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

Satire is an indirect form of critique, in that it mocks or attacks an individual or idea by proxy. Satirical speech and literature is generally used to observe and judge the "evils" or morally questionable ideals held by individuals, groups and sometimes entire cultures. The attack itself is derived from what is known as the satirist's social motive--these critiques illustrate what the satirist, within the context of their own world view, believes is "right" based upon what they ridicule as "wrong". Jean Weisgerber's Satire and Irony a Means of Communication states, "Satire is manifestly directed to people. It involves the victim it attacks and the public it tries to persuade, it restores to language its full status as a means of communication, its end is rhetorical." [1]

The purpose of satire is primarily to make the audience aware of the "truth". The satirist makes an argument that relies upon the intellect of the listener to decipher hidden meaning, with the ideal end goal to inform, enlighten, explain and correct the audience. Due to its critical and judging nature, satire is sometimes deemed excessive or in poor taste.

"Satire is unpopular because it is upsetting; instead of healing, it uncovers hidden wounds and leaves it to people to recover their health or to burse the sick. In other words, it is negative rather than positive, for while it makes us aware of some tangible evil, the contrasting good often needs to be further defined and remains in any case a mere idea." [2]

Despite the aggressive, sometimes-personal attacks that are derived from works of satire, it serves a special purpose--catharsis. Satire, particularly in the form of comedy, allows both narrators and audiences to turn outrage, hatred and "other socially unacceptable impulse[s] into socially acceptable and even delightful forms." [3] Neither the victim of the satirist's attack, nor the satirist are subject to physical violence.

History of Satire

The word satire is derived from the Latin word satur, though the word was not used in a critical, literary sense until the Roman rhetorician Quintilian described it as a specific genre of hexameter verse. It was not until the Greek playwright Aristophanes used this form of verse in a series of plays, referred to as "Old Comedy", that satire was used in the fashion we know it today.

Old Comedy was a collection of plays that varied in presentation, depending upon the location that it was being performed, though the troupe remained primarily in ancient Athens. Depending upon current events, political figures and public opinion at the time, their topicality also changed. For instance, at the time that the play The Acharnians was being performed, Athens and Sparta were at war. Aristophanes, in turn, revised his plays to make scathing, satirical jokes about people who would take advantage of the concerned citizens of Athens: political fanatics, false oracles, and war-profiteers.

When the comedy was performed on stage the actors in the troupe would often poke fun at various public officials, consistently comment on or involve the audience, and even parody playwriting and acting itself. In The Knights, Aristophanes transformed the Athenian statesman Cleon into a ridiculous figure of war-mongering and evil, depicting him as a man who would do anything and everything possible in order to maintain his political power. The protagonist of Peace, upon returning from a journey to Olympia, informed the audience that they, "looked like rascals" from his vantage point in the heavens, and that now that he can see them up close they, "look even worse". Old Comedy's focus on local figures and issues immersed the audience in the narrative, while simultaneously mocking it, and effectively illustrated that no one was above foolishness or the mockery it incited. The Roman poets Juvenal and Horace derived further meaning from the term satur, these definitions are still relevant and applicable to the majority of modern day satire.

After the fall of Rome, and before the beginning of the Early Middle Ages, Grecian and Roman satire seemed to disappear from literature and performance. Satire was finally reintroduced into the public sphere around the 12th century, through mocking songs and literature. This period also marked the advent of moral satire, which mocked the un-Christian behavior of certain figures. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is an excellent example of mocking, literary satire.

Though the word satire is derived from the word satur, the Greeks and Romans were not solely responsible for the existence of satire. In fact, different examples of satirical literature and artwork have appeared from as early as 2nd millennium BC. Exploration of Ancient Egyptian archives has turned up a copy of the Papyrus Anastasi, a satirical letter that praises the reader, but then goes on to mock them for their lack of knowledge, understanding and achievements. In the 9th century the Afro-Arab author Jahiz introduced satire through a genre of poetry called hija. In his poems, Jahiz dissected serious thoughts and ideas in the veins of sociology, psychology and anthropology. The Persian author, Abayd Zakani became infamous for his satirical and sexually explicit writings, like Masnavi Mush-O-Gorbeh (Mouse and Cat) and Akhlaq al-Ashraf (Ethics of the Aristocracy).

