his ironic suggestion is meant to insult him by way of suggesting he is somehow feminine or womanish; it was also possibly a dig at the fact that William’s wife had, according to The Brut, recently died. William’s angry response upon hearing word of Philip’s speech also employs verbal irony, in that he says that when he rises from “gisyne”, defined in the MED as “the period after childbirth before the mother might appear in church or the temple; also used humorously”, he will light candles (typically associated with prayer and blessings) in honor of the King of France, before going on to burn the French countryside during the time of harvest.

5.3. Scorn: religious texts

Of the 16 hits for <in scorn*> associated with an instance of verbal irony in religious texts, four are from the English prose works of Richard Rolle (1305x10–1349, a hermit and “the first to express abstract theological moral issues in English” (Hughes 2004)), one from the Anglo-Irish Kildare Poems (composed c.1330), one from the Cursor Mundi (c.1300), one from the poem “þe Spore of Loue” (found in the Vernon manuscript, c.1400) and nine from the Middle English Bible translated by Wycliffe and/or his followers (in the late fourteenth century). All seven examples that come from texts other than the Bible have to do with the Passion of Christ, namely the mocking of Jesus by the Romans when they ironically refer to him as “King of the Jews”:

(19) callynge at þi corownynge in scorn and hatrede & sayde “heyl be þou kyng” and spytted in þi face (Rolle, ‘Meditations on the Passion’, 88)
‘calling at your crowning in scorn and hatred, and said “hail to you, King” and spitted in your face’

(20) Thynk after how knightis to him knelid: & said to him in scorne: “Haile, kynge of Iues! Þou þat mani helpis: þou nedes now helpe þe selfe . . .” (Rolle, ‘Meditations on the Passion and of Three Arrows on Doomsday’, 113)
‘Think after how knights kneeled to him and said to him in scorn, “Hail, king of the Jews! You that helps many, now needs help yourself . . .”’

(21) þei token him a reod-spyr in his hond, & kneleden doun in scorn & seiden: “Heil sir kyng, kyng of Iewes.” (Rolle, ‘Hou Crist is founder of þe abbeye of þe holy gost’, 1:359)
‘they put a reed stalk in his hand and kneeled down in scorn and said, “Hail Sir King, king of the Jews.”’

(22) Setten a reod in þin hond in stude of kynges septre, in scorn & in heþing, and maden to þe heor knelyng, and seiden “heil be þou kyng” (Rolle, ‘A Talkyng of þe Love of God’, 2:360)
‘Set a reed in your hand instead of a king’s sceptre, in scorn and mockery, and kneeled before you and said, “hail to you, King”’

(23) With hatefull spittynge þat one my vesage dide falle. / Kyng of Iewes in scōrne þay dide me calle ‘Christ on the cross’ (Kildare Poems, 210)
‘With hateful spitting that fell on my face / King of Jews they called me in scorn’

(24) They made hym syt as her kyng / on kneis by-fore hym felle / Alle haile our kyng in scorn thei seid / thei did no-thyng welle / They spyttyn in his louely face (Cursor Mundi, 16631–16635)
‘They made him sit as their king / on knees before him they fell / “All hail our king” they said in scorn / they did nothing well / They spit in his lovely face’

(25) Crouned him wiþ þorn, I vndurstonde, / And þenne þei kneled him be-forn / And called him kyng al in scorn. (‘þe Spore of Loue’, Vernon ms., 862–864)
‘Crowned him with thorns, I understand, and then they kneeled before him and called him king in scorn’

This moment from Christ’s life was originally recorded in the gospels (cf. Knox 1989: 171). Like some of the examples discussed above, the Romans referring to Jesus in this way is mock-reverence, and the irony of hailing him as a king is signaled by the inappropriateness, or discord within the context of persecution and bondage. The negation (meaning reversal) of the Romans’ reverence is, of course, further exaggerated by the crown of thorns they make Jesus wear and the reed stalk for a sceptre put in his hand. It is probably safe to say that this was one of the most widely known instances of verbal irony in medieval England.

