caustic sarcasm ain’t the same thing as thoughtful irony

Es­ti­mated reading time is 7 min­utes.

IN RECENT CONVERSATIONS and in reading ar­ti­cles, blogs, and com­ments on the in­ternet, I hear the word ‘sar­casm’ used in­ter­change­ably with ‘irony.’ I point out that irony ain’t the same as sar­casm, which re­quires a caustic in­tent. Since we are now at a time when everyone thinks them­selves as right as the next guy and no one likes their delu­sions chal­lenged, I don’t think I make much headway.

While there are sev­eral mean­ings and uses for the word irony, for this ar­ticle the de­f­i­n­i­tion is “the use of words to ex­press some­thing other than and es­pe­cially the op­po­site of the lit­eral meaning.” (Merriam-Webster) 1


Sar­casm, a caustic ut­ter­ance de­signed to give pain, is not the same as irony, al­though the can two overlap.


Ac­cording to Merriam-Webster, 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.” 2

So when you do some­thing re­ally bone-headed, and your best friend quips, “Well, you’re in fine form today,” he is being hu­mor­ously ironic.

On the other hand, if your arch nemesis hap­pens to ob­serve the same boner and ob­serves, “Not the brightest crayon in the box now, are we?” then he is being sar­castic. 3

This is not to say that irony cannot be used de­ri­sively, or even sarcastically—the two can overlap.

Still, to know how and when and why to use which, you need to what each means.

And, frankly, it’s easier to keep the two in sep­a­rate com­part­ments of your mind.


Caustic cartoon about Trumps' sarcasm by John Darkow for The Columbia Daily Tribune.

Car­toon by John Darkow for The Co­lumbia Daily Tribune.

Sarcasm works best when spoken

Sar­casm is not irony and it is not meant for mere verbal ban­tering. Irony is speaking or writing words that mean the op­po­site of what you think, often with a hu­morous or rhetor­ical in­tent. “Irony must not be con­fused with sar­casm, which is di­rect: sar­casm means pre­cisely what it says, but in a sharp, caustic manner.” 4

Sar­casm usu­ally works best when spoken: most of us know when an­other is being sar­castic when speaking to us. Ex­cep­tions exist, no­tably people with As­perg­er’s syn­drome and Sheldon Cooper (see below). Sar­casm does not trans­late as well to the printed page.

As sar­casm is often based on in­flec­tion, it is also of the mo­ment: it trans­lates poorly in retelling. Sar­casm usu­ally re­quires con­text for it to be both ef­fec­tive and rec­og­niz­able as sar­casm. This has been the topic of research:

“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) 5

Now that that’s squared up, we can move on to the use of sar­casm ef­fec­tively in in­ef­fec­tively in movies and on television!


Caustic: poster for the original 1936 movie "Mr Deeds Goes To Town."

A poster for Mr Deeds Goes To Town back in the day when an artist was hired to paint an image for the poster. Here, the ren­di­tion of Jean Arthur vaguely re­sem­bles her but the guy in the upper right doesn’t look at all like Gary Cooper.

Hollywood and sarcasm

In a piece ti­tled “10 Sar­castic Movie Pricks You Can’t Help But Love,” David Hynes writes, “cer­tain char­ac­ters exude a rasping, ironic type of wit. What’s more, they are ab­solutely hilarious-fully-formed, multi-dimensional char­ac­ters who leap of out the screen and treat the viewer to howling gags and hi­lar­ious wit­ti­cisms.” His se­lec­tions are:

10. Alan Rickman, Die Hard
 9. Patrick Batemen, Amer­ican Psycho
 8. An­thony Hop­kins, The Si­lence Of The Lambs
 7. Bill Lum­bergh, Of­fice Space
 6. Jack Nicholson, As Good As It Gets
 5. Peter Ca­paldi, In The Loop
 4. Peter Sellers, Dr. Strangelove
 3. Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
 2. Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski
 1. R. Lee Ermey, Full Metal Jacket

Jack Nicholson as the mis­an­thropic Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets is so sarcastic—so damn nasty and self-absorbed—it is dif­fi­cult to watch the movie and not wonder how he sur­vived that far into his life with his teeth in­tact and bones unbroken!

Alan Rickman holds a par­tic­u­larly well-entrenched spot in my heart for his roles uti­lizing sar­casm. Fol­lowing Die Hard, he por­trayed the down­right vi­cious Aus­tralian ranch-owner El­liot Marston in Quigley Down Under (1990) op­po­site good-guy Tom Sel­leck in one of his best roles.

An­other glimpse at film sar­casm is in Frank Capra’s 1936 classic Mr. Deeds Goes To Town. In one scene, Gary Cooper, ut­terly en­am­ored of Jean Arthur, is having dinner with her in an up­scale restau­rant that caters to the literati.

The couple are in­vited to the table of a group of pub­lished au­thors, each as com­fort­able in the world of so­ciety as in their writing quar­ters. Deeds is un­aware that he has been in­vited so that these men of letters—several deep in their cups—can poke fun at him as a country bumpkin.

Deeds is a “poet” spe­cial­izing in made-to-order greeting card verse, a vo­ca­tion in which he takes pride. Their banter with him is point­edly sar­castic, but being a small-towner, he is at first obliv­ious to their be­lit­tling. He fi­nally catches on and over­re­acts. But I won’t spoil that scene for you—find the movie and watch it!


