IT'S NOT CALLED "SELF-IRONY" IN ENGLISH
As a native English copywriter working with Danish corporate and government clients, I've seen plenty of Danglish in my day. (In fact, I wrote a book about it).
Ironically, one of the most common mistakes I see is the translation of selvironi, the self-mocking humor that is so central to the Danish soul.
"Self-irony" is not a word in English: it doesn't appear in the Oxford English Dictionary online or on dictionary.com. It appears in the Urban Dictionary only in a rarely-seen definition submitted by someone named "Jens-Frederik."
My guess is that Jens-Frederik is one of the many Danes who believe that the direct translation of "self-irony" is a useful expression in English. Hopefully, he has a sense of selvironi himself, because he is wrong.
A few better solutions
There are several better ways to express selvironi in English, including:
- The ability to laugh at yourself. Probably the best way to express the idea; everyone can understand this.
- Having a sense of humor about yourself. Also a good translation, although you'll have to worry about whether you use "humor" for a US audience of "humour" for UK readers.
- Self-deprecating humor. This is probably the most exact translation, but deprecating is the kind of ten-dollar word that may go over the head of people who speak English as a second language - and plenty of native speakers too.
- Self-mocking humor. Precise, but uncommon. Even the word mock isn't used much any more in its original gør grin af usage. Younger generations use it more often to mean imitation. "She did well in the mock examinations, but failed the real ones."
- Making yourself the butt of the joke. "Butt" here means the target or the end, like a cigarette butt or the butt of a gun. Unfortunately, part of your audience may not know this, and may immediately think you mean the butt of a human.
- Taking the piss out of yourself. This is a little vulgar, but it works if your audience is entirely British or Irish. It will be confusing to Americans and anyone who grew up on American English. For them, "taking the piss" is something a man does up against a wall.
Danes are pretty good at laughing at themselves, so I hope they'll realize that this was written med et glimt i øjet, another Danish term that is often translated badly. But that's another article entirely.
DROP DIT DANGLISH...
HOW TO UPDATE YOUR ENGLISH
European professionals use English every day in their work, and they usually speak it very well. But English is a vibrant, constantly changing language, as anyone who's taken a look at the Urban Dictionary recently can testify. If you learned English 20 years ago - from a teacher who may have learned it 30 years before that - you may be speaking the English equivalent of a beehive hairdo.
Here are 5 ways English may have changed since you were in school - plus 4 words you should stop using right away.
- British English is no longer considered the "gold standard". While many Europeans were taught that British English was the "correct" version of the language, American spelling and grammar is now much more widely recognized worldwide. And there's even more diversity in the language's future. There are now more speakers of English in Nigeria (79 million) than in the United Kingdom (65 million). The Philippines (90 million) and India (130 million) have even more. Expect Asian English and African English to increasingly influence global English vocabulary. Some linguists even speculate that English may split into separate languages, as Latin once did.
- Using "man" to represent both genders is outdated. While the old nature documentaries shown on weekend afternoons may still talk about "man versus the elements", these terms started to go out of fashion in the 1970s, shortly after Neil Armstrong landed on the moon and proclaimed "This is one step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." Mankind is no longer used at all: contemporary English speakers say humanity instead. "Manpower" has been replaced by staff, and a "four man team" can be rephrased as a four person team, unless you're writing a report on men's Olympic bobsledding.
- "He" is no longer used as a neutral pronoun - and he/she is on its way out. English lacks a useful neutral pronoun; "one" tends to sound either wildly poetic or royal and pompous ("One loves horses, but one does get tired of picking up after them."). Forty years ago, the go-to neutral pronoun was "he": "Every business owner knows he must please his customers." When that began to sound foolish, sometime around the 1980s, many respected newspapers began to use either the clumsy he/she ("Every business owner knows he/she must please his/her customers") or forcibly re-writing the sentence in plural ("All business owners know they must please their customers.") The new trend is the singular "they," which was named Word of the Year recently by a group of grammar experts, although its usage actually dates back to Shakespeare. It works like this: Every business owner knows they must please their customers.