“Scorning” is also a speech act described on a number of occasions in sections of the Wycliffite Bible(s), and the nine results from the CMEPV’s version of this text each relate to a different event (i.e. not the scene from the Passion described above). Two of the hits related to verbal irony appear in one of the primary text sections of the Bible:

(26) PROLOGUE VI: in scorn thei clepiden Elye the man of God (15)
‘in scorn they called Elye the man of God’

(27) PSALM XXXIX: Bere thei her confusioun anoon; that seien to me, Wel! wel! that is, in scorn (777)
‘Let them be the bearers of their own destruction, that say to me, “Well! Well!” that is in scorn’

And seven appear in marginal glosses, which refer to, or qualify speech/writing in the primary text itself:

(28) EXODUS X: So the Lord be with ȝou [gloss:] He seide this in scorn, vndurstondinge the contrarie (214)
‘“So the Lord be with you” [gloss:] He [i.e. Pharaoh] said this in scorn, understanding the contrary’

(29) NUMBERS XVI: Verili thou hast brouȝt vs in to the lond that flowith with streemys of mylk and hony, and hast ȝoue to vs possessioun of feeldis, and of vyneris; whethir also thou wolt putte out oure iȝen? [gloss:] Thei seiden this in scorn, to signefie that Moises disseyuede the puple bi false bihestis. (409)
‘“Truly, you have brought us into the land that flows with streams of milk and honey, and have granted us possession of fields and of vineyards. Will you also put out our eyes?” [gloss:] They said this in scorn to convey that Moses deceived the people with false promises.’

(30) I. KINGS XI: the messangeris camen, and telden to the men of Jabes; whiche weren glad, and seiden [to Amon], Eerli we schulen go out to ȝou, and ȝe schulen do to vs al that plesith ȝou [gloss:] they seiden this in scorn, for thei wisten that help schal come to hem in the morewe. (30–31)
‘the messengers came and told the men of Jabes, who were glad and said, “We will go out early to you, and you will do to us all that pleases you” [gloss:] they said this in scorn, for they knew that help would come to them tomorrow.’

(31) IV. KINGS I (related to no. 26 above): And Elie answeride, and seide to the prince of fifti men, If Y am the man of God, fier come doun fro heuene, and deuoure thee and thi fifti men [gloss:] if Y am the man of God; verily and not scornefuly. Fier come doun, etc. Elie knew bi reuelacioun, that this prince clepide him in scorn the man of God (237)
‘And Elie answered and said to the prince of fifty men, “If I am the man of God, fire come down from heaven and devour you and your fifty men” [gloss:] if I am the man of God; truly and not scornfully. Fire come down, etc. Elie knew by revelation that the prince called him the man of God in scorn’

(32) ISIAH V: and ȝe seien, The werk of hym haaste, and come soone, that we se; and the counsel of the hooli of Israel neiȝ, and come, and we schulen knowe it. [gloss:] Thei seiden in scorn, Haaste, and come soon; as if thei seiden, We dreden not it (235)
‘and they say, “May he make haste in his work and come soon so we may see; and the counsel of the holy of Israel close at hand, and come, and we shall know it.” [gloss:] They said in scorn, Hast, and come soon; as if to say, “We fear it [i.e. his coming] not”’

(33) I. CORINTHIANS IV: Who demeth thee? And what hast thou, that thou hast not resseyued? And if thou hast resseyued, what gloriest thou, as thou haddist not resseyued? Nowe ȝe ben fyllid, now ȝe ben maad riche; ȝe regnen with outen vs [gloss:] He spekith this in scorn, to schewe that her presumpcioun is worthi to be scorned. ȝe regnen; that is, ben in the staat of perfeccioun by ȝoure gessinge. (344)
‘Who judges you? And what do you have that you have not been given? And if you have received, what gives you glory other than that which you have received? Now you are satiated, now you are made rich; you reign without us [gloss:] He speaks this in scorn to show that their presumptuousness is worthy to be scorned. Your reign; that is, being in the state of perfection by your own judgment.

