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What Is Sarcasm?

By Tara Barnett
Updated: May 23, 2024

In the past, remarks categorized as sarcasm included any bitter or biting commentary designed to cut or insult someone. More recently, sarcastic language has been more narrowly defined to include only those statements that rely on understatement or irony for their power. This use of language is sometimes identified as unplain speaking, in which what is said is different from what is meant. Learning to identify sarcasm can be difficult for some people, but it is important to comprehend this type of speech in order to be considered a fully functional speaker of a language.

Most fluent speakers of a language are able to use sarcasm, but not all may be able to identify the mechanism by which this type of speech functions. Generally, sarcasm works by stating a thing that is untrue in a specific tone of voice associated with this device in a given language. Simply making an untrue statement is usually not enough to identify the remark as sarcastic, and the tone of voice in which the remark is made helps others understand that the statement is not to be taken seriously.

Sarcastic expressions are typically said to work through irony, but it is important to differentiate between an ironic situation and a sarcastic remark. Speech that is sarcastic is dependent on the speaker, but ironic speech is usually unintentional on the part of the speaker, thereby creating an ironic situation. It can therefore be said that sarcastic language relies on irony for its humorous value, but that it does not create an ironic situation.

Some languages have special ways of identifying sarcastic remarks and other unreal phrases. Special punctuation for sarcastic text has also been proposed. There are many informal ways of indicating that text is sarcastic, which can be useful because written text cannot have any of the intonation that helps people identify sarcasm.

Children often learn sarcasm naturally and do not need to be taught to use this device, although in certain contexts they may misunderstand how the meaning is to be taken. In many studies, children as young as five years old are shown to be capable of perceiving sarcasm. Some people, however, never learn to identify sarcastic usages of language due to various problems interpreting social situations or language. Autism, for example, can make it very difficult for a person to understand when a person is not using language literally. An inability to identify sarcasm can also, in certain cases, point to brain lesions or brain damage.

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Discussion Comments
By shell4life — On Feb 08, 2012

Some children can learn sarcasm early from their parents. My friend is highly sarcastic, and her kids developed this way of speaking as young as age four.

Both my friend and her daughters rarely laugh out loud, but they do have a great sense of humor. They are masters of dry sarcasm, and I find it amusing when a little girl is able to effectively use it.

Some other people think that she should punish them for talking this way to grownups, but she finds it hilarious. She says it makes her proud, and she knows that she has trained them right.

By OeKc05 — On Feb 07, 2012

@kylee07drg – I understand that completely. I often feel like the world has lost its center, and everyone has gone off in different directions. There is no one unifying factor anymore, and sarcasm regarding this has become a source of comfort for me.

Some people say that I'm bitter, but I don't think so at all. I use sarcasm to show people the truth that is right before their eyes, and they just sometimes don't like that I take the veil away. They would rather be blind.

I know that if I ever get married, the man will have to be my partner in sarcasm. I couldn't be with someone who didn't appreciate my use of the language, and I need to have sarcasm used on me at times, too.

By kylee07drg — On Feb 06, 2012

Sarcasm can get you beaten up by people bigger than you. I had a male friend in high school who had a small frame, but he used sarcasm constantly. He didn't even seem to be afraid of getting into a fight with guys larger than he was.

On more than one occasion, he got punched and kicked for his sarcastic wit. Strangely, it didn't deter him. He couldn't seem to control himself.

He told me that he used sarcasm to cope with a world gone mad. It was his way of bringing order back to meaningless situations that had spiraled out of control. He said that the world in general was in the process of dumbing down, and he intended to do all he could to make people aware of this.

By lighth0se33 — On Feb 06, 2012

@anamur – That is funny! It is my natural inclination to use sarcasm to answer dumb questions, too, but I have to be careful with certain people.

For instance, by best friend is self-conscious about her intelligence. She is not great at reading or writing, and she doesn't have a good grasp of the language.

If I say anything sarcastic to her, she gets very upset. She thinks that I am calling her dumb, but I really didn't mean anything by it. My tongue can be an inadvertent weapon in this case, and I have to choose my words wisely.

By whiteplane — On Feb 05, 2012

Sarcasm can be great at the right time and the right place but too much of it can be unbearable. I know several people who are so sarcastic it is almost unpleasant to be around.

The problem with sarcasm is that it is inherently negative. So people that are sarcastic all the time come off as downers. They don't get excited about anything. They don't believe in anything. At the risk of sounding to grand, they don't hope for anything. Sarcasm is just a way of dismissing everything and after a short while that gets really old.

By ddljohn — On Feb 05, 2012

Has anyone seen the foreign film "My Name is Khan?" The main character in this film has Asperger's syndrome and the move itself taught me a lot about how people with this syndrome think and act.

One of the things the character couldn't understand or use was sarcasm. When someone told him something, he would take it very literally and react to it that way. In one scene, his girlfriend said "I'm going to kill myself" because she was frustrated about something. But he didn't understand that and was pleading with her not to kill herself.

I thought it was kind of sweet that he wasn't capable of playing these verbal games or picking up on tones and attitudes. He was such a simple and basic guy.

By fify — On Feb 04, 2012

I have a coworker who makes sarcastic comments a lot and I think he really overdoes it. One of his most favorite comments is "Wow, I never knew that!" But he says it in a very sarcastic tone that ridicules and makes fun of the person he's talking to.

I think people need to be careful with the way they use sarcasm. I think it can be a colorful way to use language and to get a point across. But if it's used too often and with a demoralizing attitude, it can damage relationships and make communication difficult.

I don't think sarcasm should be a vice to demoralize people. It's okay to use it once in a while with friends and family who are really close to you and won't be offended. But using it with coworkers or peers is not very appropriate in my view.

By serenesurface — On Feb 03, 2012

I use sarcasm a lot with my sister because she will always ask me questions where the answer is so obvious.

Just today she asked me if I turned on the kitchen light despite me being in the kitchen. Plus there is no one else at home, so I obviously turned it on. But she still expects a response from me, so I said, "No, aliens turned it on."

This is my way of making fun of her when she asks silly questions like that. I really like using sarcasm and I think it requires a certain level of verbal ability. My sister for example, is not very good with communication. She always says the opposite of what she means and I've never heard her use sarcasm before.

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