Photo of Matthew Perry, who played Chandler Bing on FRIENDS, where he tried to be caustic but was usually pathetic.

Per­haps the most pop­ular sar­castic char­acter in the his­tory of Amer­ican tele­vi­sion was Chan­dler Bing of Friends. As he was por­trayed by Matthew Perry, Bing’s sar­casm was often so poorly con­ceived and ex­e­cuted it just made him look pitiful—which didn’t stop the beau­tiful Monica Geller (Courteney Cox) from falling in love with him.

Sarcasm and television

Sev­eral char­ac­ters in suc­cessful tele­vi­sion se­ries are noted for their sar­casm, my fa­vorites being Chan­dler Bing and Gre­gory House. The hap­less Bing may qualify as the Least Ef­fec­tive Use of Sar­casm by a Leading Char­acter in a Tele­vi­sion Sitcom Award! As bril­liantly por­trayed by Matthew Perry in Friends, Bing was per­haps the most in­ef­fec­tual char­acter on television.

For the stag­ger­ingly in­se­cure Chan­dler, sar­casm was his first line of de­fense. His sar­casm is childish and de­fen­sive was rarely more de­bil­i­tating than a paper cut.

Sar­casm was used much more dev­as­tat­ingly by Dr. Gre­gory House in House. The role was played by Hugh Laurie, who made the testi­ness and nas­ti­ness of the doctor seem so nat­ural it’s hard to image the man isn’t like that in “real life”!


The fun­niest use of sar­casm on tele­vi­sion today is on The Big Bang Theory, where Shel­don’s in­ability to grasp sar­casm is hilarious.


House is so awful as a human being that many people couldn’t watch the show! He got away with his end­less foul­ness be­cause of his bril­liance in di­ag­nosing con­di­tions in his pa­tients that es­caped other doc­tors. His sar­casm is tol­er­ated be­cause he and his team saved dozens of pa­tients a year that would have died in any other hospital.

The fun­niest use of sar­casm on tele­vi­sion is on The Big Bang Theory, where Dr. Sheldon Cooper (Jim Par­sons) has an IQ out of reach of 99% of hu­manity, but he also has an Asperger-like in­ability to grasp the most common so­cial con­ven­tion. A big one is sar­casm, which he rarely un­der­stands but is a cause for no­tice when he does ‘get it.’

Both his room­mate and best friend Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Leonard’s girl­friend Penny (Kaley Cuoco) try to ed­u­cate Sheldon, pointing out when sar­casm is being em­ployed against him. As the se­ries pro­gresses, Sheldon gets better at de­ducing the use of sar­casm, and even tries to wield it on others oc­ca­sion­ally. The sar­casm issue is now a long-running joke in the long-running show.

Sar­casm is a bitter ut­ter­ance de­signed to give pain and is not the same as irony. Click To Tweet

caricature of the often caustic Sheldon Cooper and the often apologetic Leonard Hofstadter from "The Big Bang Theory."

HEADER IMAGE: The image at the top of this page is a fab­u­lous car­i­ca­ture of Sheldon “Green Lantern” Cooper (Jim Par­sons) and Leonard “Sar­casm” Hof­s­tadter (Johnny Galecki) for the tele­vi­sion se­ries The Big Bang Theory. De­spite his lofty IQ, Sheldon has dif­fi­culty grasping cer­tain so­cial forms, no­tably sar­casm. Leonard will hold up signs alerting his friend to its pres­ence when it’s being used against him—even if it’s Leonard being sarcastic.

Fi­nally, the piece above was orig­i­nally pub­lished here as two sep­a­rate ar­ti­cles in 2013, sar­casm is not syn­ony­mous with ei­ther irony or ridicule (part 1)” and “sar­casm is not syn­ony­mous with ei­ther irony or ridicule (part 2).” I have ex­cised about one-third of the text, rewrote the rest, changed the type­face from san serf to serif, and added images.



1   Irony as a lit­erary de­vice is a dif­ferent critter en­tirely, where it in­volves a “dif­fer­ence or con­trast be­tween ap­pear­ance and reality—that is a dis­crep­ancy be­tween what ap­pears to be true and what re­ally is true. Irony ex­poses and un­der­scores a con­trast be­tween: what is and what seems to be; what is and what ought or be; what is and what one wishes to be; and what is and what one ex­pects to be.” (So­gang Uni­ver­si­ty’s Eng­lish Re­source Center)

2   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)

3 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.”

4   Quote in that para­graph from Eric Par­tridge, Usage And Abusage: A Guide To Good English.

5   From In­ves­ti­gating the Nec­es­sary Com­po­nents of a Sar­castic Con­text, the title for the paper of Camp­bell’s re­search “de­signed to in­ves­ti­gate the con­tex­tual com­po­nents uti­lized to convey sar­castic verbal irony, testing whether the­o­ret­ical com­po­nents deemed as nec­es­sary for cre­ating a sense of irony are, in fact, necessary.”


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Lovely elu­ci­da­tion of a problem I have noted my­self all across so­cial media.

I think JIm Palmer should be JIm Par­sons (to­ward the end there)...and I re­ally wish I could have come up with some way to put that ei­ther iron­i­cally or sarcastically....but it was be­yond my capacity!

I def­i­nitely had fun in my head switching their places...and, per­haps thank­fully, I didn’t even re­member the un­der­wear ads!

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