- "-Ess" suffix words like Waitress have been replaced by gender-neutral terms. "Ess" added to a job role to indicate a female is filling it has gradually become outdated over the past 30 years, with waitress (now server) and stewardess (now flight attendant) shuffling off to join the already-dead "poetess", "sculptress," and "ambassadress." These days the "-ess" suffix is seen mostly in fantasy contexts (goddess, seductress) and royal titles (princess, dutchess). Another survivor is actress, perhaps because it is so prestigious to be named Best Actress at Cannes or at the Oscars. (And because if all the awards were put into one gender-neutral basket, there's no guarantee that women would win any at all.) That said, many women who have seriously studied the craft of theater or film performance prefer to be called actors.
- English vocabulary changes most quickly when it reflects social change. The ethnic and gender makeup of English-speaking countries is very different than it was a few decades ago, and this is reflected in the English language. Keeping up with the current terms can be challenging for a non-native speaker: "colored people," for example, is considered highly offensive, while "people of color" is seen as thoughtful and inclusive. Black and (in the U.S.) African-American are both acceptable - although the trend is towards the former - but Oriental is outmoded, replaced by Asian or specific country names, such as Taiwanese or Thai.
The gender diversity movement has also impacted the English language: Facebook currently offers more than 50 options for gender, and it is now common in some circles - especially U.S. academia - to ask during introductions "What's your preferred pronoun?" The once-common word transsexual is now used only in medical contexts (and in the Rocky Horror Picture Show): transgender is daily parlance for someone planning to or undergoing what used to be called a sex change and is now called transitioning, or gender correction.
Many native speakers stumble over these ongoing changes in English, and it can be even more challenging for a European who uses English as a second language to keep up with the "right" word to use without causing offense. If in doubt, check a recent edition of the New York Times and use what they use.
UDRÅBSTEGN OR EXCLAMATION POINT?
"When I get your texts, I edit out all those exclamation points," a marketing director of a highly successful Danish tech company was telling his American colleagues.
"They sound like shouting."
The U.S. colleagues, who had just completed my Working with Danes/Working with Americans workshop, shook their heads in bewilderment.
"Exclamation points represent excitement!" they said. "They give the text energy! They tell customers that we really believe in our product."
MORE THAN A PUNCTUATION MARK
It doesn't help that the Danish word for this particular punctuation is udråbstegn, which translates directly to "yelling out sign."
An "exclamation", by contrast, can be positive in English. It represents surprise, amazement, energy, action.
While I don't think anyone argues that multiple exclamation points (Our new software is available now!!!) make for professional-sounding communication, this seemingly small dispute over a punctuation mark is part of a larger context.
Americans, for better or worse, tend to live life with an exclamation point.
FEAR OF THE USED CAR SALESMAN
This can be good - it takes that kind of energy and drive to win 2521 Olympic medals - or it can be a bit over the top, as seen on President Trump's Twitter account.
But it is the American way, and Danish companies who insist on the subtle, Jantelov-influenced communication style that works in Denmark can be misunderstood in the American market as a lack of confidence in your product.
Danes deeply fear being seen as brugt bilsælger (used car salesmen), pushy sellers who make potential buyers uncomfortable. They like to believe that a good-quality product speaks for itself.
But Americans are used to over-the-top sales pitches. Although salespeople cannot lie outright (because the fearsome American litigation machine will then kick into gear), there are no limits on using amorphous, hard-to-pin down words like fun! useful! smart! life-changing! when you have something to sell.
When you're doing business with Americans, enthusiasm is key.
THIS IS SO MUCH FUN!
Which leads us back to the exclamation point.
Although Danes and Americans probably won't agree on the use of the exclamation point any time soon, they can at least learn to understand what the other culture is saying when it uses this particular punctuation.
For Danes, an exclamation point means Pay Attention, now! This is important! Watch out! Danger!
For Americans, it means, Hey, look at this! Great stuff! Let's get this done! Or, sometimes, This is so much fun!