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Sarcasm is "a sharp, bitter, or cutting expression or remark; a bitter gibe or taunt",[1] usually conveyed through irony or understatement.[2] Most authorities distinguish sarcasm from irony;[3] however, others argue that sarcasm may or often does involve irony[4] or employs ambivalence.[5]


Origin of the term

The word comes from the Greek σαρκασμός (sarkasmos) which is taken from the word σαρκάζειν meaning "to tear flesh, gnash the teeth, speak bitterly".[1]

It is first recorded in English in 1579, in an annotation to The Shepheardes Calender by Edmund Spenser: October:

Tom piper) An Ironicall [Sarcasmus], spoken in derision of these rude wits, whych make more account of a ryming rybaud,[6] then of skill grounded upon learning and iudgment.

Usage describes the use of sarcasm thus:

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, as in "What a fine musician you turned out to be!", "It's like you're a whole different person now...", and "Oh... Well then thanks for all the first aid over the years!" or it may be used in the form of a direct statement, "You couldn't play one piece correctly if you had two assistants." The distinctive quality of sarcasm is present in the spoken word and manifested chiefly by vocal intonation ...[7]

Hostile, critical comments may be expressed in an ironic way, such as saying "don't work too hard" to a lazy worker. The use of irony introduces an element of humour which may make the criticism seem more polite and less aggressive. Sarcasm can frequently be unnoticed in print form, oftentimes requiring the intonation or tone of voice to indicate the quip.[citation needed]


Understanding the subtlety of this usage requires second-order interpretation of the speaker's intentions; different parts of the brain must work together to understand sarcasm. This sophisticated understanding can be lacking in some people with certain forms of brain damage, dementia and autism (although not always),[8] and this perception has been located by MRI in the right parahippocampal gyrus.[9][10] Research has shown that people with damage in the prefrontal cortex have difficulty understanding non-verbal aspects of language like tone, Richard Delmonico, a neuropsychologist at the University of California, Davis, told an interviewer.[11] Such research could help doctors distinguish between different types of neurodegenerative diseases, such as frontotemporal dementia and Alzheimer's disease, according to David Salmon, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego.[11]

In William Brant's Critique of Sarcastic Reason, sarcasm is hypothesized to develop as a cognitive and emotional tool that adolescents use in order to test the borders of politeness and truth in conversation. Sarcasm recognition and expression both require the development of understanding forms of language, especially if sarcasm occurs without a cue or signal (e.g., a sarcastic tone or rolling the eyes). Sarcasm is argued to be more sophisticated than lying because lying is expressed as early as the age of three, but sarcastic expressions take place much later during development (Brant, 2012). According to Brant (2012, 145-6), sarcasm is

(a) form of expression of language often including the assertion of a statement that is disbelieved by the expresser (e.g., where the sentential meaning is disbelieved by the expresser), although the intended meaning is different from the sentence meaning. The recognition of sarcasm without the accompaniment of a cue develops around the beginning of adolescence or later. Sarcasm involves the expression of an insulting remark that requires the interpreter to understand the negative emotional connotation of the expresser within the context of the situation at hand. Irony, contrarily, does not include derision, unless it is sarcastic irony. The problems with these definitions and the reason why this dissertation does not thoroughly investigate the distinction between irony and sarcasm involves the ideas that: (1) people can pretend to be insulted when they are not or pretend not to be insulted when they are seriously offended; (2) an individual may feel ridiculed directly after the comment and then find it humorous or neutral thereafter; and (3) the individual may not feel insulted until years after the comment was expressed and considered.

Cultural perspectives on sarcasm vary widely with more than a few cultures and linguistic groups finding it offensive to varying degrees. Thomas Carlyle despised it: "Sarcasm I now see to be, in general, the language of the devil; for which reason I have long since as good as renounced it".[12] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, recognized in it a cry of pain: Sarcasm, he said, was "usually the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people when the privacy of their soul is coarsely and intrusively invaded."[13] RFC 1855, a collection of guidelines for Internet communications, includes a warning to be especially careful with it as it "may not travel well". A professional translator has advised that international business executives "should generally avoid sarcasm in intercultural business conversations and written communications" because of the difficulties in translating sarcasm[14]

Vocal indication

In English, sarcasm in amateur actors is often telegraphed with kinesic/prosodic cues[15] by speaking more slowly and with a lower pitch. Similarly, Dutch uses a lowered pitch; sometimes to such an extent that the expression is reduced to a mere mumble. But other research shows that there are many ways that real speakers signal sarcastic intentions. One study found that in Cantonese, sarcasm is indicated by raising the fundamental frequency of one's voice.[16]

Sarcasm punctuation

Though in the English language there is no standard accepted method to denote irony or sarcasm in written conversation, several forms of punctuation have been proposed. Among the oldest and frequently attested are the percontation point—furthered by Henry Denham in the 1580s—and the irony mark—furthered by Alcanter de Brahm in the 19th century. Both of these marks were represented visually by a ⸮ backwards question mark (unicode U+2E2E). A more recent example is the snark mark. Each of these punctuation marks are primarily used to indicate that a sentence should be understood at a second level. A bracketed exclamation point or question mark as well as scare quotes are also sometimes used to express irony or sarcasm.

