Sarcasm and the Snark Mark

by Steve Hooley

My wife and I were once members of a small group, the majority of which were from the same family. The “joking” consisted of sarcasm and was often so abrasive that it felt uncomfortable. When new people joined the group, they were subjected to the same abuse, almost like an initiation rite. Eventually my wife and I realized this was not healthy and left the group.

I never thought, at the time, about the possibility of underlying problems, except maybe “clan mentality,” but years later as I’ve explored sarcasm, I’ve been intrigued by some of the possible psychological issues that may exist below the surface.

We all chuckle at the character with the humorous, snarky voice who seems to have found a way to entertain while he pokes fun at someone else. And we use sarcasm in our characters to create a distinct voice, but do we look beneath the surface to find the pathology that might exist or even explain why the character uses the sarcasm?

So, let’s take a look at sarcasm today.

First, what is it?

From Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

The root, “to bite or strip off flesh,” comes from Latin “sarc” – flesh or muscle – and from Greek “sark” – flesh, piece of meat.

Definition of sarcasm

1a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain

2aa mode of satirical wit depending for its effect on bitter, caustic, and often ironic language that is usually directed against an individual

“Sarcasm refers to the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really want to say, especially in order to insult someone, or to show irritation, or just to be funny. For example, saying “they’re really on top of things” to describe a group of people who are very disorganized is using sarcasm. Most often, sarcasm is biting, and intended to cause pain.”

According to Wikipedia, sarcasm was first recorded in English in 1579, in an annotation to The Shepheardes Calender by Edmund Spenser:

And what is some of the psychological pathology that may be hiding in the user of sarcasm?

From an article posted in Psychology Today, 7/28/19, “Sarcasm”

“Sarcasm comes from the Greek sarkasmos, which means “the tearing of flesh.” The intention behind sarcasm may be to be humorous or playful, but there is frequently an element of poorly disguised hostility or judgment. When we grow up in families in which sarcasm is frequently used, there can be an insensitivity to others’ sensitivity to it. It can feel hurtful or hostile to the person on the receiving end of it. It frequently diminishes a feeling of trust and safety, provoking feelings of anxiety or defensiveness due to never knowing when the other shoe is going to drop.

“Sarcasm is a thinly veiled attempt to disguise feelings of angerfear, or hurt. It can be a means of diminishing feelings of vulnerability that may be experienced in the willingness to acknowledge the underlying feelings. When the deliverer of the sarcasm gets angry or defensive at the recipient of it for “taking things too personally” or being “too sensitive,” they are trying to invalidate the other’s feelings and avoid feeling guilty or responsible for causing them pain.”

Here is a link to an article that may go a little deeper into understanding the problems a chronically caustic, sarcastic individual may be hiding:

Behind the Scenes of Sarcasm

Note the key words:

  • pessimistic
  • low self-esteem
  • jealous of others

And the phrases:

  • use of sarcasm to feel superior to others who are “not able to take it”
  • deep emotional turmoil may be the driving force
  • the fragility lurking below (the sarcasm)

And, if you want to have some fun exploring rabbit holes, check out all the punctuation marks that have been proposed for denoting sarcasm in the article on Irony Punctuation on Wikipedia. My favorite is the “snark mark” (.~)

Okay, we’ve now had our sensitivity session for the day. And the next time you’re giving your character a sarcastic voice, you’ll know that a paper tiger may be hiding behind that voice.

Now. It’s time to have some fun.

What is your favorite sarcastic response in film or print? Or, what sarcastic line have you given one of your characters that you are particularly proud of? And/Or, what sarcastic line can you write and display to the world today, here and now? Show us your creative snark.

36 thoughts on “Sarcasm and the Snark Mark

  1. Good morning, Steve! Thanks for an extremely interesting post this morning.

    Robert B. Parker’s Spenser is frequently given to making sarcastic remarks, though they would lose something in telling them out of context. Ben Gant, in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, is frequently given to saying, “Listen to this, will you?” when someone makes a remark he finds to be absurd, which is frequently.

    As for me…I have a stock rhetorical response that might be classified as sarcasm and that is employable across many situations. I heard a story about three women, all related, who did not get along and who were planning to take an automobile trip together from California to Arizona across hundreds of miles of desert. I asked, “Oh! What could go wrong?” The answer was everything.

    Thanks again for providing some breakfast food for thought, Steve. Have a great weekend.

    • Good morning, Joe. And thanks for those examples. I love your stock answer/question – “Oh! What could go wrong?”

      And speaking of breakfast food, I hope you can tear some flesh with a steak to celebrate Father’s Day. Have a great weekend!

