I'd taken droll to mean something like drily amusing, but without any implied negativity.

But I've often heard people say

Very droll!

in response to something that they appear to find mildly amusing but not exactly LOL territory. They certainly would not have described the comment as hilarious or very amusing, which terms would be reserved for something much funnier.

For example:

Hacker: Who else is in this department?

Sir Humphrey: Well briefly, sir, I am the Permanent Under-Secretary of State, known as the Permanent Secretary. Woolley here is your Principal Private Secretary. I too have a Principal Private Secretary and he is the Principal Private Secretary to the Permanent Secretary. Directly responsible to me are ten Deputy Secretaries, 87 Under Secretaries and 219 Assistant Secretaries. Directly responsible to the Principal Private Secretaries are plain Private Secretaries, and the Prime Minister will be appointing two Parliamentary Under-Secretaries and you will be appointing your own Parliamentary Private Secretary.

Hacker: Can they all type?

Sir Humphrey: None of us can type. Mrs MacKay types: she's the secretary.

Hacker: Pity, we could have opened an agency.

Sir Humphrey: Very droll, Minister.

Hacker: I suppose they all say that, do they?

Sir Humphrey: Certainly not Minister. Not quite all..."

(From Yes, Minister series 1, episode 1: Open Government.)

Is this a correct understanding of the term? Does it suggest a lukewarm assessment?

  • 6
    I would say that expressions such as "Very droll!" are often used sarcastically, or at least to indicate that the speaker has been amused in a way that the "droll" individual did not intend. But in other cases the expressions are used in a more straight-forward manner. Sometimes it's hard to tell which, even for those who are standing there listening. (Note that if a writer comments that an individual has a "droll sense of humor" he's probably not being sarcastic, but when "Very droll!" is spoken the likelihood increases significantly.)
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 21:17
  • In the above interchange (not being very familiar with the series), I would say that there is no more than a slight hint of sarcasm at most. It's acknowledging that the joke was recognized but also acknowledging that it didn't leave the audience rolling in the aisles.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 21:22
  • One thing to keep in mind is that droll humor is very often exercised with a sense of sarcasm. Sarcasm may be viewed as negativism, but saying the speaker's humor is droll doesn't, by itself, reflect negatively on him.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 22:52
  • 1
    It seems to me that "very funny" can be used sincerely or sarcastically, just as "very droll" can be. But saying that "funny" itself has a negative connotation overstates (in my opinion) the word's responsibility for the sarcastic use to which it is put by certain people at certain times. In fact, it's hard to think of any adjective that can't be used sarcastically by a determined person. Finding a truly negative connotation in a word requires something deeper than that, I think—and I doubt that either the droll in "very droll" or the funny in "very funny" possesses it.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Dec 17, 2015 at 6:56
  • 1
    The succeeding lines suggest that Sir Humphrey is being mildly sarcastic because he has heard the same joke many times before. Commented Sep 30, 2016 at 8:19

6 Answers 6


By and large, on the whole, not to put to fine a point on it, 'Very droll' is in itself, as far as one can tell, one of those phrases that speaks clearly its own meaning, when put into the context of the conversation that proceeded the remark.

When the tone of voice and body language are taken into account, one can tell quite easily the spirit in which the phrase was meant.

  • 2
    your prose is 'very droll'
    – JMP
    Commented Apr 2, 2017 at 6:34
  • 1
    Preceded rather than proceeded Commented Sep 6, 2017 at 19:25

Droll came into English from the French drôle and it arrived as a noun meaning:

A funny or waggish fellow; a merry-andrew, buffoon, jester, humourist. (OED).

The OED has no examples of its use since 1876, by which time it was clearly accepted as an adjective:

a1876 G. Dawson Biogr. Lect. (1886) 94 Charles the Second certainly was the drollest idol ever nation set up.

A more modern interpretation is available in the Oxford Dictionary Online. Clearly the adjectival use is now more important.

Curious or unusual in a way that provokes dry amusement: his unique brand of droll self-mockery.

In short to describe a remark, or someone as droll would imply that they have a sense of humour which is not especially quick witted.

So in answer to the question it is negative in the sense that it suggests the speaker, or the remark was an example of dry-wit, not especially funny. (Though I very much dislike the use of the term negative in this sort of sense. Reducing people to positivity and negativity suggets that they do not exist outside of a bi-polar spectrum.)