By the Age of Enlightenment, in the 17th and 18th century, satire had become deeply ingrained in modern society. The rise of partisan politics and conflict between the Whig and Tory parties of the British Parliament fueled the still-growing use of satire as a means of political and social commentary. The Anglo-Irish author, Jonathan Swift, wrote a number of now-famous, satirical essays, pamphlets and novels. Among Swift's more famous works is an essay entitled A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick, or A Modest Proposal for short. In his proposal, Swift outlined a way in which impoverished Irish citizens might earn some money, while feeding the higher classes--sell their children to the rich as fresh meat. This scathing, journalistic satire openly attacked Irish political policies and the overwhelmingly negative attitude towards the Irish poor.

Popular satirical authors of the Victorian era, 1837 to 1901, included Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. Charlie Chaplin's 1940 film The Great Dictator satirized Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. In the 1950s, in the United States, the comedians Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce introduced a new, cynical form of comedy focused on social and political criticism. Using satire, Bruce and Sahl critiqued popular American culture and political narratives.


In recent years, an increasing number of Western television shows have applied varying forms satire to their programs. In the United Kingdom the programs The Now Show, The News Quiz and Have I Got the News for You regularly utilized critical satire, have been on the air since 1998, 1977 and 1990 respectively and still run today. Satire, political and cultural, is welcomed in American media and culture. Television shows and animations like The Colbert Report, The Daily Show, South Park and The Simpsons use satire as their primary means of social and political commentary.

Classifications of Satire

Classification of Satire by Tone

Satire and its forms can be categorized in a number of ways including: classification by tone, by topic and even by medium. As previously mentioned, the term satire was originally derived from satur, defined by Quintilian and performed by the actors of Aristophanes' Old Comedy. Two Roman poets, Juvenal and Horace, were responsible for further defining satirical works by their literary tone.

Uvenalian Satire

The Roman poet Juvenal is credited with the popularization of what is called Juvenalian satire. Juvenalian satire is characterized by its deliberate, abrasive and often-personal critique of an individual or ideal. This form of satire is generally utilized by writers or speakers who see their target as actively harmful to society, or even outright "evil".

Juvenal satirically attacked many of the institutions and public figures in Roman society, highlighting the contradictions or flaws in an opponent's argument through exaggeration and irony, in much the same vein as many of the political pundits of today.

American author Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451 utilizes Juvenalian satire to critique several things, like the rise of television entertainment, growing ad industry, and the censorship of American literature and media. Bradbury's novel is set in an alternate world where the government has made possessing or reading books illegal, as they might offend people or drive them to make "dangerous" decisions. "A book is a loaded gun in the house next door.... Who knows who might be the target of a well-read man?" Special teams are sent to burn any found book at 451 degrees Fahrenheit.


The government of Bradbury's book controls its people by means of excessive television programming without scripts or stories-people shouting and crying, random images and sounds. As citizens view more and more mindless television programming, they begin to care less about knowledge. Traditional schooling is dissolved and replaced with sports programs, "With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word 'intellectual,' of course, became the swear word it deserved to be."

Horatian Satire

Horatian satire, named for the 1st century Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus (or Horace), approaches satirical observations, literature and performance in a humorous and lighthearted manner. Where Juvenalian satire focuses on specific verbal or literary attacks on corrupt ideals or individuals, Horatian satire can act as a gentler alternative, while still making commentary on what the satirist believes is "good". Horace coined a series of phrases, including carpe diem, and his book Ars Poetica was esteemed as the definitive source of poetic form until the mid-19th century. In Ars Poetica, Horace wrote a number of satirical, though lighthearted, poems poking fun at the philosophical and political beliefs of both Greece and Rome.

