Sarcasm is “a sharp, bitter, or cutting expression or remark; a bitter gibe or taunt.” While many authors assert that sarcasm involves irony, or employs ambivalence, one author in particular has distinguished sarcasm from irony.
The word comes from the Greek σαρκασμός (sarkasmos) which is taken from the word σαρκάζειν meaning “to tear flesh, bite the lip in rage, sneer”.
It is first recorded in English in 1579, in an annotation to The Shepheardes Calender by Edmund Spenser:
Tom piper, an ironicall Sarcasmus, spoken in derision of these rude wits, whych …
However, the word sarcastic, meaning “Characterized by or involving sarcasm; given to the use of sarcasm; bitterly cutting or caustic,” doesn’t appear until 1695.
Dictionary.com describes the use of irony 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!,” “It’s like you’re a whole different person now…,” and “Oh… Well then thanks for all the first aid over the years!” 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 intonation …
Distinguishing sarcasm from, and referring to the use of irony in sarcasm, Bousfield writes that sarcasm is:
The use of strategies which, on the surface appear to be appropriate to the situation, but are meant to be taken as meaning the opposite in terms offace management. That is, the utterance which appears, on the surface, to maintain or enhance the face of the recipient actually attacks and damages the face of the recipient. … sarcasm is an insincere form of politeness which is used to offend one’s interlocuter.
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 humor which may make the criticism seem more polite and less aggressive. Sarcasm can frequently be unnoticed in print form, oftentimes requiring the intonation or tone of voice to indicate the quip.
Understanding the subtlety of this usage requires second-order interpretation of the speaker’s or writer’s intentions; different parts of the brain must work together to understand sarcasm. This sophisticated understanding can be lacking in some people with certain forms of brain damage, dementia and autism (although not always), and this perception has been located by MRI in the right parahippocampal gyrus. Research has shown that people with damage in the prefrontal cortex have difficulty understanding non-verbal aspects of language like tone, Richard Delmonico, a neuropsychologist at the University of California, Davis, told an interviewer. Such research could help doctors distinguish between different types of neurodegenerative diseases, such as frontotemporal dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, according to David Salmon, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego.
In William Brant’s Critique of Sarcastic Reason, sarcasm is hypothesized to develop as a cognitive and emotional tool that adolescents use in order to test the borders of politeness and truth in conversation. Sarcasm recognition and expression both require the development of understanding forms of language, especially if sarcasm occurs without a cue or signal (e.g., a sarcastic tone or rolling the eyes). Sarcasm is argued to be more sophisticated than lying because lying is expressed as early as the age of three, but sarcastic expressions take place much later during development (Brant, 2012). According to Brant (2012, 145-6), sarcasm is
(a) form of expression of language often including the assertion of a statement that is disbelieved by the expresser (e.g., where the sentential meaning is disbelieved by the expresser), although the intended meaning is different from the sentence meaning. The recognition of sarcasm without the accompaniment of a cue develops around the beginning of adolescence or later. Sarcasm involves the expression of an insulting remark that requires the interpreter to understand the negative emotional connotation of the expresser within the context of the situation at hand. Irony, contrarily, does not include derision, unless it is sarcastic irony. The problems with these definitions and the reason why this dissertation does not thoroughly investigate the distinction between irony and sarcasm involves the ideas that: (1) people can pretend to be insulted when they are not or pretend not to be insulted when they are seriously offended; (2) an individual may feel ridiculed directly after the comment and then find it humorous or neutral thereafter; and (3) the individual may not feel insulted until years after the comment was expressed and considered.
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”. 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.” RFC 1855, a collection of guidelines for Internet communications, includes a warning to be especially careful with it as it “may not travel well.” A professional translator has advised that international business executives “should generally avoid sarcasm in intercultural business conversations and written communications” because of the difficulties in translating sarcasm.