I recently got curious about the history of sarcasm, so I looked up sarcasm in Wikipedia. I was surprised to see that Wikipedia distinguishes between sarcasm and irony (which can refer to many things, but in this context they’re talking about saying the opposite of what you mean), so I checked my dictionary. And I was even more surprised to see this as the first definition of sarcasm:

a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain

The second definition is:

a mode of satirical wit depending for its effect on bitter, caustic, and often ironic language that is usually directed against an individual

(Both from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.)

Wikipedia quotes several other sources along similar lines. For example, here’s an excerpt from

In sarcasm, ridicule or mockery is used harshly, often crudely and contemptuously, for destructive purposes.

And here’s Fowler:

The essence of sarcasm is the intention of giving pain

All of those are very different from the way that I invariably hear the word used. I’ve never heard anyone use the word sarcasm to refer to a cutting insult that does say what it means, whereas I hear the word used all the time to refer to things that aren’t cutting insults. The defining characteristic of sarcasm for me is what Wikipedia and my dictionary are calling irony: that the surface meaning is the opposite of the underlying intended meaning. To me, sarcasm is not inherently or primarily about causing pain.

Here are a couple of examples (added later, after posting), to clarify the distinction I’m making:

  • Say one person says to another, in a biting and nasty tone, “You’re so slow that a snail could beat you in a race.” My dictionary and the other sources quoted above would call that sarcasm, but I wouldn’t.
  • Say it’s raining outside, and one person says to another, in a tone that suggests that they don’t literally mean what they’re saying, “Nice weather we’re having.” My dictionary would say that that’s not sarcasm, because it’s not intended to cut or insult. I would say that it is sarcasm, because it’s a surface meaning that’s the opposite of the underlying intended meaning.

The reason I’m especially bewildered by my dictionary’s definition is that dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive. The dictionary’s definition is supposed to indicate the way that the word is commonly used. But I’ve never seen the word used that way.

So now I’m curious. Do you use the word sarcasm to refer to any cutting insult designed to cause pain, regardless of whether its surface meaning is different from its underlying meaning? Or do you use it to refer to things that appear to say the opposite of what they mean, regardless of whether they’re pain-causing insults? Or do you use it in some other way?

4 Responses to “sarcasm”

  1. Jessica

    I use “sarcastic” to refer to statements that are intended to mean the opposite of their literal meaning, such as the opening phrase in “Oh, great, we’re out of bread again.”
    I’ve heard the word used in the sense of insulting or cynical, but it’s not the meaning that first comes to mind for me. As a teenager, one of my high school friends told me he liked my personality, except for my tendency to be sarcastic. That was the first time I’d heard “sarcasm” used to describe a negative quality. I associate sarcasm with humor, so I view it positively.

  2. Dan P

    I’ve only heard ‘sarcasm’ used to describe statements intended to injure or to express scorn or anger. Secondarily, when I try to think of examples of sarcasm, they usually involve irony, so the two are tied in my mind. However, it’s easy for me to imagine the retort, “sure, you say that now, but when it matters you’ll change your mind,” delivered in a sarcastic tone while keeping its plain meaning.

  3. irilyth

    I’ve also heard from language-meticulous[1] people that irony means what everything thinks sarcasm means, but that’s definitely not how I learned it or use it.

    [1] They’re not pedants, they’re meticulous. :^ )

  4. Jay Scott

    I’ll call something sarcastic only if it has an edge of bitterness or cynicism. The “great, we’re out of bread” example is sarcastic, no matter whether it is implying “and it’s your fault” (an attack) or “that’s just how the world goes” (a cynical comment). “This series is horrible, no good, and very bad. Let’s marathon it right now” is not sarcastic. Groaning at a pun to indicate appreciation is not sarcastic. Ironic seems to me a much more general idea.


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