French Language Blog

Le Second Degré – Sarcasm In French Posted by on Mar 13, 2019 in Culture, Vocabulary

L’humour (humor) is one of those things that goes beyond le vocabulaire (vocabulary) and steps into the realm of la culture, making it one of the hardest aspects of le français to really understand.

Image from Pixabay. Licensed under CC0.

Sometimes les blagues françaises (French jokes) are easy to understand or are simply a matter of understanding a specific reference. Once you learn about Where is Brian it’s easy to understand why it’s funny and laugh along with les Français (French people).

Even les jeux de mots (puns) are more a question of having learned the right vocabulaire. Once you know les mots (the words) it’s obvious why the pun is funny, or at least easy to get why people are groaning.

Cependant (however), most of l’humour français falls into a different category, rising above le premier degré (the first degree) and entering le second degré (the second degree).

I would not be surprised if many readers are as confused as I was the first time I heard French humor described. What do these seemingly mathematical terms have to do with being funny?

Just talking about it immediately mixes vocabulary issues with cultural ones! Bringing up degrees when trying to understand une blague (a joke) seems like the last thing that needs to be done.

Pourquoi on parle des maths ? Je pensais qu’on va apprendre l’humour français !
Why are we talking about math? I thought we were going to learn about French humor!

When this topic first come up for me à l’école (at school), the conversation was similarly confusing:

Tu as fait tes devoirs ?
Non, je les ai mangé.
Oui, j’ai fait mes devoirs.
Et toi ? Tu as bien mangé ou c’était juste pour demander si j’avais faim ?
Quoi ?
Je plaisante ! C’est du second degré, John ! 
Haha ?

You did your homework?
No, I ate it.
You mean…?
Yes, I did my homework.
And you? Have you eaten or did you just want to know if I was hungry?
I’m joking! It’s sarcasm, John! 

Outside of getting la blague, the idea of calling sarcasm le sécond degré was never something I would have guessed!

In French culture, there’s a clear line between what’s literal, le premier degré, and exaggerated or sarcastic joking, le second degré. Understanding why a particular exaggerated thing is considered funny is an entirely different matter however.

Even if la chute (the punchline) goes over your head and you struggle to get une blague française, as a French learner what’s more important is remembering how the idea of le second degré is an integral part of humor for les Français.

Besides, at the end of the day it’s not exactly la fuséologie (rocket science) or to use the right idiom:

Ce n’est pas sorcier !
It’s not magic!

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About the Author: John Bauer

John Bauer is an enthusiast for all things language and travel. He currently lives in France where he's doing his Master's. John came to France four years ago knowing nothing about the language or the country, but through all the mistakes over the years, he's started figuring things out.