  2. I am a Southerner so required to be polite at all times.

    My only descent into snarkiness occurred when I was in the Air Force. I was one of the first females in my career field and it was the first time (spoiled darling that I am) I ever experienced someone (some of my instructors) trying to fail me (thank God for the Catholic nuns who taught me so I knew for a fact that I was not as stupid as they said I was). My allies were the Air Force instructor ( siblings in arms) and the Marine instructor (“Girl, if you made it this far, you must be worth keeping.”)

    The Saudis in my block at our international interservice school spit on me and said I was only good for things that had nothing to do with warfare and electronics.

    That turned out to be a blessing as it was a bridge too far for the Americans in all branches, who may have had their doubts about women in their career field, but they closed ranks around this one.

    I asked my mother in heaven how she would have handled this.

    I took her advice.

    When threatened or insulted I took a breath, smiled sweetly, and said “We’ll just see about that.”

    The Saudis never did understand that and went away confused. My guys would go “Oooh, you’re in trouble now” to whoever I had said it to.They soon started using it as an alternative to fist fights or insubordination, which kept us all out of trouble.

    One Army sergeant tried to report me for insubordination but when my commander asked him what I said, he said “Really, Sarge? Ya gotta do better than that.”

    When I started tutoring the ones about to fail even the mean ones left me alone.

    Good times.

    • Great story, Cynthia. Sounds like you were a worthy adversary with a set-em-back-on their-heels retort.

      Since you’re from the South, I have to ask: Is it true that the phrase “That’s nice” has been used in the South to mean something profane? It’s not worthy of mention, but it would qualify as sarcasm.

    • Cynthia,
      Your story reminded me of something Southern that can at times be taken as mild sarcasm when someone says “Bless your heart.” 😎

      • That’s what you say when something has to be said but you still love the person and it’s not his faulk as “He’s a sweet boy, he’s just uglier than a one-eyed rattkesnake, bless his heart.”

        It’s when we say “Bless his little pointed head” that it’s very much his fault and he’s in trouble.

        • I love all those southern ways of saying things. I often argue that the plural of you should be you-all, and used by everyone. So much more precise.

          Thanks for all your comments!

  3. Where I’m from (coastal Alabama) we smile and say “That’s lovely,” when we see something offensive.

    It means “Y’all better clean that up right now or else!”

  4. Fun subject, Steve. For me, the greatest purveyor of snark was Groucho Marx. I was recently watching the classic Duck Soup. Every line is a zinger, but here are a few of my favorites:

    “You do suggest something. To me you suggest a baboon…I’m sorry I said that. It isn’t fair to the rest of the baboons.”

    “Remember, you’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is probably more than she ever did.”

    And this exchange with Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont):

    Rufus T. Firefly: Not that I care, but where is your husband?
    Mrs. Teasdale: Why, he’s dead.
    Firefly: I’ll bet he’s just using that as an excuse.
    Mrs. Teasdale: I was with him to the very end.
    Firefly: Hmph. No wonder he passed away.
    Mrs. Teasdale: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
    Firefly: Oh, I see. Then, it was murder.

    • Thanks, Jim, for those examples. Great lines. You got my day started with a laugh. Now, I need to see if I can find Duck Soup.

      Have a great weekend, and Happy Father’s Day!

  5. Excellent subject, Steve.

    Snark and sarcasm may also stem from where one grows up. New Englanders are full of snark and/or quick wit, some of the six states more than others. If one is raised in Massachusetts or New Hampshire (southern more than northern) sarcasm is so ingrained in us, it’s part of who we are. Though sometimes it’s not aimed at a particular person but rather at a situation.

    The MC in my Mayhem Series is as snarky as they come, and readers love that about her. In her case, it does stem from a brutal upbringing. She’s working on toning it down, but it’s not easy.

    • Thanks, Sue. I saw you do a reading from one of your books here at TKZ, and I could guess that you would love a character with snark. And if that snarky character was as sweet and kind as you are, that would make a very complex character.

      Thanks for the info on New England. Have a great weekend!

  6. Steve, what a terrific subject! The examination of underlying causes really helps with character building. Thanks for a thought-provoking discussion.

    My southern friends say (with the sweetest smile), “Why, bless your heart!” Or the really snarky ones say, “Why, bless your little heart!”

    • Thanks, Debbie. And what do those southern friends really mean with the phrase, “Why bless your little heart?” Or is it not appropriate to say on this site?

      Have a great weekend!

      • The favorite punctuation to mark sarcasm for the YouTube and Reddit crowd is /s at the end of a sentence. Took me a while to figure that one out.

        I need to find a new term for what I do. My verbal barbs are aimed at myself or at a situation but almost never at the people I’m talking to, and it’s almost never toxic. Sigh. I’m a failed sarcastic wit, apparently.

