Sarcasm - The Definitive Guide to Sarcasm: Etymology, History & Lore

sarcasm (noun) sär,kazəm sar·casm The use of irony to mock, taunt, ridicule, or show derision from the French sarcasm (16th century), or via late Latin (Greek) sarcasmos, from Greek sarkazein (tear flesh), in late Greek 'speak bitterly' (from sarx, sark - 'flesh') [Oxford English Dictionary]

For a more in-depth look continue to the Definition of Sarcasm.

Sarcasm is defined in The Oxford Universal Dictionary, published in 1933, as "a sharp, bitter, or cutting expression or remark; a bitter gibe or taunt." More contemporary definitions often emphasize the false, mocking praise and verbal irony of sarcasm rather than its malicious or scornful intent. However, the etymology of the word "sarcasm" clearly indicates that wounding was--at least historically--the primary point. The word comes from the late Latin sarcasmus, derived from the Greek sarkasmos ("a sneer, jest, taunt, mockery") and sarkazein ("to speak bitterly, sneer"--literally, "to strip off the flesh" or "to bite the lips in rage").

The History of Sarcasm (in English)

The word sarcasm--or more specifically, one of its variants--first entered the English language in 1579, in The Shepheardes Calender by the poet Edmund Spenser. It was used not in a poem, but within a critical commentary contained in Spenser's work that was written by an author known only as E.K., in order to explain the line "Tom Piper makes us better melody," by which Spenser meant to denounce a foolish contempt of poetry. Or as E.K.'s text explained, "Tom Piper, an ironical sarcasmus, spoken in derision of these rude wits, which make more account of a rhyming ribald, than of skill grounded upon learning and judgment."

In 1619, English satirist Henry Hutton mentions sarcasm as an ironic, stinging form of humor in the first line of his Follie's Anatomie, or, Satyres and Satyricall Epigrams: "Muse, shew the rigour of a satyres art, In harsh sarcasmes, dissonant and smart..."

The word "sarcastic" doesn't appear in English until 1695. It was often mentioned with disapproval. For example, in his The Rambler published on November 26, 1751, Samuel Johnson wrote, "Every one of these virtuosos looked on all his associates as wretches of depraved taste and narrow notions. Their conversation was, therefore, fretful and waspish, their behaviour brutal, their merriment bluntly sarcastick, and their seriousness gloomy and suspicious."

Sarcasm was also criticized from a moral perspective by authors such as Thomas Carlyle in Sartor Resartus (1833-1834). "I, in truth, regarded men with an excess both of love and of fear. The mystery of a Person, indeed, is ever divine, to him that has a sense for the Godlike. Often, notwithstanding, was I blamed, and by half-strangers hated, for my so-called Hardness, my Indifferentism towards men; and the seemingly ironic tone I had adopted, as my favourite dialect in conversation. Alas, the panoply of Sarcasm was but as a buckram case, wherein I had striven to envelop myself; that so my own poor Person might live safe there, and in all friendliness, being no longer exasperated by wounds. 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."

But not all early 19th century authors were so priggish. In his 1815 poem The Lord of the Isles, Sir Walter Scott took a more modern perspective on sarcasm, if not on female behavior:

"Oh, if our Edward knew the change,
How would his busy satire range,
With many a sarcasm varied still,
On woman's wish and woman's will!"

The Lowest Form of Wit?

"Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit." Says who? Oscar Wilde (make sure to enjoy our Oscar Wilde Quotes), if you believe most attributions. But no one's bothered to explain why Wilde--a man who began his prison letter De Profundis by saying his place would be between serial killer of children Gilles de Rais and the Marquis de Sade--would say something so dull and moralistic, even with the addition of the oft-dropped second half: "but the highest form of intelligence." The line clearly lacks the sparkling wit and worldliness typical of Wilde's best quips. More importantly, the quote is not found anywhere in Wilde's writings.

So who said it? The truth is that no one has been able to come up with a plausible or verifiable source for the sarcasm quote. We at the Sarcasm Society think that's because the line was actually altered and taken from another source, one that's easily verified and well-documented and actually condemns another form of humor: the pun.

"Punning is the lowest form of wit" is often erroneously credited to playwright and critic John Dennis (1657-1734), who's famous for storming out of a room and saying, "A man who could make so vile a pun would not scruple to pick a pocket." In the May 11, 1711 edition of The Spectator, British essayist and poet Joseph Addison includes puns in his list of types of "false wit"--but still no "lowest."

Perhaps the first published reference to the pun as a low form of wit was in the first edition of Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828. Webster defined the pun as "an expression in which a word has at once different meanings; an expression in which two different applications of a word present an odd or ludicrous idea; a kind of quibble or equivocation; a low species of wit." Webster's 1828 definition predates Wilde, who lived from 1854 to 1900.

The pun version of the quote pops up in a form similar to its current one on page 54 of Sigmund Freud's 1917 work Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious. Freud writes, "[Puns] are generally counted as the lowest form of wit, perhaps because they are ‘cheapest' and can be formed with the least effort."

The earliest known example of the pun quote in its exact form comes from the 1922 book Heavens by Louis Untermeyer, the 14th U.S. Poet Laureate. "No one disputes the definition: 'Punning is the lowest form of wit.' The axiom is universally applauded, quoted and upheld. The scorn of the pun is common in every civilized country."

Clearly, punners substituted one word for another--since that's all they know how to do--and tried to give the altered "sarcasm" form of the quote an aura of cleverness and historic credibility by attributing it to Oscar Wilde.

Sarcasm and Social Intelligence

Not only is sarcasm not the lowest form of wit, but scientific proof has emerged in the past few years that understanding sarcasm requires social intelligence lacking in people who've suffered damage to a section of the right brain known as the parahippocampal gyrus. Using videotaped exchanges and MRIs of the brain, Katherine P. Rankin, a neuropsychologist and assistant professor in the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco, conducted an Awareness of Social Inference Test to measure the brain reactions of people responding to words that are straightforward on paper but delivered sarcastically. She found that people suffering from a progressive brain disease known as semantic dementia failed to perceive sarcasm.

After presenting her findings at the American Academy of Neurology's annual meeting in 2008, The New York Times reports, Dr. Rankin was asked if a difference in brain areas could explain the inability of people with intact brains to detect sarcasm. "We all have strengths and weaknesses in our cognitive abilities, including our ability to detect social cues," Rankin said. There was no indication of whether people with semantic dementia were able to understand puns.

Since, undoubtedly, some of you will whine about how sarcasm has not been covered comprehensivly enough by the Sarcasm Society, I have taken the liberty to prepared even more for you to read at Understanding Sarcasm