What is Sarcasm?



On today’s episode of Thinking in English, let’s take a look at sarcasm in English! What is sarcasm? What is the point of it? And what are the different types of sarcasm? By the end of this episode, you should know the answers to these questions!



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“I’ve just been on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday. I’ll tell you what, never again.”

2010 – Tim Vine

“My dad has suggested that I register for a donor card. He’s a man after my own heart.”

2016 – Masai Graham

“I’m not a fan of the new pound coin, but then again, I hate all change.”

2017 – Ken Cheng

Don’t worry – I’ve not gone crazy… These were three former winners of the best joke at the Edinburgh Fringe festival (one of the largest comedy festivals in the entire world). Did you understand them? Can you understand why they are funny? 

One of the most difficult things a student has ever asked me to do is explain British humour. Trying to explain why something is funny is incredibly difficult – and most of the time a joke loses its power and humour when you need to explain it.

There can be a number of different reasons why a joke is funny – the content, the wordplay, the context, the punchline… and for English learners, humour can be so difficult to translate across languages and cultures. In fact, I often recommend people to just watch a lot of TV comedies – this is often the best way to learn a country’s sense of humour (and you can check my episode of TV comedies to learn British English)! 

Our sense of humour is rooted in our nationality, our upbringings, the way we view the world, and what is familiar to us. I’m British – and British people love to laugh at ourselves. We will tell self-deprecating jokes all the time – jokes that are at our own expense. British comedy is also full of sarcasm, deep irony, and often discusses social, economic, political, and religious problems and issues. 

But humour is different all around the world! In France and Spain, it is popular to make jokes aimed at different regions within the country. Germans love wordplay and political satire. Polish humour tends to be very sarcastic and bitter. Japanese humour is full of long stories with foolish characters and social mistakes (which is why I still haven’t got used to it).

US humour is probably the most famous type of comedy internationally (thanks to Hollywood and comedy TV shows). American jokes tends to be fast paced and use a lot of stereotypes and storytelling about everyday events. In South America, Brazilians can be dry, sarcastic and sometimes dark with their comedy; while Argentinian comedy is full of references to national identity and history.

Essentially, comedy and humour is different between cultures and nationalities. I’ve often had issues with American friends not understanding my self-deprecating and sarcastic sense of humour. As I said earlier, British people like to joke about themselves and reply with sarcastic remarks.

I’ve used the word sarcasm a lot so far in this episode – and that is why the rest of this episode is going to be dedicated exclusively to sarcasm. However, if you’d like to hear other episodes about different parts of comedy just let me know in the comments or send me a message on Instagram!

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What is Sarcasm?

Definition of Sarcasm 

The dictionary definition of sarcasm is “the use of irony to mock or convey contempt.” I’ve recorded an entire episode on irony a few months ago (which I’ll link in the blog here), but there are some important differences between verbal irony and sarcasm. Verbal irony (in humour terms) is when the speaker’s words and the speaker’s intent do not match up – and this difference between words and intent is ironic and funny. 

Sarcasm is more specific – it is the use of verbal irony to mock, laugh at, or ridicule someone else. For example, if you see a friend wearing a really silly hat a British person might say – “Wow, really cool hat – wear can I get one?” – we are not being serious, but actually laughing at your hat!

If someone is being insulted – it is probably sarcasm. This becomes clear when we look at the origin of the word sarcasm – it comes from the Greek sarkezein which means “to tear flesh, bite the lip in rage, sneer.”

This makes sarcasm sound really mean – but this is not always the case! Sometimes sarcasm can be cute, light hearted, and funny when we use it in a self depreciating way or with our good friends. And this is how British people tend to use it!

Another important distinction to make is between sarcasm and satire – because these two types of humour can often look very similar. Satire tends to be for positive reasons – to mock bad social, political, and economic decisions or situations with the hope that it makes people think. Sarcasm usually has less positive intent! The main intent of sarcasm is to laugh at someone else, not to make them think or change. 

What is the Purpose of Sarcasm?