(34) JAMES I: [gloss:] a ryche man haue glorie in his lownesse; the Glose seith here, that this is seid in scorn’ (596)
‘[gloss:] a rich man has glory in his lowness; the gloss says here that this is said in scorn’

Which of these marginal glosses, if any, were originally added by their fourteenth-century English translators/annotators has not been investigated (for the present study at least). [9] Regardless, however, the Anglo-Germanic origins of the word scorn make it certain that its usage in the Wycliffite bibles was an anglicization, used for specifying a particular type of linguistic behavior that sometimes involved verbal irony. Moreover, these metapragmatic comments, or glosses, highlight the way in which the interpretation of verbal irony was important to the interpretation of certain biblical passages, particularly in relation to quoted speech, or extracts taken from the epistles quoted above (i.e. Corinthians and James). And while biblical interpretation is far beyond the bounds of this study, it is clear that these examples exhibit a non-exclusive semantic-pragmatic range of evaluating ironic speech as said “in scorn” (i.e. not all have negative connotations attached to them), which in turn reflects the socio-cultural/textual functions of verbal irony in late medieval England as not only a matter of impoliteness or banter (seen in previous examples), but also as a rhetorical means of communicating the message of Christian scripture.

6. Conclusion

The purpose of this pilot study has been to explore one particular method of locating data for a historical study of verbal irony in English. Specifically, I was interested in testing the possibility of incorporating digital corpus resources into such an enterprise. As the word irony is not recorded in English until well into the sixteenth century, I combined information taken from the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, the Lexicons of Early Modern English database, and the Middle English Dictionary to identify an appropriate set of Middle English terms, or metalanguage, related to the concept of verbal irony. In the end, I chose mock (shown to have been associated with Latinate ironia in early dictionaries) and scorn (associated with mock) and carried out wildcard searches for <mok*>/<mock*>/<moq*> and <scornf*>/<in scorn*> in the Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse.

The 168 total hits for mock and 87 for scorn (i.e. <scornf*> and <in scorn*>) were evaluated by qualitative readings around each hit, with the result that nine results for mock and 24 for scorn could be clearly linked to examples of reported speech/text that involved verbal irony. The alternative searching method would have been to read the entire corpus of medieval texts (approximately 15 million words in the CMEPV alone). And while it is important to not always forgo complete readings of texts in favor of quicker results – especially in pragmatics, where context is key to interpretation – any realistic historical study that aims to cover a wide breadth of texts will require methods conducive to timely data extraction. In this way, the examples extracted here are significant and provide valuable details with regard to verbal irony in fourteenth and fifteenth-century English. The method devised here indicates future success in extracting verbal irony from historical corpora, for the late medieval as well as other periods. Here I have limited my pilot searching to mock and scorn, but there are other possibilities for Middle English: for example, bourd (first recorded in English c.1320–30) and scoff (a.1400) are located alongside mock and scorn in the [derision, ridicule, or mockery] heading of the HTE and could be subjected to corpus searching. And for later periods, analogous terms for irony are readily available in the many dictionaries and rhetorical books that were available in English from the sixteenth century onward. These could be exploited to locate hypothetical examples as well as lexical terms that might lead to further hits for verbal irony in digital corpora.

Because this study has been primarily concerned with testing a method of data extraction, I have had to remain brief in my interpretations of the results themselves. But once compiled with more findings, the data extracted here could be subjected to more in-depth historical analysis in relation to questions such as: What did verbal irony look like in Middle English (and indeed other periods)? In this vein, all the examples found here have to do with meaning reversal, which is interesting given modern-day usage of what Kapogianni refers to as surrealistic irony. Could surrealism be period specific? Also, it seems clear from the range of uses evidenced in the examples here that Middle English verbal irony had various types of functions. For some, I have suggested how these functions might relate to modern-day usage, but a more thorough analysis of this data would be needed to bring the discussion forward. Furthermore, are there more examples from non-fictional texts, more everyday uses of verbal irony? And what about types of users? All the ironists in the examples found here are men, but why? Answering these questions ultimately requires more data. This study has shown one way in which digital corpora may be employed successfully for this purpose.


