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Identify British humour with Hitchhiker’s Guide – Learn English with Tommy

(You’ll find a short vocabulary list at the bottom of this article containing the underlined words. If there are any other words you don’t understand, don’t hesitate to ask).

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In this blog post, I will be looking at a science fiction book called the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. By the end of the blog post you will be able to identify British humour easier than you did before. Let’s have a look what is in the blog post:

What is science fiction?

Science fiction is a genre, which mainly looks at futuristic ideas. Star Wars, for example, is a great example of this, because when the original films came out in the 1970s, space was seen as a futuristic concept. Science fiction, however, is not limited to films. Science fiction can also be in books and series. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is, as the title says, something futuristic (in this case also space).

Why is science fiction so good?

Science fiction is an interesting genre, because it makes you think about the future. It makes you think a little more about what could possibly happen in the future. George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, created a made up world in space. He created something, which for many people in the 1970s was unbelievable – life in outer space. In this way, Douglas Adams, the author the series of books, created a guide for us, if we ever go to space.

What is British humour?

British humour is something specific. Examples of British humour include ‘Monty Python’, ‘Fawlty Towers’ or ‘Mr Bean’. All of these series and films have a specific characteristic about them – the humour is dry. Have a look at the clip below and see what I mean:

This is from a famous part of Monty Python called the ‘Parrot Sketch’. For non-natives, it is hard to understand what is funny about this. Nevertheless, the actors (Michael Palin on the left and John Cleese on the right), can make a joke out of an animal (a parrot). The British humour we can identify here is irony.

In the following video, you will see Rowan Atkinson (Mr Bean) and his inability to understand chemistry:

As you can see, Mr Bean has no idea about chemistry, yet still tries to do something with the chemicals. The result, as you see at the end, is catastrophic!

One of the main characteristics of these clips is that the humour is dry. Such irrelevant things (like the parrot and the chemistry set), can be made into very funny sketches, by British people. One non-native once said to me, “I don’t understand how things like this are funny, but somehow they are”. This sums up British humour very clearly, it is hard to define

Identify British humour with Hitchhiker’s Guide

As we can see from the above clips, British humour is much different to American humour. And now you’ll see the different types of humour that are present in this series of books.

Brilliant bureaucracy

One of the first things that we can see in the books, is how the writer, Douglas Adams, uses the bureaucracy in our lives. He preys on everyday activities that happen around us.

But Mr. Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months“. Here we can see that the plans has been available for a long time. In our everyday lives, there are lots of things that we don’t seem to pay attention to.

Adams then continues this dialogue, “On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.” Here we can already guess what the bureaucracy will be. It is evident that the plans are on display in the cellar and not somewhere which is obvious to find. The final part of the dialogue gives a detailed description of where exactly the plans were, “Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying, ‘Beware of the Leopard.’”” In our everyday lives, we find somethings incredibly annoying. There are certain things that just rub us up the wrong way, and this is one of them.

Meaning of time

We consider time to be a very important part of our lives. Here the character Ford, who has travelled a lot, gives an answer about how far you could trust someone. This is also the same time it will take for the Earth to destruct.

“Myself I’d trust him to the end of the Earth,” said Ford. “Oh yes,” said Arthur, “and how far’s that?” “About twelve minutes away,” said Ford, “come on, I need a drink.”

Despite knowing that the Earth will destruct in 12 minutes, Ford is willing to stay calm and instead just go for a drink. If you knew this would happen, I don’t think you would be as calm as Ford is.

Over-the-top behaviour

British people are known for their very good manners and behaviour. The writer takes a different approach to this in the following dialogue.

You barbarians!” he yelled. “I’ll sue the council for every penny it’s got! I’ll have you hung, drawn and quartered! And whipped! And boiled…until…until…until you’ve had enough“. We can see that the character is incredibly annoyed. If this were a British person, they would not emphasise so much detail. Nevertheless, the writer wants to emphasise that this character has a tendency to go a bit too far.

Unexpected endings

Sentences and clauses in the book are littered with endings that we would find obvious. Yet, it is exactly for this reason that Adams creates this. It is, as we saw from the video clips, creating humour out of things, which are very simple. Look at this:

The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.” A simple simile has been changed around so as to make it a little more interesting. Normally, we would something like the ships hung like clouds in the sky. Adams wants to tell us that bricks are unable to fly and this is exactly the ships hung in the sky.

British humour would not be the same without a little irony. What is important to know is that irony is a drier type of humour. Read these examples and see for yourselves:

Curiously enough, though he did not know it, he was also a direct male-line descendant of Genghis Khan, though intervening generations and racial mixing had so juggled his genes that he had no discernible Mongoloid characteristics, and the only vestiges left in Mr. L. Prosser of his mighty ancestry were a pronounced stoutness abut the tum and a predilection for little fur hats.” The ironic part of this is that we know more about the character, than the character knows about themselves. Furthermore, jokes can then be made about the identity of this person, which resorts from the irony.

None at all,” said Mr. Prosser, and stormed nervously off wondering why his brain was filed with a thousand hairy horsemen all shouting at him“. As we can see, Prosser is completely unaware of his heritage and, in this case, has no idea why the horsemen (a reference to Genghis Khan’s armies) are stuck in his head.

As we can see from these examples, we can identify quite a lot of different types of humour. Most of the examples which we can see use, as mentioned at the beginning, very dry topics. These are, however, typical of British humour. If used properly, British humour can be very funny and useful to resolve a situation.

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Now it’s your turn to tell us which type of British humour you could identify with the Hitchhiker’s Guide. Leave a message below!

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