What is the point of sarcasm? At a basic level it is to be funny. But it is risky – especially for English learners. If you misunderstand or don’t recognise the use of sarcasm, you might suffer heart feelings or believe that someone is complimenting you when they are really laughing at you (I’ve actually had the opposite of this – I’m quite sarcastic so when I compliment a non-native speaking friend of mine he often thinks I’m being sarcastic and actually insulting him – which I’m not!).

However, if you learn and recognise how to use sarcasm, it can help you become even more fluent and reach the most advanced levels of English! In fact, research has been conducted that shows people who use sarcasm regularly are more creative

We also use sarcasm to laugh about ourselves, criticise others, to show our disapproval of something, to make “inside jokes” (jokes that only a few people understand), or as a defence mechanism when being criticised ourselves. It is really a useful part of our language!

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Different types of Sarcasm

Let’s now look at some of the different types of sarcasm!

Self-Deprecating

Self-deprecating sarcasm is when you use sarcasm to joke about yourself – especially by making yourself seem inferior. It’s actually a good quality to have – being able to joke about yourself suggests that you are confident and don’t take yourself too seriously. 

“Tom – Do you mind working Friday and Saturday night this week?”

“Why not? I’d just be sat at home alone in the dark eating chips and watching cat videos on the internet”

Brooding

Brooding sarcasm is where you say something that sounds polite, but you are actually complaining and demonstrating your annoyance with the tone of your reply. We can often identify this type of sarcasm from context – if someone replies very politely and enthusiastically to an annoying request they are probably being sarcastic. 

“Tom – Do you mind working Friday and Saturday night this week?”

I can’t wait!”

Deadpan

Deadpan sarcasm is where a sarcastic remark is said completely seriously without any emotion or humour. This can lead to misunderstandings, as sometimes people are not sure if you are being serious or not. 

“Tom – Do you mind working Friday and Saturday night this week?”

“Sorry I can’t, I’m playing poker with the Queen of England this weekend”

Polite

Polite sarcasm is similar to brooding sarcasm – but much more subtle. While brooding sarcasm is too polite and exaggerated, polite sarcasm is much less obvious. Sometimes it can take a while to realise someone is actually being sarcastic.

“Tom – Do you mind working Friday and Saturday night this week?”

“Sure – I’ll bring some snacks”

Obnoxious

Obnoxious sarcasm is just annoying and childish – and is the most likely form of sarcasm to make someone punch you in the face! It makes you seem like “jerk” – an annoying and irritating person. 

“Tom – Do you mind working Friday and Saturday night this week?”

“Oh great! There’s absolutely NOTHING I’d rather do this weekend than work here! I’m so glad you thought of me”

Manic

Manic sarcasm is unnaturally happy, ecstatic, and enthusiastic over something that should not provoke such a reaction. There can be similarities with other types of sarcasm (such as obnoxious) but the tone of delivery is very positive even when they clearly are not being positive. 

“Tom – Do you mind working Friday and Saturday night this week?”

“Fantastic! I’d love to work this weekend! I can’t believe I’m so lucky that I get to spend ALL of my time with you guys! It’s just GREAT!”

Raging

Raging sarcasm uses a lot of aggression, exaggeration, and violent threats! People using raging sarcasm will often use a terrible situation as a comparison – but they will say that they would rather be facing the terrible situation instead.

“Tom – Do you mind working Friday and Saturday night this week?”

Sure!! I can’t think of a better way of spending my Friday night – except maybe BREAKING BOTH OF MY LEGS AT THE SAME TIME!”

Final Thought

On this episode of Thinking in English, I’ve introduced you all to sarcasm and the different types of this common feature of English speech. But how can you detect sarcasm? 

The most important thing to consider when trying to recognise sarcasm is the tone of the speaker or writer. If their words are polite and happy, but their voice is annoyed, contemptuous, or angry – they are probably being sarcastic. Understanding the wider context is important – if you were expecting a negative response or comment, but actually received a positive one – it might be sarcastic!

You should also be careful of when and where you use sarcasm. If you use it incorrectly, or your audience doesn’t recognise it, it could cause confusion or actually end up hurting someone’s feelings!

Is sarcasm common in your language? How would you describe your country’s humour? Have you ever misunderstood an English joke or sarcastic remark?


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