  • 4
    How do you get "not quick witted"? Many people with a droll sense of humor are exceptionally quick wits. And how is "dry wit" not funny?
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 22:48
  • 1
    What Hot Licks said. Absent any additional context, I'd say that if one person has a sense of humour, and another has a dry sense of humour, I'd bet on the latter being more quick-witted than the former rather than the other way around. The hyphenated dry-wit is unfamiliar to me, but a reference to someone's dry wit normally implies deadpan delivery, but very funny to those who can keep up. Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 23:49
  • @FumbleFingers So how would you describe a dry/droll sense of humour?
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 23:53
  • I understand dry as per OED definition 14: Said of a jest or sarcasm uttered in a matter-of-fact tone and without show of pleasantry, or of humour that has the air of being unconscious or unintentional; also of a person given to such humour; caustically witty (definitely not actually unintentional). I only ever use droll (semi-)facetiously, but I'm broadly behind OED's definition Unintentionally amusing; queer, quaint, odd, strange, ‘funny’. Except if I say How quaint! that's likely to be a bit of a put-down, whereas How droll! is often "approving". Commented Dec 17, 2015 at 0:05
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers Why don't I pose that as an OP?. It could raise some interesting stuff.
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 17, 2015 at 9:34

To figure out what type of humor is the opposite droll humor, we need to identify the characteristics of droll humor:

"Curious or unusual in a way that provokes dry amusement"

Dry amusement means not laugh-out-loud funny. The person with a dry/droll sense of humor is not expecting laughter, hence it is important that there be no signal that a joke is about to be or has been made. This requires no pause before the amusing part so it is usually a dead-pan delivery, or at least involves no change in tone. The humor is intentional, but has to appear as if unintentional. Unintentionally droll means you didn't mean to be funny.

Since the humor is impromptu - not rehearsed or planned - the person being droll is usually quick-witted - that is one who picks up on the humorous aspect quickly and slides it into the conversation effortlessly.

Droll humor relies on the listener picking up on the humor - i.e., being able to recognize the curious or unusual nature of the thing, at least when pointed out by the witty person. On the internet you might see the comment: "I c what you did there" following a droll comment. Thus the speaker and the listener(s) must have a shared view about what is common and what is uncommon. The listener may recognize the attempt at humor, but not be amused by it because the observation is not unusual (as is the case in "Yes, Minister," because Sir Humphrey has heard "the joke" many times before). The listener may also not be amused even though the observation is unusual when it is something that should not be the subject of humor.

Thus the humorist is not expecting everyone will "get it," and is not expecting laughs. The opposite would be humor that is told for the purpose of laughs, that is commonly recognized as funny, and with a delivery that signals the humor.

So slap-stick comedy could be said to be the opposite of dry humor, as could pantomime, miming, buffoonery, and clownishness (or clowning around). A jocular person would be the opposite of a droll person. A jokester or jester could be be the opposite of droll, which is amusing given the etymology of the word. Although, some court jesters were expected to be quick-witted and sarcastic and not rely on physical comedy.


My old 1970's Chambers Dictionary defines the adjective to mean odd, amusing ,laughable which at first suggests something to be laughed at for its oddity , not to be seen as a clever fellow attempting to entertain , but then offers "a jester" which seems to me to be the obverse in some sense . From my own readings of , say , Victorian English literature I understand the word , applied to a person , is intended quite certainly to be a derogatory statement, suggesting they are to be laughed at for their odd appearance or behavior. And, in passing,the last word in my previous sentence does not appear anywhere in my dictionary


I've always taken "droll" to be a bit sarcastic, especially if paired together with an emphasizing word like "very droll" or "that was most droll", said as a retort to somebody having made a poorly received joke. To me it conveys a meaning that the speaker recognizes that somebody tried to be funny, but also that they want to make it clear they don't find it funny at all. Not just "meh", but maybe off-taste or insulting or something.


When Brits label someone 'droll' it has a deprecating undertone, suggesting the person thus described is not to be taken seriously. Kind of an under-handed putdown originating from a superior and/or condescending mindset.

  • 1
    I'm British - I use it to mean mildly amusing. Not sure where you get your view from - unless it was someone who was condescending to you, perhaps.
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Oct 3, 2016 at 8:27
  • +1 for introducing the idea of condescension, which pretty much controls how droll is received - ie. whether the listener is being condescended to or is being made privy to a condescending remark about others.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Apr 18, 2017 at 16:08

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