Even today, Horatian satire has widespread influence in Early Modern and Modern Western literature, performance and art. Benjamin Franklin wrote several works of prose examining the political and social issues of his time in the form of Horatian satire. Amongst Franklin's more popular works was Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America. In the very first line Franklin shocks readers with an observation about the not-so-different cultures of Native Americans and colonists, without aiming to accuse or attack a specific individual or ideal. "Savages we call them because their Manners differ from ours, which we think the Perfection of Civility, they think the same of theirs." [4]

Mark Twain's book Advice to Youth, utilizes Horatian satire through his descriptions of the advice and coaching given to young men through comedy. In this passage, Twain details the almost-tragic story of a grandmother, her grandson and the use of a misplaced firearm:

"A grandmother...was sitting at her work, when her young grandson crept in and got down an old, battered, rusty gun which had not been touched for many years and was supposed not to be loaded, and pointed it at her, laughing and threatening to shoot. In her fright she ran screaming toward the door on the other side of the room; but as she passed him he placed the gun almost against her very breast and pulled the trigger! He had supposed it was not loaded. And he was right-it wasn't. So there wasn't any harm done. It is the only case of this kind that I have ever heard of."

This passage makes abundantly clear the dangers of leaving firearms in a place where children can reach them. Had the gun be loaded the grandmother would certainly have died. In a few short sentences Twain prepared readers to hear a gruesome, cautionary tale about gun safety. When it turns out that the gun is not loaded, the grandmother is fine and that this is the only time Twain has ever heard a story like it, it becomes a humorous anecdote (though still a cautionary one). The passage is a satirical one, but since it does not make a target out of the characters involved, nor does it assert the idea of gun safety as a foolish one, it falls under the realm of Horatian satire.

Classification of Satire by Topic

Since its inception satire has tended to focus on the topics of politics, religion and sexuality (or bathroom humor). These topics were considered largely taboo, and satire served the important purpose of circumventing social etiquette and critiquing "evil" or problematic facets of each topic, without engaging in overt conflict. Modern satire has expanded to include a wider range of experience and information but for the most part, works of satire still focus primarily on those three topics and moderate variants thereof.

Political and topical (current-events based) satire has been the most popular form of satire since Aristophanes' Old Comedy. The satirical critique of political agendas, and of the politicians espousing them, has long provided a way to approach complex subjects and social change through humor. The formation of democracies and of the Whig and Tory parties within the British parliament, political and topical satire returned with force. Political and topical satire is also incredibly popular in American media; The Daily Show and Colbert Report regularly satirize politicians and political strife, as does Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, South Park and many more television and radio programs.

Religious and philosophical satire revolves around the specific critique of the religious or philosophical beliefs of those who practice a certain faith or doctrine. Religious and philosophical satire can be employed to "attack" religion at large, but Renaissance-era works of satire, like those of Chaucer and Erasmus, were often written from the point of view of believers as well those who would critique religion or philosophy from outside that worldview.

A more modern satire on sexuality occurred during a skit called "The Mouse Problem" which aired during a 1969 episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus. During the sketch a man is interviewed about his experience as a mouse. His descriptions of "experimenting with cheese" as a young man and realizing, "All of the sudden...that's what you want to be" parodied the experiences and condemnation of homosexual men at the time. Graham Chapman, a gay man himself, wrote the skit and made a direct, satirical critique of a CBS Report entitled The Homosexuals.

Classification by Medium

Though satire was first defined by Quintilian and given form by Aristophanes, it was not necessarily "invented" by them. Elements of satire had been and would be used in a multitude of manners and mediums including literature, poetry, music, drama, fables, works of art, and eventually radio and television. Each medium allows for a different form of satire and different manner of execution. George Austin Test's book, Satire: Spirit and Art states, "No classification [of satire] by genre or kind has ever succeeded in fully integrating these diverse forms into a system." [5]

Since the loose definition of literary satire by Quintilian, and more concrete outlines given by Juvenal and Horace, literature and poetry have remained one of the most popular mediums by which to employ satire. Famous works of fiction like George Orwell's Animal Farm, Voltaire's Candide, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Joseph Heller's Catch-22 all make satirical critiques of popular culture, social norms and other works of literature.

