As I was attempting to do my grad school homework and was diligently pondering the conceptual model of FRBR, an irrelevant thought occurred to me, and the thought was this: is sarcasm universal or cultural? Somehow, it seems like a specifically modern-American idea that you can communicate effectively by saying something you don’t mean in an unkind tone of voice.

Mark TwainBut that apparently isn’t really the case; sarcasm makes an appearance in plenty of older and non-American writings. Since Mark Twain was fairly renowned for his sarcasm, I feel that it is necessary to mention him here, even though he doesn’t help me make my point because he was American. To give a second example, even though it’s so obvious that it sadly demonstrates my laziness in writing this blog post, Shakespeare’s plays contain a good deal of sarcasm. And Shakespeare didn’t invent sarcasm either; it seems to have always been around. After remembering that even the ancient Hebrew people were sarcastic, (“Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” Exodus 14:11) I decided to find the first Biblical example of sarcasm. It appears to be Genesis 4:9, when Abel says, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” I suppose one could debate whether or not that’s sarcasm, but I think it counts. Anyway, the relevant point here is that it’s fairly obvious that sarcasm has been around for a while and that it isn’t specific to a given culture or to a given worldview.

I suppose that the original question isn’t very specific, because the definition of sarcasm isn’t very straightforward. The most basic description of sarcasm is more or less what I said earlier: saying something you don’t mean in an unkind tone of voice. A fairly obvious example is saying, “Yeah, right” in response to a statement that you don’t believe. Sarcasm often is used to insult someone, by saying something that would otherwise be a compliment for the sake of pointing out that it isn’t accurate. An example would be to say, “Well, that was smart!” when somebody makes a mistake.

Doctor Horrible's Sing Along Blog sarcasmAccording to this definition, sarcasm is essentially a low form of irony. I would describe irony as a literary or rhetorical device that makes a point or conveys humor by expressing an implied meaning that is directly contrary to the literal surface meaning. (It is perhaps necessary to point out that the words “irony” and “ironic” are used in many different ways, and it is not necessarily the case that only one of these meanings is correct.) As a form of humor, it is generally fairly subtle. I would argue that this is connected to the difference between irony and sarcasm; irony is intelligent because it involves the artful balance of two conflicting meanings, the surface meaning and the intended meaning. When someone makes a sarcastic remark, though, they don’t intend for anyone to even notice that there is a surface meaning. The implied negativity is meant to be conveyed without the literal meaning being acknowledged, and the remark is therefore lacking in the clever little play on language and meaning that is characteristic of irony. Another distinction between sarcasm and irony, which is probably a little more valid because I didn’t just make it up myself, is that sarcasm is directed at a person, while irony addresses a situation. (This is the line drawn by researchers Melanie Glenwright and Penny Pexman, who performed research on children’s ability to distinguish between sarcasm and irony. The abstract can be found here) Basically, according to either of these distinctions, irony is okay and sarcasm is mean.

I defend this distinction based upon the etymology of the word “sarcasm.” It didn’t exist in English until the late 17th century, but it originates from the Greek σαρκασμος, which is the noun-ified version of a verb that literally means “strip off the flesh.” (This information comes from the Online Etymology Dictionary, but I would like to add the fact that the root word is σαρξ, which means flesh, just so that I can show off the fact that I do happen to know some useful information offhand without having to consult the internet for everything.) Evidentially, throughout the evolution of the Greek language and its influence on the Latin language, “sarcasmus” came to refer to sneering mockery. The word worked its way into the English language in the 1600s, and because of its origin, it necessarily carries the connotation of verbal cruelty.

In fact, many remarks can be classified as sarcasm that actually are literal rather than ironic-ish. I had a couple examples of literal sarcastic quotations at hand, but I took out that paragraph because I thought that the sarcasm of those remarks was debatable. (My favorite was “Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”- Mark Twain) I got them from internet lists of famous sarcastic quotes, so it would appear that, despite my degree of disagreement, they have been thus classified. In each case, they were actually pretty funny, which I guess replaces the ironic-ish nature that is characteristic of most sarcastic dialogue.

Big Bang Theory sarcasm signThis relates to something else I have noticed, which is that sarcasm is very different in writing than in conversation. Because sarcasm can be used as a literary device, it’s more acceptable and less insulting when used in writing. I have noticed that I often post sarcastic things on this blog, and I am okay with that even though I dislike sarcasm in “real life” and try to avoid using it. There’s a big difference between using sarcasm to make a point that you’ve already thought about before you put it where people can see it, and using sarcasm to insult or criticize someone because sarcastic words sprang to your mind more quickly than anything else did. In written or online correspondence, which is the overlap between writing and talking, sarcasm can be very problematic because it is difficult for the reader to identify sarcasm. For this reason, sarcasm should be avoided in a letter or on the internet, unless the context makes the sarcasm extremely obvious. (I am in the habit of putting *sarcasm alert* in front of anything sarcastic that I say on facebook. That probably looks kind of silly to some people, but it’s my opinion that people shouldn’t ever be sarcastic online unless they make it blatantly obvious.)

Essentially, I think that what distinguishes sarcasm as a valid rhetorical tactic from sarcasm as a nasty and uncalled-for habit is whether or not the sarcastic statement was spontaneous. If someone says something sarcastic because they’re frustrated or angry, it’s just an automatic response to negative emotion, and is in no way thoughtful or thought-provoking. Its use is comparable to habitual impulsive cursing. But if someone says something sarcastic after having considered multiple ways of making the same point, they have made an intelligent choice about how best to communicate a certain thought. In that case, sarcasm is not just an empty insult meant to metaphorically tear someone’s flesh; it really is a form of irony that is being used to serve a purpose.