Irony vs. Sarcasm

What’s the difference between irony and sarcasm? Most thesauri list them as synonyms, but anyone who’s been on the receiving end of either type of humor can tell you the difference at once: ironic statements make you laugh, and sarcastic statements make you cry. 

Many a protective parent has assured his or her teased child that sarcasm is the lowest form of humor.  And the word sarcasm literally translates to mean “to tear the flesh.”  But what exactly is it it about a sarcastic statement that makes it a low form of humor?  And what makes it “tear the flesh?”  I’ve been mulling over this question for a while now, and I think I’ve landed on an answer:

Sarcasm happens when the observed irony does not extend to the speaker.

That is to say that an ironic person includes himself among the mocked, whereas a sarcastic person stands outside the situation in judgement.  See how it might play out in the below scene involving a bunch of nerds camping outside of a movie theater:

In this instance, the guy making fun of the people is including himself in the joke — after all, he’s in the line, too!  But consider what happens when the speaker is not in line with the others:

Sarcasm is the one kind of joke that can be made by someone who does not actually find something funny — it is humor for the humorless.  In life, I have a problem with sarcasm because I don’t believe that any person has the right to laugh at others unless he can first laugh at himself.

And what about sarcasm in storytelling?

To be clear, I’m all for sarcastic characters (I enjoy Holden Caulfield as much as the next guy!).  But sarcastic authors are a different thing altogether.  Sarcastic authors attempt to point out absurdities in the world, but they try to do it from a safe distance — never letting themselves become a part of the joke.  The only way to do this is by creating straw men for the express purpose of knocking them down. Ironically(!),  this ends up undercutting the author’s initial goal, because now instead of critiquing the world, he is critiquing some flimsy characters who bear little resemblance to the world. 

The end result is a thing neither funny nor true.

10 Comments Leave a Comment

  • kbryna says:

    AH! This may have helped illuminate some of the weirdness I encounter in student writing (a dumb tendency to attempt sarcasm in otherwise straightforward essays resulting in things which are neither funny nor true) AND student mis-reading. Case in point: the class which thought that Martin Luther King Junior’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was a really effective piece of sarcasm.

    Matthew Baldwin, who blogs as defectiveyeti, wrote (after spending a summer reading Infinite Jest) that the opposite of irony is sincerity. Agree?

    (I spend more time thinking about irony and sincerity and sarcasm than I probably should)

  • DDW says:

    I don’t think I entirely agree. I think in the case of the speaker including themself in the mocked it depends on the attitude, it doesn’t automatically mean it’s not sarcasm. And sarcasm can be directed at a collective entity (a company, the government) which lacks feelings as well, so it doesn’t necessarily have an expectation of hurting someone. Also you definitions seem to ignore the larger scope of irony. I think sarcasm is a subset of irony. Sarcasm is necessarily intentional, where irony may not be. Irony may be situational, rather than a speech act, as evident in your last use of “ironically” in this post.

  • I agree with DDW. I’ve been thinking a lot about irony in kids’ books as it is something I introduce to my fourth graders by way of E. B. White and his use of irony in Charlotte’s Web. (e.g. Mr. Arable tells his son at the end of the first chapter after Fern has saved Wilbur that he only gives out pigs to “early risers.” ) In fact we were talking about last week and one child immediately said that it was similar to sarcastic. I’ve always said yes to that so would love a way to help them tell the difference. But I’d love to tease out a clearer distinction. So thanks for starting this conversation!

  • I think DDW and Monica are both right that irony is more varied than what I stated above. Irony is a larger umbrella under which sarcasm resides — that is to say, sarcasm is a type of irony. Unfortunately, language fails me: we don’t have a similar word for the more benign counterpoint to sarcasm, and I would argue that most people attempting to describe the nicer version of sarcasm simply use the word “ironic.” This is certainly what I did in my post.

    I do want to touch on one thing from DDW’s comments: “I think in the case of the speaker including themself in the mocked it depends on the attitude, it doesn’t automatically mean it’s not sarcasm.” If I was trying to do anything in this post, it was getting more specific about what we mean by “attitude.” I suspect that any speaker able to include him or herself in the joke has an attitude that disallows sarcasm.

    Very much loving how you guys are pushing me to think harder on these subjects!

  • kbryna says:

    What if “sarcasm” is the nicer word for sarcasm, and the nastier word is “snark”? And deprecating, often only seen in the context of self-deprecating – does that offer any help?

    Irony is such a hard term for me to wrap my brain around, because it does seem to be so overused, and in such varied ways, many of which are closely related and difficult to unravel. [and then, of course, The Oatmeal goes and makes this comic, which clarifies things not at all:

    I do also get hung up on the literary definition of irony, the kind that is always defined using examples from ancient Greek plays, and possibly also some quotations from Aristotle and/or Plato.

  • I love these types of discussions and I think DDW hits it right on the head. It’s all about intentions. The intent of sarcasm is to make listeners aware that the speaker means the opposite of what he/she is saying. Sarcasm can be nasty or gentle. A more benign form of sarcasm can be self-deprecation. Irony is one of the trickiest things to define, and one of the most misused words on the planet. I don’t think it really falls under the umbrella of sarcasm. Irony is about intending one thing, and receiving the opposite results…hopefully in poetic, O Henry-style ways! Now, if one of the people in the cartoon, after hearing the sarcastic quips, decided to leave the line and see Star Wars the next day, then got hit by a bus and killed on the way home…that would be ironic.

  • Aaron: You misread me, sir! I said sarcasm is a form of irony, not the other way around. You and other commenters have rightly observed that irony includes *so many things* that extend beyond the pale of this discussion.

    It should probably be stated that I’m not trying to tackle dramatic irony (for a great post on that, check out Matt Bird’s blog: The above ideas are specifically limited uttered statements (read: jokes) that people might describe as being ironic or sarcastic. While I agree that your hit-by-a-bus scenario would contain dramatic irony, it shines little light on the nature of the “It would kill us”statement because the speaker can’t know the future.

    Also, I LOVE the idea that you place self-deprecating statements on the sarcasm spectrum … that’s a fascinating concept, and it might explain the difference between self-deprecation that feels earnest and self-deprecation that feels disingenuous.

  • Hmmm…it’s a tricky idea, Jonathan and I definitely get what you’re saying. I personally just have a problem separating irony from the dramatic, because to me it needs that dramatic element (which Matt did a nice job describing). If anything, I think irony should NOT include so many things. That’s part of the reason why people use it as a synonym for coincidence, or contrary, or sarcasm. It can have elements of those things, but it is a distinct idea about intent and result. The intent of sarcasm is to communicate the opposite, and the result is that opposite the message is (usually) communicated and understood. I don’t know. Love your blog and I’m just happy to offer my two cents. You roped me in with this one because I’ve struggled with the irony question myself ( Thanks for having me!

  • Aaron,
    Just to be clear, I LOVE it when people tell me I’m wrong about stuff … how else would I learn new things? Even better, your comments (along with those before you) may even spark a followup post on the subject of dramatic irony!

  • Lisa Clewer says:

    Love the irony/sarcasm piece. I just found you and glad of it.

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