I realise that at a severe level this can present as a symptom of Asperger's Syndrome, or High Functioning Autism. But I am not talking about that.

I am referring to people who just don't seem to understand irony. For example, let's say we have a doormat outside our house with the words 'BEWARE OF THE OLD WOMAN' written on it.

I think most people, at least in Britain, would see it as a joke. But some, at the extreme, might expect to meet a fierce old lady. Other's, less afflicted, might think it was a severe instance of political incorrectness. What do we call someone who just doesn't see the joke?

Or let's say that someone comes to dinner and is thoroughly miserable all evening, and the host or hostess just does not pick up on the fact that it is because of a difficulty that the guest has in their lives.

Do we say 'Penelope is 'insensitive'? No that isn't quite the word is it? Because had Penelope understood the reason she would have been as sympathetic as the next person. It was just that it simply never occurred to Penelope that her guest might be feeling sad about something, that she, the guest was not able to talk about. There are people who just don't pick up signs around them. Metaphorically they have no peripheral vision. They only see the obvious, and what is straight in front of them.

How do we describe such people?

  • Narrow-minded, maybe.: lacking in tolerance or breadth of vision.
    – user66974
    Dec 16, 2014 at 12:01
  • 1
    My doormat says "You are here".
    – Erik Kowal
    Dec 16, 2014 at 12:19
  • 4
    I don't get it.
    – Mitch
    Dec 16, 2014 at 13:53
  • 2
    "Dense", "tone deaf", "literalist".
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 16, 2014 at 15:54
  • 2
    "imperceptive" comes to mind Dec 17, 2014 at 12:19

6 Answers 6


Collins gives overliteral :

overliteral ...


literal to a fault

where of course the sense of 'literal' used is that defined by Google Dictionary:

literal adjective

  1. taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or exaggeration.
  • 2
    Spot on. You got it in one, Edwin. It is meaning 5d in the OED. I had forgotten that it could be used of a person. But I wouldn't bother to say 'overliteral', I would just say they were 'literal'. Thanks. d. Of a person, the mind, etc.: apt to take words literally; characterized by an inability to recognize metaphor or understand humorous exaggeration, irony, or the like; lacking imagination; prosaic, literal-minded. But thanks to others who have posted. Some interesting stuff there.
    – WS2
    Dec 16, 2014 at 13:06
  • I'm delighted that doormats are now seen as authoritative sources. The spelling's usually better than that of Shakespeare. Dec 16, 2014 at 13:11
  • We don't actually have such a doormat. My wife did draw the line when I was about to fork out for one at a street market. Literal? She probably has had to be to suffer me for 43 years!
    – WS2
    Dec 16, 2014 at 13:19
  • I'm not keen on doormats with dirty comments. Dec 16, 2014 at 13:27
  • I think we ought not to pursue this further!
    – WS2
    Dec 16, 2014 at 13:46

For me the obvious choice would be oblivious [TheFreeDictionary], but there are others: unself-aware, immune to irony, obtuse, etc.

  • 1
    Oblivious was my first thought as well. Possibly clueless in some contexts.
    – Joe
    Dec 16, 2014 at 13:31
  • +1 but I tend to see 'oblivion' as the manifestation of what I am describing rather than the thing itself. In short I think a 'literal' person is likely to be 'oblivious' to some things around them.
    – WS2
    Dec 16, 2014 at 13:54
  • @WS2: I added "obtuse" to the list. Don't know if that works any better for you. But "oblivious" and "obtuse" have points of intersection, even if they're not perfect synonyms.
    – Robusto
    Dec 16, 2014 at 16:27

This is really two questions together.

The person who fails to understand irony I would call humour-challenged, humourless or simply [excessively] serious.

The one who fails to pick up on other people's moods or mental states is unobservant, oblivious, unaware or incognizant, or possibly even self-absorbed, literal-minded or tunnel-visioned.

  • Yes, they're quite different. I can generally pick up irony quite well, but I sometimes have trouble with faces (I often don't recognize people when the light is behind them for example) and can miss subtle cues as a result. I understand emotion well enough, and am sensitive to mood conveyed by voice well enough, but unless I'm really studying someone's face, subtle facial cues can sometimes be hit and miss (making me seem oblivious to other people's moods in particular situations). Then again, if the light's in the wrong direction, I might not even know who it is until they speak/move.
    – Glen_b
    Dec 17, 2014 at 4:44
  • @Glen_b - It's possible that you have a mild form of so-called 'face blindness' or prosopagnosia.
    – Erik Kowal
    Dec 17, 2014 at 4:48
  • Yes, thanks, I know the term. I believe I may have it in a mild form.
    – Glen_b
    Dec 17, 2014 at 4:53


  1. informal
    of low intelligence; stupid.
    "he's a bit thick"


  • 2
    I would suggest that the use of such a word gets close to being an example of what I am talking about!
    – WS2
    Dec 16, 2014 at 13:13
  • @WS2 \\ Golly, have I displeased or disappointed you? Dec 16, 2014 at 17:19
  • 4
    Some people who are 'literal' are anything but 'thick'. Particularly when one gets into Aspergers and autism, you find exceedingly literal minds that can do advanced maths at a young age, or beat the computer at chess. Often 'literalness' is correlated with high functioning intelligence in narrow fields. A book I strongly recommend is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night time by Mark Haddon.
    – WS2
    Dec 16, 2014 at 17:53
  • 1
    Thick and its cousin dense would not be a general descriptor of such a person, but could be used in an informal, and perhaps jocular, manner, in light of some particular instance of this behavior. Its usage here would be similar to oblivious if not intended in a mean-spirited way. (This is an Am.E. view of this slang.) Jocular put-downs to use in the moment are not what you're after, though, so I agree this doesn't really answer your question.
    – aes
    Dec 16, 2014 at 19:36
  • @AES And Americans aren't the only ones who say 'thick'.
    – WS2
    Dec 16, 2014 at 22:47

By coincidence, my colleague coined this pun today: A person who doesn't "get" irony suffers from an irony deficiency.

  • Oh, that is genius of the first order! We need some way to get anaemia into the phrase somehow. (I shall leave that exercise to my betters!)
    – Jonathan
    Dec 17, 2014 at 9:14






These don't imply a lack of sense of humor, but rather the default state of taking things at face value.

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