In certain Ethiopic languages, sarcasm and unreal phrases are indicated at the end of a sentence with a sarcasm mark called temherte slaq, a character that looks like an inverted exclamation point ¡.[17]

In subtitling for the hearing impaired, sarcasm and irony is often shown by the use of the "(!)" icon.[18]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Oxford English Dictionary
  2. ^ Boxer, D. (2002). "4 - 'Yeah right:' sociolinguistic functions of sarcasm in classroom discourse". Applying Sociolinguistics: Domains and Face-to-Face Interaction. John Benjamins Publications. p. 100. ISBN 978-90-272-1850-6. "Only people can be sarcastic, whereas situations are ironic."
  3. ^ Partridge, Eric (1969). Usage and Abusage: A Guide to Good English. Penguin Press. ISBN 0-393-31709-9. "Irony must not be confused with sarcasm, which is direct: sarcasm means precisely what it says, but in a sharp, caustic, ... manner."
  4. ^ Fowler, Henry Watson (1950). A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press. "Sarcasm does not necessarily involve irony. But irony, or the use of expressions conveying different things according as they are interpreted, is so often made the vehicle of sarcasm ... The essence of sarcasm is the intention of giving pain by (ironical or other) bitter words"
  5. ^ Rockwell, P. A. (2006). Sarcasm and Other Mixed Messages: The Ambiguous Ways People Use Language. Edwin Mellen Press. ISBN 978-0-7734-5917-5.
  6. ^ rybaud: ribald.
  7. ^ "Irony". Dictionary.
  8. ^ Shamay-Tsoory, Simone G.; Tomer, R.; Aharon-Peretz, J. (2005). "The Neuroanatomical Basis of Understanding Sarcasm and Its Relationship to Social Cognition". Neuropsychology 19 (3): 288–300. doi:10.1037/0894-4105.19.3.288. PMID 15910115.
  9. ^ Hurley, Dan (June 3, 2008), The Science of Sarcasm (Not That You Care), New York Times,
  10. ^ Slap, J. W. (1966). "On Sarcasm". The Psychoanalytic Quarterly 35: 98–107.
  11. ^ a b Singer, Emily (23 May 2005). "Understanding Sarcasm is a Complex Business". New Scientist. Retrieved October 3, 2012.
  12. ^ Carlyle, Thomas (Originally published in 1833-34 in Fraser's Magazine). Sartor Resartus.
  13. ^ Dostoyevsky, Fyodor (originally published 1864.). Notes from Underground.
  14. ^ Wooten, Adam (Sept. 9 2011). "International Business: Sarcasm is never lost in translation: yeah, right!". Deseret News. Retrieved 10 November 2012.
  15. ^ Kinesic/prosodic cues are among five cues to sarcasm's presence noted by Diana Boxer, 2002:100; the other cues are counter-factual statements, extreme exaggeration, tag questions, and direct cues.
  16. ^ Cheang, H. S.; Pell, M. D. (2009). "Acoustic markers of sarcasm in Cantonese and English". Journal of the Acoustic Society of America 126 (3): 1394–1405. doi:10.1121/1.3177275. PMID 19739753.
  17. ^ "A Roadmap to the Extension of the Ethiopic Writing System Standard Under Unicode and ISO-10646" (pdf). 15th International Unicode Conference. p. 6. Retrieved 22 January 2011.
  18. ^ "Guidance on Standards for Subtitling". ITC Guidance on Public Consultation: Codes & Guidance Notes. ITC. Retrieved 10 November 2012.

^ Partridge, E. (1969). Usage and Abusage: A Guide to Good English. Penguin Press. ISBN 0-393-31709-9. "Irony must not be confused with sarcasm..."

Brant, William. (2012). Critique of Sarcastic Reason: The Epistemology of the Cognitive Neurological Ability Called “Theory of Mind” and Deceptive Reasoning. Südwestdeutscher Verlag für Hochschulschriften. Saarbrücken, Germany.

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