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Sarcasm is “a sharp, bitter, or cutting expression or remark; a bitter jibe or taunt.” [1] Though irony is usually the immediate context[2] most authorities sharply distinguish sarcasm from irony,[3] however others argue that sarcasm may or often does involve irony[4] or employs ambivalence.[5] Sarcasm has been identified as a possible bullying action.[6]

Origin of the term

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

Tom piper) An Ironicall [Sarcasmus], spoken in derision of these rude wits, whych make more account of a ryming Rybaud,[7] then of skill grounded upon learning and judgment.

It comes from the ancient Greek σαρκάζω (sarkazo) meaning 'to tear flesh' but the ancient Greek word for the rhetorical concept of taunting was instead χλευασμός (chleyasmόs) Sarcasm appears several times in the Old Testament,; for example it seems to underlie the rhetorical questions of Achish, king of Gath::

Lo, you see the man is mad; why then have you brought him to me? Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence?
—I Sam 21:10-15[9]

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!” 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 inflection ...[10]

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, often times requiring the inflection or tone of voice to indicate the quip.


Understanding the subtlety of this usage requires second-order interpretation of the speaker's intentions. This sophisticated understanding can be lacking in some people with certain forms of brain damage, dementia and autism,[11] and this perception has been located by MRI in the right parahippocampal gyrus.[12][13]

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".[14] 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."[15] RFC 850, an email standard, even includes a warning to be especially careful with it as it "may not travel well".

Vocal indication

In English, sarcasm in amateur actors is often telegraphed with kinesic/prosodic cues[16] by speaking more slowly and with a lower pitch. Similarly, Dutch uses a lowered pitch; sometimes to such an extend 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.[17]

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 and/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 ¡.

See also


  1. Oxford English Dictionary
  2. "Only people can be sarcastic, whereas situations are ironic", notes Diana Boxer, 2002. Applying Sociolinguistics: domains and face-to-face interaction, "'Yeah right:' sociolinguistic functions of sarcasm in classroom discourse", p. 100.
  3. Eric Partridge, Usage and Abusage, Penguin, 1969. “Irony must not be confused with sarcasm, which is direct: sarcasm means precisely what it says, but in a sharp, caustic, ... manner."
  4. H.W. Fowler, Modern English Usage, OUP, 1950. “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…”; and “The essence of sarcasm is the intention of giving pain by (ironical or other) bitter words.”
  5. Ambiguities in sarcasm are explored by Patricia Ann Rockwell, Sarcasm and other mixed messages: the ambiguous ways people use language (Edwin Mellen Press) 2006.
  6. Lewis MA Nurse bullying: organizational considerations in the maintenance and perpetration of health care bullying cultures - Journal of Nursing Management 14, Pages 52–58 (2006)
  7. Rybaud: ribald.
  8. Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2008,; (Spenser, Shepheardes Calendar: on-line text of the passage)
  9. Leland Ryken, Jim Wilhoit, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman, Colin Duriez, Douglas Penney, Daniel G. Reid,= (1998), Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, pp. 409, ISBN 9780830814510,
  11. S. G. Shamay-Tsoory, R. Tomer, J. Aharon-Peretz (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,
  12. Dan Hurley (June 3, 2008), The Science of Sarcasm (Not That You Care), New York Times,
  13. J.W.Slap (1966), "On Sarcasm", The Psychoanalytic Quarterly 35: 98–107,
  14. Carlyle, Sartor Resartus.
  15. Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground
  16. 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.
  17. Cheang H.S., Pell M.D.. (2009). "Acoustic markers of sarcasm in Cantonese and English", Journal of the Acoustic Society of America 126(3):1394-405. PMID 19739753

External links

ar:تهكم bs:Sarkazam ca:Sarcasme cs:Sarkasmus da:Sarkasme de:Sarkasmus es:Sarcasmo eo:Sarkasmo fr:Sarcasme gl:Sarcasmo hr:Sarkazam io:Sarkasmo id:Sarkasme it:Sarcasmo he:סרקזם ka:სარკაზმი hu:Szarkazmus mk:Сарказам (стилистика) nl:Sarcasme ja:嫌み no:Sarkasme pt:Sarcasmo ru:Сарказм scn:Sarcàsimu simple:Sarcasm sk:Sarkazmus sr:Сарказам fi:Sarkasmi sv:Sarkasm uk:Сарказм..

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