I. What is Sarcasm?
Sarcasm is a form of verbal irony that mocks, ridicules, or expresses contempt. It’s really more a tone of voice than a rhetorical device. You’re saying the opposite of what you mean (verbal irony) and doing it in a particularly hostile tone.
Sarcasm comes from the Greek words “sark” meaning “flesh,” and “asmos” meaning “to tear or rip.” So it literally means “ripping flesh” – a pretty bloody image for a type of speech that we use all the time!
II. Examples of Sarcasm
Oh yes, you’ve been sooooo helpful. Thanks sooooo much for all your heeeelp.
Imagine someone saying this to a customer service agent, drawing out the syllables and maybe rolling their eyes. You’d know pretty quickly that they meant the opposite of what they were saying. That verbal irony plus the mocking or derisive tone makes it sarcasm.
I made the genius choice of selling my car right before I decided to move
Sarcasm doesn’t always have to be vicious or mean. It can also be humorous, playful, or (as in this example) self-deprecating. Again, verbal irony plus the tone of voice makes this sarcasm.
III. The Importance of Sarcasm
Because it’s a tone rather than a rhetorical fact, sarcasm by definition can only be used in dialogue. It would describe a way that one character talks to another. This can have all kinds of effects, but generally it shows that the speaker is being impatient or contemptuous. It’s also a sign of disrespect toward the person being addressed, so the use of sarcasm can provide clues as to the relationship between the two characters.
The broader category of verbal irony has other uses, but sarcasm in particular is purely a quality of a character’s speech, and therefore its function is to reveal aspects of that character’s personality.
Sarcasm can say many different things about a character, depending on the way they use it, but most often sarcastic characters are cynical, slightly bitter, solitary, and perhaps arrogant. Think, for example, of Dr. Cox from Scrubs – he often uses verbal irony to mock other characters in the show, especially the protagonist, J.D. However, like many sarcastic characters, Dr. Cox is more often brutally honest than sarcastic. That is, he doesn’t employ verbal irony at all – he says exactly what he means, which is the opposite of irony. And, as we’ve already seen, if a line is not verbally ironic, then by definition it cannot be sarcastic. But it can still be sardonic and cynical, which are probably the two most common character traits expressed through the use of sarcastic dialogue.
IV. Examples of Sarcasm in Literature
Was there a lack of graves in Egypt, that you took us away to die in the wilderness? (Exodus 14:11)
In one of the earliest examples of sarcasm, one of the Israelites walks up to Moses and poses this sarcastic question. If the Israelites were just going to die in the desert, then what was the point of leaving Egypt in the first place? We can easily imagine the speaker’s tone: irritated, biting, and scornful. And of course he doesn’t actually think that there’s a “lack of graves in Egypt.”
The noble Brutus hath told you Caesar was ambitious: if it were so, it was a grievous fault, and grievously hath Caesar answer’d it. (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar)
Shakespeare imagines Mark Antony delivering a thoroughly sarcastic speech at the funeral of Julius Caesar. He frequently refers to Brutus, Caesar’s murderer, as “noble” and “honorable,” but the content of the speech clearly shows that Mark Antony believes the opposite about Brutus.
V. Examples of Metaphor in Pop Culture
Oh, just get a job? Yeah, why don’t I just strap on my job helmet and squeeze down into a job cannon, and fire off into jobland where jobs grow on jobbies! (Charlie, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia)
When someone tells Charlie that he needs to get a job, he launches into a bitterly sarcastic tirade about the suggestion. He’s trying to emphasize how hard it is to get a job, and he uses this biting tone to mock his friends’ blasé suggestion that all he needs to do is go out and find one.
Truly, you have a dizzying intellect. (Wesley, The Princess Bride)
Wesley famously uses this line to dismiss the intelligence of Vizzini the Sicilian. But Vizzini is so self-involved that he doesn’t even catch the sarcasm, and thinks that Wesley is genuinely complementing him. This reinforces the point of Wesley’s insult.
I take risks, sometimes patients die. But not taking risks causes more patients to die, so I guess my biggest problem is I’ve been cursed with the ability to do the math. (Dr. House, House)
Dr. House is another character who is frequently sardonic, and ocassionally sarcastic. (Like Dr. Cox, his sardonicness usually takes the form of brutal honesty rather than sarcasm.) However, in this line he adds some verbal irony by suggestion that his ability to do the math is a “problem” and a “curse,” which is an ironic reversal of what he really means. Like many of House’s lines, this one uses sarcasm
VI. Related Terms
Verbal irony is one of the components of sarcasm. It just means saying the opposite of what one means. Verbal irony is always a feature of sarcasm.
There is another type of irony, situational irony, which refers to situations that violate our expectations in a humorous or striking way. This is quite different from sarcasm, and only tangentially related to verbal irony.
They sound similar, but don’t confuse the words “sarcastic” and “sardonic.”
- Sarcasm is verbal irony expressed in a biting tone
- Sardonic means “cynical” or “mocking”
So sarcasm is often sardonic – when a character uses sarcasm to mock someone else, it’s a sardonic comment. However, the key difference is that a sardonic comment is not necessarily ironic. It may say exactly what the speaker means, just in a mocking tone. For example:
I did not attend the funeral, but I sent a letter saying I approved of it.(Mark Twain)
This comment by Twain is certainly mocking – it expresses his displasure with the deceased in a pretty biting fashion. But it isn’t ironic, and therefore it’s not sarcasm (it’s much closer to brutal honesty than it is to sarcasm).
Though roughly synonymous with “sardonic,” cynicism is philosophy of life whereas sardonicness is a tone. Cynicism originally meant “appreciating the simple things in life,” but somewhere along the way that definition was swallowed up by a new one. These days, cynicism usually refers to a self-centered and suspicious view of life. Cynical people are deeply suspicious of sentimentality and “positive thinking,”
They tend to be pessimists, narcissists, and loners.
But, despite all these negative connotations of cynical people, they often make for extremely popular television characters. This is probably due to the fact that cynical, sardonic, and sarcastic lines are so good at producing a laugh.
Sarcasm is often used to ridicule or mock people, either jokingly or in earnest. In these situations, the sarcasm is also a form of satire. Satire is the use of verbal irony, humor, or charicature to make fun of a person or institution, epseically in a political context. But satire isn’t necessarily a form of sarcasm – there are plenty of ways to make political jokes, for example, without using verbal irony.