Satire also appears in a tremendous array of artwork-sculptures, paintings, illustrations, plays, artistic movements and even graffiti. The Dada art movement was centered in Europe during the 20th century. The movement revolved primarily on anti-war and anti-bourgeois commentary, born out of the horror and conflicts of World War I. Participants in the Dada movement often participated in public demonstrations, including musical compositions and plays, and used cheaply-made or found objects to make their critiques.

Dada artists pointed out the bourgeois obsession with preserving and displaying "art" by making things that could be easily destroyed, and created satirical propaganda posters and manifestos mirroring those of the countries involved in the war. The Pop Art movement of the late 1950s meshed the traditions and practices of the fine arts with popular images from the modern age. The result was an eclectic combination of classical art, comic books, advertising and kitsch that formed a satirical critique of artistic elitism. The Pop Art movement was as much a commentary on art and those who disparaged more modern forms of art, as it was art itself.

Television, particularly standup comedy, has become a modern-day vehicle for many satirists and satirical critiques. Standup comedians often challenge mainstream religious, political, and social beliefs by portraying their extremes. According to Satire: Spirit and Art, "Celebrity roasts, mock festivals, and the performances of comics in nightclubs and in concert bear witness to ritual contexts in which satire still occurs." [6]

Influence of Satire on Modern Society

In both the ancient and modern world, satire has played an essential part in influencing cultural and societal views on a tremendous array of subjects, particularly in political matters. Television shows like The Colbert Report, comics like Doonesbury and the New Yorker's politically-charged cover to "The Politics of Fear" are all examples of instances of influential, modern-day satire.

On his show The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert satirizes the views right-wing politicians and pundits by playing the part of a bigoted and narrow-minded pundit himself. When Colbert defends or explains his "beliefs", he does so in an over-the-top way that satirically critiques the rationale of those who would "agree" with him.

In 2011, Colbert began what would be a long-term satire of both the American presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty as well as the greater issue of money and its corruptive influence on politics. On March 30th, Colbert invited the former Federal Election Commission (FEC) Chairman Trevor Potter on the show to help him fill out paperwork to begin a PAC-a political action committee that allows the use of private money to help influence legislation and elections. The Colbert Report's parent company of Viacom disallowed Colbert from creating his PAC, however. Fortunately for Colbert, as Potter explained, the Citizens United Supreme Court Case allowed Colbert to form a much-less-restrictive SuperPAC.

After forming his SuperPAC, however, Colbert was still upset with the lack of funding and donations. Colbert had Potter back on the show, and Potter explained that though Colbert's SuperPAC was excellent, larger corporations prefer not to openly support political causes. Rather, large corporations support political causes, but prefer to do it anonymously. Potter then helped Colbert do the paperwork to create a 501(c)(4) Delaware Shell corporation, in order for individuals (primarily corporations) to circumvent contribution limits, and donate unlimited funds, anonymously. Colbert named the corporation "Anonymous Shell Corporation"; Colbert later asked Potter what the difference was between his donation process and money laundering. Potter responded that, "It's hard to say."

In the mid-1980s Gary Trudeau, writer and illustrator of the comic Doonesbury used satire to help put an end to a racially motivated law in Palm Beach, Florida. The law in question mandated that all workers or employees, including gardeners, retail clerks, janitors and taxi drivers, who were part of a racial minority were required to register with police and obtain and ID card within 48 hours of accepting a job. In 1985, upon discovering the continued existence of this Jim Crow legislation, Gary Trudeau illustrated a series of comics lambasting Florida's government for its continued support of a racist law. By 1986, local politicians drew up the "Doonesbury Act" and repealed the outdated law.