[1] The HTE category [the mind > mental capacity > understanding, intellect > intelligence, cleverness > wit, wittiness > wit with words > irony] yields no results before 1500. In another subcategory of [the mind], the heading for [the mind > mental capacity > contempt > derision, ridicule, or mockery > caustic or ironic ridicule], we find two words which predate 1500: [(noun) > instance of] = gest (a1387) and [with caustic or ironic ridicule (adverb)] = dryly (1430). But neither of these terms are viable options. In the first instance, ME gest (more rarely spelt with a <j>), was a polysemantic word with its primary, most common senses being “a guest” or “a poem or song”. The peripheral sense of “a satirical utterance or lampoon” is not provided with an example citation in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), making its currency in Middle English somewhat dubitable. Nor is any sense of “caustic or ironic ridicule” listed in the Middle English Dictionary (MED) listings for the word. A search for <gest*> in the CMEPV results in 885 hits, and upon closer look, it would seem that all these hits are to do with the word’s more primary senses, and are therefore completely unrelated to verbal irony. And for dryly, the one pre-1500 instance listed in the OED comes from John Lydgate’s History of Troy: “He was bouerdyng [i.e. joking] all the long day […] So dryely that no man might espye So sober he was in his countenaunce.” The MED lists this same example from Lydgate as their sole example for this sense of the word. And again, the sense “mock gravity” for dryly is peripheral to the word’s more primary senses, “continually, unceasingly, on and on” and “strongly, earnestly, seriously”. Searching for this term in the CMEPV yields no other results (even when considering orthographic variants) in the sense relevant to language.

[2] Considering the word mock entered English via French in the first half of the fifteenth century, it is perhaps not surprising – also considering the large amount of writing translated from French into English in this period – that two of the works discussed here were in fact translations of originally French writing: The right plesaunt and goodly historie of the foure sonnes of Aymon and The Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry. I realize consideration of these results as English examples of verbal irony is not completely straightforward. However, I would contend that these examples are significant, especially given the fact that through much of the late medieval period England was multilingual, and that during this time the English language and its writing were greatly influenced by French – especially in terms of lexis and literature. French texts were “Englished” (as Caxton wrote in his title to the 1489 edition of the foure sonnes of Aymon) – translated for the tastes of an English-speaking demand. In this way, while their French origins remain an important thing to keep in mind, these examples should not be considered negligible (or indeed inauthentic) for the current study. Many originally francophone works, including those considered here, were/are inextricably bound to the development of the English language in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

[3] Here and throughout this study, I will not be mentioning the printed editions from which the CMEPV derived its texts. More details can be found at the CMEPV online,

[4] Page references are those given in the CMEPV (derived from the editions it uses). In cases of verse, I will give the line numbers (except in example number 26 below, for which I give only the page number, because line numbers are not provided in the CMEPV). Please note: I have not always checked the page or line numbers given in the CMEPV against the original printed editions.

[5] For all pre-1500 quotes, I will be providing my own translations. In instances of verse, I will not always preserve the metre or rhyme. For the most part, I will not change the spellings of the names of people.

[6] For information on the actual Knight of La Tour-Landry and his children see the Early English Text Society’s edition of his book, edited by Thomas Wright (1868).

[7] In addition to expressing duty, the modal auxiliary should could also express hearsay, or be semantically empty in ME – any of which interpretations are possible here.

[8] great in ME could mean pregnant and/or fat.

[7] It should be noted that the version of the Wycliffite Bible in the CMEPV is based on numerous manuscripts and not all the manuscripts contain the metapragmatic glosses given here.


Corpus of Historical American English.

Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse.

Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Lexicons of Early Modern English database.

Middle English Dictionary.

Oxford English Dictionary.


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