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Sardonicism (from Latin: Risus sardonicus, a grin from spasm of the facial muscles associated with tetanus and other poisonings) is the expression of derision, cynicism or skeptical humor variously through comment, gesture or writing.
The etymology of sardonicism as both a word and concept is uncertain. The Byzantine Greek Suda traces its earliest roots to the notion of grinning (Greek: sairō) in the face of danger, or curling one's lips back at evil. One explanation for a later morph to its more familiar form and connection to laughter (supported by the Oxford English Dictionary) appears to stem from an ancient belief that ingesting the sardonion plant from Sardinia (Greek: Sardō) would result in convulsions resembling laughter and, ultimately, death. In Theory and History of Folklore, Vladimir Propp discusses alleged examples of ritual laughter accompanying death and killing, all involving groups. These he characterized as sardonic laughter.
Among the very ancient people of Sardinia, who were called Sardi or Sardoni, it was customary to kill old people. While killing their old people, the Sardi laughed loudly. This is the origin of notorious sardonic laughter (Eugen Fehrle, 1930), now meaning cruel, malicious laughter. In light of our findings things begin to look different. Laughter accompanies the passage from death to life; it creates life and accompanies birth. Consequently, laughter accompanying killing transforms death into a new birth, nullifies murder as such, and is an act of piety that transforms death into a new life.
A root form first appears in Homer as the Ancient Greek sardánios, Odysseus, smiling "sardonically" when attacked by one of his wife's erstwhile suitors upon his return to Ithaca. From the Greek: sardónios evolved the Latin: sardonius, thence the French: sardonique, and ultimately the familiar English adjectival form, sardonic.
Compare and contrast with Laconic Phrase; the latter shares the brevity, but lacks the bitterness associated with the sardonic form, in modern English usage.
In 2009 scientists at the University of Eastern Piedmont in Italy claimed to have identified hemlock water dropwort (Oenanthe crocata) as the plant responsible for producing the sardonic grin. This plant is the candidate for the "sardonic herb," which was a neurotoxic plant used for the ritual killing of elderly people in pre-Roman Sardinia. When these people were unable to support themselves, they were intoxicated with this herb and then dropped from a high rock or beaten to death.
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