What is sarcasm? As it turns out, it isn’t exactly what most people think it is. In some cases, what we think is sarcasm is really just your garden variety of verbal irony. For writers, it is crucial to have a precise and firm grasp on language, so this is the perfect opportunity to clear up any misconceptions.
We’ll provide an accurate and clear sarcasm definition using examples from movies and television — because Shakespeare is “sooo 16th Century!” Was that sarcasm or verbal irony?
You’ll never know unless you keep reading.
The roots of sarcasm
Sarcasm is actually a type of verbal irony. While the two are commonly used interchangeably, there is a slight and important difference between irony and sarcasm. In short, verbal irony is anytime you say something different from what you actually mean.
Where that verbal irony becomes sarcasm is based on “intent.” Are you just trying to be funny or are you trying to hurt someone’s feelings?
Let’s jump into our definition of sarcasm before moving on to some examples from Film & TV.
What is sarcasm?
Sarcasm is an ironic statement meant to mock or ridicule another person. The term has its origins from the Greek root word “sarkezein” meaning “to tear flesh, bite the lip in rage, sneer.” According to Merriam-Webster, sarcasm is “designed to cut or give pain.”
Hopefully, with these definitions, you can see that sarcasm is much more than simple verbal irony. There is a cruel or contemptuous element that separates it from the various types of verbal irony.
Sarcasm is more clearly understood when spoken but it can also be included in written language.
- When you get an “F” on an exam and your friend says, “Nice job, Einstein.”
- “I love that dress. The design really highlights your double chin.”
- “Did your parents have any children that lived?”
An Important Distinction
Irony vs. sarcasm
Verbal irony occurs whenever someone says something different from what they actually mean, which sound exactly like sarcasm, right? But that's not entirely correct. So, what is sarcasm then?
Sarcasm takes that a step further and uses verbal irony to passive-aggressively insult someone.
The difference between irony and sarcasm is quite simple: if no one is being insulted, it’s NOT sarcasm.
If it’s raining outside and someone says, “What lovely weather we’re having!” — that is irony. No one is being insulted.
But here’s where it can get tricky.
Let’s say the person commenting on the weather is married to a meteorologist who promised on national television that it would be a sunny day. When the meteorologist returns home soaking wet and the spouse says, “What lovely weather we’re having!” it is clearly meant to mock the meteorologist and their promise of nice weather.
Do you see the difference? It’s all about context.
Another Key Distinction
Satire vs. sarcasm
Yet another important distinction to make with sarcasm is its relationship to satire. How are satire and sarcasm different? It all comes down to the intended effect.
What is the intended outcome of being sarcastic vs. being satirical? In short, the effects are either typically positive or negative.
The ultimate goal of satire, especially political satire, is positive change. Let’s imagine a new tax initiative is announced but considered unfavorable — one way to protest against it is with satire, hoping for a BETTER plan.
Here's an example of satire from Saturday Night Live. In the clip, toy companies and their attempt to empower young girls become the target.
Satire is often made to make you laugh and then make you think. It's not humor for its own sake — there is a message to it.
Sarcasm doesn’t usually contain such a hopeful undertone. It is typically more concerned with the damage of its impact and less concerned about any after-effects to be gleaned from it.
So, when you chastise someone for wearing a silly hat (“Wow, I love your hat!), your main goal is simply to make fun of that person for wearing it, not that you hope your comment will inspire them to get better taste in their fashion choices.
SARCASM IN ACTION
All sarcasm counts as verbal irony...but not all verbal irony is sarcastic. We’ve covered this in our previous article but it needs to be repeated. The following are sarcasm examples, which is verbal irony meant to mock or criticize someone else.
In Die Hard, Hans Gruber has got to be one of the best villains of all time. A big part of his charm is his subtle insults in scenes like this. When Ellis comes to negotiate, Hans is unimpressed to say the least.
Ellis is so overconfident that he doesn’t pick up the obvious deadpan, sarcastic delivery of Gruber’s lines: “You’re very perceptive,” and “You’re amazing. You figured this all out already?”
In Tommy Boy, Richard in an EXTREMELY sarcastic person, especially towards Tommy. What makes this a great use of sarcasm is that Richard uses it to hide his insecurity.
He grew up much differently from Tommy and has always held a grudge, hence his passive-aggressive attacks. Here’s a scene that captures Richard’s sarcasm perfectly — and how it can backfire.
On The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon has a clear superiority complex. One of the running gags on the show was his inability to understand sarcasm but he eventually solves that problem, and it becomes his new favorite weapon against the inferiors of the world.
One thing that makes The Big Lebowski so great is the dialogue. It is chock full of puns, repetition, and sarcasm. In this scene, The Dude is attacked in his home by thugs.
As a pacifist (just watch the movie if you haven’t already), The Dude’s only form of recourse is a sharp tongue: “At least I’m housebroken,” and “Obviously, you’re not a golfer.” Classic lines from a classic movie.
What is sarcasm? An opportunity for character development.
As we can see in these clips, sarcasm can used in a myriad of ways. And how these characters use it reflects their characterization.
Hans Gruber and The Dude use it to condescend. Richard is an insecure character that use insults as a defense mechanism. Sheldon's struggle with understanding sarcasm tells us a lot about his backstory — he was too busy being a genius to develop social skills.
Now that we've got sarcasm down, it's time to use this element in your own scripts. How can you use it to create character or punch up dialogue? You'll find that it (and all forms of irony) can be a rich and nuanced way to create memorable and layered characters.
Dive deeper into irony
We've covered the basics of sarcasm but there is so much more to learn. If there is a particular form of irony you want to explore further, just follow the navigation below. Each one of these subtypes of irony belongs in every writer's toolkit.