Shortly after the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, Barry Blitt illustrated a cover for the New Yorker in which he depicted both the president and First Lady Michelle Obama in the midst of a fist bump, armed and dressed as caricatures of Taliban-style, Muslim extremists. Dadlez explained the cover, "Fear-mongering was mocked and sharply criticized by presenting an outrageously exaggerated example of fear-mongering in the form of a cartoon." [7] The cover, however, was taken literally by many and met with significant moral outrage from the American public.

In a press release following the incident, the New Yorker explained that the cover, "satirizes the use of scare tactics and misinformation in the Presidential election to derail Barack Obama's campaign." Blitt went on to defend his cover as well, saying, "I think the idea that the Obamas are branded as unpatriotic [let alone as terrorists] in certain sectors is preposterous. It seemed to me that depicting the concept would show it as the fear-mongering ridiculousness that it is."

Misunderstanding Satire

Because it sometimes utilizes elements from several other literary terms, along with analogy, double entendre, exaggeration and even burlesque, it is common to misunderstand or incorrectly define satire. The term satire is most commonly conflated with irony, sarcasm, and parody. Irony and satire can be used in conjunction with one another to make critical observations of an ideal, individual, behavior or institution but as a result of their overlapping usage, their definitions tend to become confused with one another. Both forms of writing or speech constitute a theatrical, indirect form of communication that attacks their "victim", and both ironists and satirists rely on the intelligence of the audience in order to interpret what is being "said".

The key difference between the terms lies in the fact that satire implies an intrinsic, moral judgment on behalf of the author or the audience. Irony, by contrast, does not make a moral judgment and can be part of an observation while remaining innocuous. According to Weisgerber, "Satire censures what is wrong; irony intimates that it may be wrong and...discloses vices as well as virtues in an oblique way. The ironist poses as a skeptic rather than a judge." [8]

The use of the terms satire and sarcasm are often confused with one another as well. Like with irony, the two ideas are not mutually exclusive-satirical works often include sarcastic observations or remarks. In this case, the most important distinction to be made lies in the concept of direct and indirect "attacks". Satire, by definition, is a form of indirect observation and critique; sarcasm can be a direct jibe or insult. Another notable distinction between the two is that satire is often prepared at length and refers to specific incidents, while sarcasm can be performed off the cuff.

Satire often includes parodical imitations of other writers, speakers and public figures, but parody is not always satirical in nature. Satire aims to make (often aggressive) critical commentary on humanity and its social and political institutions through imitation amongst other things. Parody is a form of imitation but it is often used strictly for comic effect, without requiring any greater form of analysis.

[1] Weisgerber, Jean. "Satire & Irony as Means of Communication", Comparative Literature Studies Vol. 10 No. 2 Special Issue in Honor of Chandler B. Beall (Jun, 1973), pp. 160.

[2] Weisgerber, Jean. "Satire & Irony as Means of Communication", Comparative Literature Studies Vol. 10 No. 2 Special Issue in Honor of Chandler B. Beall (Jun, 1973), pp. 161.

[3] Weisgerber, Jean. "Satire & Irony as Means of Communication", Comparative Literature Studies Vol. 10 No. 2 Special Issue in Honor of Chandler B. Beall (Jun, 1973), pp. 158.

[4] Benjamin Franklin, "REMARKS CONCERNING THE SAVAGES OF NORTH-AMERICA " In Franklin, Benjamin. The Bagatelles from Passy. Ed. Lopez, Claude A. New York: Eakins Press. 1967

[5] Test, George Austin. Satire: Spirit and Art. University Press of Florida. 1991, pp. 10.

[6] Test, George Austin. Satire: Spirit and Art. University Press of Florida. 1991, pp. 10.

[7] Dadlez, E.M. . "Truly Funny: Humor, Irony, and Satire as Moral Criticism", The Journal of Aesthetic Education Vol. 45 No. 1, (Spring 2011), pp. 12.

[8] Weisgerber, Jean. "Satire & Irony as Means of Communication", Comparative Literature Studies Vol. 10 No. 2 Special Issue in Honor of Chandler B. Beall (Jun, 1973), pp. 164.


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