Sarcasm – What is that? Finding a Definition

Seminararbeit, 2007
15 Seiten, Note: 2



1. Introduction

2. Dictionaries’ Definitions

3. Characteristics of Sarcasm based on Scientific Essays
3.1. “On the uses of sarcastic irony” by M. Toplak and A. N. Katz
3.2. “Lower, Slower, Louder: Vocal Cues of Sarcasm” by P. Rockwell
3.3. “Multimodal markers of irony and sarcasm“ by S. Attardo, J. Eisterhold, J. Hay, and I. Poggi

4. Humour Theories
4.1. Superiority Theory
4.2. Surprise Theory
4.3. Incongruity Theory

5. Perception of Sarcasm

6. Discussing Sarcasm as a Form of Irony – Finding a New Definition

7. Conclusion

8. References

1. Introduction

For many years, researchers have investigated the subject humour and tried to define what is behind it and which different kinds of humour do exist. An essential part of these investigations is concerned with irony, as one type of humour. In general, researchers agree that someone makes an ironic remark when the intended meaning of the speaker is different from what has actually been expressed. What the speaker really believes and thinks is said in an indirect way. Therefore, the listener is forced to recognize the discrepancy between the literal and the figurative meaning in order to understand what the speaker was trying to say. What irony makes a part of humour is the tension which is created by the juxtaposition of two opposite meanings. This incongruity of these two opposite meanings can lead to a comic effect.

Another important form of humour is sarcasm. Unfortunately not much research has been done on that topic although sarcasm seems to be omnipresent in our daily lives. Most people use the terms sarcasm, sarcastic, or sarcastically in many situations. It is a term which is often used when someone makes a humorous remark. Even in literature the phrase ‘…, he said sarcastically’ is very common. Therefore, one could assume that sarcasm is easy to recognize and to understand. Nevertheless, it is interesting to know that whenever people are asked to define sarcasm they are not able to give a clear definition or an explanation and they start stammering. Even linguistic researchers do not come to an agreement about the definition of sarcasm. Therefore, the aim of this paper is to clarify the term by taking different approaches and in the end to find a new, better comprehensible definition.

At first, different entries in various dictionaries shall give a general overview of the meaning of the term. Secondly, with the help of scientific linguistic essays of Toplak/Katz, Rockwell, and Attardo/Eisterhold/Hay/Poggi a deeper insight into sarcasm shall be given. At the end of this analysis, with the help of some examples, it is tried to place sarcasm in the field of humour by explaining the superiority, surprise, and incongruity theory. Then, the focus is on the different ways of people’s perception of sarcasm which is depending on their point of view. After this discussion, the role of irony when being sarcastic is argued which finally ends in a new definition of sarcasm.

2. Definitions from dictionaries

As it is said in the introductory chapter, various definitions of different dictionaries shall give a general overview of the meaning of the term sarcasm. To get an impression of how sarcasm is understood by the general public the first look will be taken at the online encyclopedia Wikipedia which defines sarcasm as “sneering, jesting, or mocking of a person” (2007). Furthermore, it is said that sarcasm “is expressed through vocal intonations such as over-emphasizing the actual statement or particular words” (2007). In other words, being sarcastic means to make fun of other people through special vocal intonation. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary states that sarcasm defined by ‘the use of irony to mock or convey contempt’. A more detailed definition is given by the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English Online which says that sarcasm is

a way of speaking or writing that involves saying the opposite of what you really

mean in order to make an unkind joke or to show that you are annoyed. (2007)

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines sarcasm as ‘a cutting, often ironic remark intended to wound’ and as

a form of wit that is marked by the use of sarcastic language (which) is intended

to make its victim the butt of contempt or ridicule. (2000)

The last dictionary which shall help to get an insight of what sarcasm means is the Online Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary which states that sarcasm is

the use of remarks which clearly mean the opposite of what they say, and which are

made in order to hurt someone’s feelings or to criticize something in an amusing way. (2007)

What all these definitions have in common is that they define sarcasm as a form of irony which aims at saying the opposite of the intended meaning. This paper will investigate later on whether irony always plays a role when someone is sarcastic. Furthermore, these definitions state that a form of criticism is involved or one tries to mock someone else and conveys contempt by the use of sarcasm.

In the next chapter, it is taken a look at some scientific essays on sarcasm written by linguistic researchers. These essays are going to be summarized and analyzed in order to find other characteristics of that form of humour. In this way it should be possible to get a clearer picture of what sarcasm means.

3. Characteristics of Sarcasm based on Scientific Essays

In the last decades more and more research on humour has been done, especially on irony and sarcasm as different types of humour. Various articles on that topic were published in different linguistic journals. In this part of the paper some of these essays are going to be analysed in order to get a more clear-cut definition of the term sarcasm and to find out how sarcasm works.

3.1. “On the uses of sarcastic irony” by Maggie Toplak and Albert N. Katz (2000, 1467-1488)

What the previous cited dictionaries have shown before is already stated in the article’s title, namely that sarcasm is defined as a form of irony. Toplak and Katz define sarcastic irony as criticism that is indirectly conveyed. In their study they examined the effects of this indirect criticism from two different perspectives. Firstly, the focus was on the interpretation of the person who criticizes. Secondly, they focused on the target’s interpretation of that criticism. Additionally, it was investigated the various perspectives from which sarcastic irony can be perceived. Theses different points-of-view are that from the sender, from the receiver, and from the incidental overhearer of the utterances that are sarcastically ironic.

What Toplak and Katz found out is that the person who utters an indirect, sarcastic remark “is perceived as intending to be more offensive, verbally aggressive, anger-provoking, and mocking” (1473). Likewise the sarcastic utterance itself is perceived “as more insincere, humorous, impolite, non-instructional, and conveying a somewhat unclear message” (1473f). Furthermore, they proofed that there is a difference between the direct form of criticism and the indirect form. The expression which is directly made has a more “negative impact on the relationship between speaker and victim” (1476) compared to the indirectly made criticism.

Moreover, as it is said above, Toplak and Katz focused on different points-of-view from which one can perceive sarcastic irony. The speaker of the sarcastic statement is perceived to be “more verbally aggressive with the intent to cause anger and offense” (1478). Interestingly, the victim of the criticism is equally angered by the sarcastic and the direct statement. Surprisingly, the perception of the sarcastic expression is different from the speaker and its target. The victim sees “the statement as less polite, more hurtful, more mocking, more anger-provoking, and more offensive” (1479) than does the speaker. Consequently, the receiver feels the impact of sarcastic irony to a greater extent than was expected by the speaker.


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Sarcasm – What is that? Finding a Definition
Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
449 KB
Irony, Definition, Humor Theory, Sarcasm
Arbeit zitieren
Julia Cartsburg (Autor), 2007, Sarcasm – What is that? Finding a Definition, München, GRIN Verlag,


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