“People who shrug off deliberate deceptions
saying, ‘I didn’t mean it, I was only joking,’
are worse than careless campers
who walk away from smoldering campfires”
Proverbs 26:18-19 (The Message)
Sarcasm is a popular form of humor. As a noun it is defined as “a mocking remark,” but it’s a far more complicated word encompassing several levels. There are a number of helpful studies available, but perhaps the clearest story is told with a simple thesaurus.
One level of sarcasm exists among friends and includes such synonyms as banter, wordplay, comeback, irony, rejoinder, retort, satire and wit. All in the name of humor.
On a sharper level, sarcasm becomes much more pointed and less playful. The synonyms change to include criticism, cut, cynicism, dig, lampooning, wisecrack, rebuff, put-down, swipe, affront, sneer, taunt, scoffing and spite.
Further down the literary ladder, a more extreme form of sarcasm turns into verbal abuse. Once again, the synonyms tell the story — berating, castigation, denunciation, tongue-lashing, humiliation, causticness, derision, disparagement, mockery, ridicule, belligerence, harshness, malevolence, malice, rudeness, tartness, unkindness and insult.
And of course, there will be some disagreement as to where the lines are actually drawn. But there are several conclusions that we can all agree upon. One is how sarcasm feels — painful, especially if you’re a child. Children begin their life accepting our words at face value. In their fresh minds, they think we mean exactly what we are saying. They must learn, painfully, that we do not.
In addition, we can all probably agree upon the antonyms of sarcasm. The ones usually listed include, courtesy, diplomacy, flattery, compliment, commendation, civility, kindness, politeness, sweetness and praise. To see their power, just imagine the impact of any of these words upon a child.
In their book, What All Children Want Their Parents to Know, Diana Loomans and Julia Godoy differentiate between humor that heals and humor that hurts (48-49).
Humor that heals …
- takes delight in another
- affirms and builds up others up
- puts no one down.
- exercises creativity
- brings joy and happiness to others
- takes a lighthearted view
- evokes smiles, laughter, confidence, and well-being
Humor that hurts …
- makes fun of another
- tears someone or something down
- uses put-downs, either indirect or direct
- uses cynicism and sarcasm
- brings negativity or discouragement to others
- takes a biting or bitter view
This reminds me that the origin of the Greek term for “sarcasm” meant “to strip off the flesh.” This can be done humorously or viciously. But, however it’s done, we become more proficient with our verbal swordplay as we slice people into pieces.
I realize, as I said at the beginning, that there are levels of sarcasm, ranging from the verbal play of friends to the verbal abuse of enemies. But the lines are not always clear, and without great care, it’s easy to slide from “banter” to “ridicule.”
In his book, Talk is cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation and the Evolution of Language, linguistics professor John Haiman writes (106):
There is an extremely close connection between sarcasm and irony, and literary theorists in particular often treat sarcasm as simply the crudest and least interesting form of irony. … [There are] important distinctions between the two. First, situations may be ironic, but only people can be sarcastic. Second, people may be unintentionally ironic, but sarcasm requires intention.”
And so, what are my verbal intentions? Do my friends walk away from a conversation with me thinking, “What a clever comeback” “What a sharp wit?” Or do they leave thinking “What an understanding friend?”
“The tongue has the power of life and death?”