on sarcasm not being synonymous with irony or ridicule (part 1)

I was recently involved in an online conversation in which the term sarcasm was used by several other posters. In each case I did not get the feeling that the poster got the feel for what sarcasm actually means. So I posted Merriam-Webster’s definition into the thread, to little avail.

This brought to mind other such instances: a few years ago I was working in a restaurant that employed a lot of young people. A nice lot in general, familiarity with language and its use were not among their strong points.

Several times I heard the word sarcasm used more or less interchangeably with irony. Each time I engaged the user in conversation, pointing out that sarcasm requires a nasty intent. Each time I had to bring a print-out from a couple of online dictionaries to prove my point.

So, for no apparent reason other than the word seems to be losing its edge, I address sarcasm, here if briefly. My intention is to simply clarify its meaning and suggest its correct usage.

I am often accused of sarcasm, although I rarely use it. My sense of humor in normal situations could be described as dry or even droll and, in some sense of the word, more witty than outright funny. (And I use “witty” here with one of the lesser Merriam-Webster definitions in mind: “the ability to relate seemingly disparate things so as to illuminate or amuse.”) And, yes, I do engage irony.

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The correct meaning of sarcasm in the 21st century

“Only people can be sarcastic, whereas situations are ironic.” – Diana Boxer, Applying Sociolinguistics: Domains And Face-To-Face Interaction

According to Merriam-Webster, the “full definition” of sarcasm is “a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain” and “a mode of satirical wit depending for its effect on bitter, caustic, and often ironic language that is usually directed against an individual.”

The ultimate authority, the Oxford English Dictionary, defines sarcasm is “a sharp, bitter, or cutting expression or remark; a bitter gibe or taunt.”

Dictionary.com is the most clear: “In sarcasm, ridicule or mockery is used harshly, often crudely and contemptuously, for destructive purposes. It may be used in an indirect manner, and have the form of irony . . . or it may be used in the form of a direct statement.”

The word originated in the 1570s from the Late Latin sarcasmus, from late Greek sarkasmos (“a sneer, jest, taunt, mockery”), from sarkazein (“to speak bitterly, sneer,” literally “to strip off the flesh”), from sarx (“flesh,” properly a “piece of meat”). The current form of the English word is from 1610s. (Online Etymology Dictionary)

Synonyms include affront, insult, put-down, slight, and the more contemporary dis/diss (and I want to say something sarcastic about the people who use this term but shall refrain).

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Sarcasm almost always works best spoken, not written

“The distinctive quality of sarcasm is present in the spoken word and manifested chiefly by vocal inflections.” (Dictionary.com)

As Dictionary.com notes (above), sarcasm usually a spoken weapon—it does not translate well to the printed page. While sarcasm is used by authors old and new, its chief use by today’s storytellers is in the movies. As sarcasm is often based on inflection, it is also of the moment: it translates poorly in retelling. And as Mr. Campbell’s work explains (below), sarcasm requires context for it to be both effective and recognizable as sarcasm.

“The findings show that the target sentences, when presented in isolation, were not seen as being conventionally sarcastic in nature. These same target sentences however, when surrounded by contextual information provided by the participants asked to create a sarcastic context, were later coded as being sarcastic by a naïve rater.” – John D. Campbell, Investigating Components Of Sarcastic Context

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The correct usage of sarcasm in the 21st century

Unless one intends to cause personal insult and distress to another person, there is no “correct” use of sarcasm. Of course, in fiction—especially in a movie, as sarcasm almost always requires being spoken, not written—sarcasm can be HUGELY entertaining:

“It’s sarcasm, Josh.”

“Sarcasm?”

“It’s from the Greek, sarkasmos. To bite the lips. It means that you aren’t really saying what you mean, but people will get your point. I invented it, Bartholomew named it.”

“Well, if the village idiot named it, I’m sure it’s a good thing.”

“There you go, you got it.”

“Got what?”

“Sarcasm.”

“No, I meant it.”

“Sure you did.”

“Is that sarcasm?”

“Irony, I think.”

“What’s the difference?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea.”

“So you’re being ironic now, right?”

“No, I really don’t know.”

“Maybe you should ask the idiot.”

“Now you’ve got it.”

“What?”

“Sarcasm.”

The above looneytoon conversation was taken from the novel Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore. And no, I have not read it, therefore cannot recommend it, and don’t know who “the idiot I is referred to above.

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This initially started out as a few paragraphs intended to be appended to another article and then grew into this because of the curse of the research urge and the availability of so much information through the internet. It was inspired by a quotation from Dostoevsky, which isn’t even on this page, although it will be in Part 2 . . . 

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