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Sardonic or Sarcastic? (And what about Ironic?)

William Hupy asked me today, “What IS the difference between sarcastic and sardonic? And while we are at it, how do those two relate to being ironic? Are their etymologies related?” It occurred to me that it might be a question on the minds of others. Here is my response.

Sardonic means “disdainful or playfully derisive, especially in facial or verbal expression.”

  • Sarcasm implies a derision explicitly intended to hurt or offend someone.
  • Sardonicism implies a cynical derision expressed either verbally or facially with no necessary intent to offend or cause emotional distress.
  • Irony comes from an amusingly provocative disparity between any two seemingly incompatible things, expressed to amuse rather than to offend.

Sardonic remarks often follow ambiguous statements: “Joe is an unusual wit,” said Fred. “That’s true,” Marge remarked sardonically.” Sarcasm hurts: “Murray’s marriage proposal received a sarcastic, ‘Ask me again if you return from the dead’ from Eloise.” Irony comes from odd coincidences we bump into in life: “I just love the irony of Lois, the daughter of an obstetrician, marrying Ferdie, whose father is a mortician!”

Sardonic comes from Greek sardanios “scornful (smiles or laughter)” from sardane, a Sardinian plant (Sardinian crowfoot, Ranunculus Sardous) which makes you grimace when you eat it. Later Greek authors confused this word with sardonios from Sardo (Sardinia), which in French became sardonique, a term English could not resist usurping. Sarcastic comes from Greek sarkasmos, from sarkazein “to bite the lips in rage,” a verb based on sarx (sark-s) “flesh”, the same root we see in the flesh-eating sarcophagus.

9 Responses to “Sardonic or Sarcastic? (And what about Ironic?)”

  1. PanMarek Says:

    I am interested in how the effect of sarcasm or sardonicism (?) is created. Both are derisive, but what is the procedure for being sarcastic?

    It seems to involve irony or some form of exaggeration. It also seems to involve a certain amount of complicity on the listener’s part. One needs to be able to recognize sarcasm or a sardonic comment, otherwise the effect is lost.

    Am I on the right track here?


  2. hdefined Says:

    “I just love the irony of Lois, the daughter of an obstetrician, marrying Ferdie, whose father is a mortician!”

    That’s not irony, that’s coincidence. There is no expectation for the daughter of an obstretrician to marry someone other than the son of a mortician. It wouldn’t even be ironic if an obstetrician and a mortician married each other – their jobs operate on opposite ends of the life span, but there’s no context relating to expectations concerning their interaction.

    Irony is if a man in a restaurant is choking and the only person present who is capable of saving him is Jack Kevorkian.

  3. Phonebooker Says:

    I feel like the example is ironic because exactly what you wouldn’t expect is someone, whose career is to shuttle life into the world, to fall in love with someone who specializes in shuttling life out of this world.

    Your second example isn’t irony; it’s manslaughter.

  4. » Blog Archive » Sarcastic/Sardonic Says:

    […] There doesn’t seem to be complete agreement on this one. Though it seems to have to do with intent. And ironic apparently has 2 distinct meaning, one being closer to sardonic (or sarcastic I suppose), and one to do with juxtaposition. trackback […]

  5. Jesse Says:

    This article I believe actually has the definitions for sarcastic and sardonic backwards. Sarcasm is not necessarily with cruel intentions, but one who is sardonic, does.

  6. Jesse Says:

    …Or maybe not, I’m seeing a lot of inconsistency from other websites.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    My personal favorite example of irony is the following: A refugee is wandering in the desert, and has not eaten in days. On the brink of starvation, hope appears in the skies, in the form of a helicopter from a non-profit organization, which drops a crate full of food rations down from the hatch, suspended from a parachute. Suddenly, the cords attaching the parachute to the crate snap, allowing the heavy crate to fall rapidly to the ground. The crate, intended to save the lives of starving refugees, instead falls to the ground, landing directly on top of the refugee, ending his life. Because the crate would be expected to save his life, the irony is that it ends his life instead.

  8. Frank Says:

    The real irony is that it was a helicopter and not an airplane. A helicopter could have landed instead of dropping the supplies.

  9. R. Says:

    I actually believe the difference in sadonicism and sarcasm is that in sarcasm you say the opposite of what you mean for mocking effect, whereas one who says a true statement but in mocking way is being sardonic.

    For example, if someone says something very obvious–

    Sarcastic response: “Wow, clearly you’re a genius for figuring that out!”

    Sardonic response: “Wow, congratulations, you figured that out all by yourself!”

    The pejorative nature is still the same, but the vehicle of delivery is different.

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