There are many ways one can go about learning about a literary topic, but none can compete with the simplicity and effectiveness of learning about the definition of the terminology that describes the topic, and the origins of those words. Sarcasm is no different; in fact, it has a more interesting etymological origin than most words.
Sarcasm: Definition & Etymology
Sarcasm is the use of mockery, derision, or condescension to deliver an ironic statement. The impact of sarcasm is dependent on not only the inflections within the voice of the speaker who intends to be sarcastic, but also the context in which the words are delivered.
Etymologically speaking, the word sarcasm originates from the Greek word sarx or sark (meaning flesh), and reached its current form in the mid 16th century, from the French sarcasme.
As you can see, despite its reputation, and current pedagogical meaning, sarcasm can claim a much more tender origin.
Recognizing & Understanding Sarcasm
Most people assume they know what sarcasm is and that they can recognize it in conversations, and exchanges, but a 2006 study1 published contends that the assumption is incorrect. The study used a self assessment questionnaire where respondents were to include a sarcastic statement they had made in recent memory. Out of 218 participants, 25% did not complete this portion of the questionnaire, suggesting that they did not use sarcasm. But the more interesting portion of the data is that 55% of the participants included examples which were not at all sarcastic. For example, ...
- "You really need to stop letting things blow your head up because you're not that cute"
- "I coach a girls' softball team and during a game I yelled at a girl jogging to the base, 'My grandmother can run faster than that.'"
So there is a better than 50% chance that you do not understand and would not be able to successfully recognize sarcasm, yet you believe that you can. Since the majority of people either do not use sarcasm or do not understand what sarcasm is, this portion of the site is especially important.
I have developed the most basic explanation of what sarcasm is, which should hopefully help you, the reader of this indispensable blog, to get a better grasp of sarcasm.
Sarcasm is when a comment, response, retort, or verbal attack is delivered in a manner inconsistent with its intended meaning, while at the same time reassuring the recipient if the words are taken literally and without appreciating the context and spirit in which they are delivered.
So it seems that the reason why a majority of people cannot recognize sarcasm is because they are unable to see past the superficial meaning of the words being spoken, and get to the true intended meaning of a sarcastic remark.
Sarcasm is intellectually challenging language, so perhaps it should be no surprise that the majority of people, the hoi polloi as it were, are not able to appreciate the nuances of a sarcastic remark. So what does this all mean?
Well, it basically means that even if I was to delve deep into what sarcasm is, and how to recognize it, I would be wasting my time in the most terrible way possible.
1. Patricia Rockwell (2006). "Yeah, right!": A Linguistic Analysis of Self-reported Sarcastic Messages and Their Contexts. Presented to the Language and Social Interaction Division of the Southern States Communication Association at the annual convention, Dallas, TX.
Scientific & Psychological Studies
There are a multitude of scientific and psychological studies about sarcasm, and the way the human brain processes and understands sarcasm. At the most basic physiological level, the brain handles sarcastic speech as such:
- The left hemisphere of the brain of the listener captures and interprets the literal meaning of the words spoken.
- The frontal lobe and right hemisphere, in contrast, try to process the social context, the possible intentions, and bind that with the emotional state of the speaker.
- In the final stage, the right ventromedial prefrontal cortex marries the literal and intended (as it was interpreted by the listener) meaning, and based on past experience, and current emotional and social condition of the participants determines whether or not the speech is in fact sarcasm.
So as you can see, this is a very simple process, and only unattainable by the simplest of simpletons, but of course you, my readers, do not need to worry about that. How likely could it be that you are in the majority?
Sarcasm vs Irony (vs Satire)
Irony is discussed at length elsewhere on this site, but in order to highlight the differences between irony and sarcasm it is necessary to provide a basic overview of what irony is. The term irony is used to describe a situation, event, occurrence, or saying that is the opposite of what one might normally expect in light of a given situation. For example, it is ironic that people tend to look for the parking spot nearest their gym when arriving to exercise (e.g. walk on a treadmill).
Sarcasm, on the other hand, is a verbal expression of derision worded in a manner that pokes fun of something or someone by highlighting the absurdity of a given situation or saying (e.g. "Look, there is a parking spot right next to the gym entrance. I know you are in no mood to walk to the treadmills.")
So what is satire? Again, there is a comprehensive section dedicated to satire, but since I have painted myself into a corner with the heading of this section, I will provide a brief explanation:
Satire is the use of irony (in case of writing), sarcasm (in case of speech and writing) to expose, and criticize persons, situations, organizations, political figures, government, and the like. Satire is most often used to point out absurd laws, political wrangling, politicians, or governments.
Sarcastic People & Fictional Characters
It might be helpful for the uninitiated to find modern-day examples of sarcasm, and satire to understand the nuances of this art. So head on to your favorite search engine and search for the following people and shows: John Stewart and The Daily Show, or Stephen Colbert and The Colbert Report. Neither of these shows are on air with the aforementioned hosts, so you will have to settle for old clips of these highly influential shows. Additionally, if you are looking for some literary figures who utilized irony, sarcasm, and satire, head on to the sarcastic quotes page and enjoy a read.