        Snark, the current term for sarcasm, became the ubiquitous narrative voice in urban fantasy, courtesy of its beginnings as a noir detective novel set in a contemporary fantasy world. Thanks, Jim Butcher. But, plot-wise in dialog, it was more about the hero poking the angry bear and making enemies like a teenaged, self-destructive idiot than anything else. Stupid characterization and lazy plot/pot stirring were the primary causes of these plot moments. My most common comment while reading those early novels was “Will you shut your mouth and think, for once.” Eye rolls by a reader in her sixties isn’t a good look, either

        • Thanks, Marilynn, for that history of snark. Good information. The /s is a lot easier to type than the snark mark (.~) with the tilde hidden up in the top left keyboard.

          Your comment on stupidity in those early novels reminds me of what I like to say. “Turn on your computer before you turn on your printer.”

          Have a great weekend!

    • There’s a scene in the Western novel/movie, THE VIRGINIAN, where two men are talking. One says something nasty about the other, and the other replies, “Smile when you say that.” Insults are all about body language, tone, and intention. They are playful with friends, or insults to not friends that lead to fists or someone dead.

      “Bless your heart” has a bunch of nuances according to tone of voice and situation. It can mean anything from “I pray Jesus will help you in this horrible situation” to “you are a pathetic piece of crap, and you’re too stupid to realize I’m insulting you.” Passive aggressive Southern female at its finest.

      • Thanks for that interpretation, Marilynn. So, you have to see and hear the speaker to really know what they mean.

        As for that new term you’re looking for – what you do to yourself: How about “auto” as a prefix (yourself)? Maybe auto-sarc?

  7. Another terrific post, Steve. Mark Twain, who like me is from Missouri, was a master of sarcasm. Here’s a favorite line: “It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt.”

    • Thanks, Elaine. I love your example. I’m certain that my wife would tell me I should practice that one. Any quote from Mark Twain is a good one. “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” is one of my favorites. I guess we like that one better the older we get.

      Have a great weekend!

  8. Happy Saturday, Steve. Love your thorough examination of sarcasm. I’m with Jim above about Groucho being the master of snark. He’s in fine form in all of his films especially Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera.

    While I can’t claim it to be the greatest snark ever, my hero Liz Marquez, in my urban fantasy novel Gremlin Night, loves her snark.

    “What part of hidden don’t you get?” I demanded. “If an ordinary sees us, the secret is out.”

    Timely post today, since I’ve been thinking about returning to Liz and her adventures at some point soon.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post.

    • Happy Saturday to you, too, Dale. Your character’s snark is very good. I write middle-grade fantasy. After today’s discussion, I think I should start introducing some snark into one of my character’s voice.

      Thanks for your comments. Have a great weekend!

  9. This is more of a play on words but it was meant to be be sarcastic given the stuffy setting.

    When we were 18, a high school buddy and I traveled across the state, all alone for the first time, to visit the University of Pittsburgh. We were the only two kids without parents.

    The tour ended with us sitting in a refined room of antique furniture, other teen visitors, and the aforementioned parents. My buddy and I were bored out of our minds. We’d thought we’d immediately be invited to a frat keg party and meet college girls. We had no interest in academics. What’s worse, the Dean of Admissions told me on the spot my grades sucked and I’d never get in.

    The Dean then gave a presentation on the many Study Abroad opportunities at Pitt. Finally, she looked across the quiet crowded room at me and asked, “How about you, Philip? If you attended Pitt, would you be interest in studying abroad?”

    “Study abroad!” I said. “I’d wanna study at least two or three a week.”

    My application got lost in the mail.

    • Great story, Philip. I bet your response loosened up the otherwise refined audience. And I would have loved to have seen the expression on the Dean’s face. It probably would have been sour, but she had a story to tell her husband at dinner time.

      Have a great weekend!

  10. But let’s not paint irony with the same brush we use for sarcasm. More or less by definition, sarcasm is irony that’s used to express contempt or ridicule, but irony is a Swiss Army knife with plenty of blades where that one came from. It can be used for just about anything except unambiguous statements of the truth.

  11. What a fun topic, Steve.

    I vaguely remember a scene in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” where they were going to rob a train and Butch dynamited the car with the safe in it. He overdid the explosive and it blew the money all over the place — dollar bills floated all around. The Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) said something like “You think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?” with a very snarky tone. It was hilarious.

    • Thanks for the reminder, Kay. That was one of my favorite films. And thanks for stopping by. Have a great remainder of the weekend!

  12. Interesting subject, Steve. And BTW Happy Sunday. A little feedback from across the blue line. As criminal investigators, we had a hard-fast rule never to use sarcasm during an interview or interrogation. For one thing, it serves no operational purpose and the subject will likely clam up or punch you in the nose. For another, when the conversation is played in court, you’ll likely loose all credibility with the judge and/or jury. Takeaway for crime fiction writers – it might sound cool in the story, but it wouldn’t happen in real detective life. 🙂

    • Thanks for that addition to the discussion, Garry. I had never thought about the confusion and problems sarcasm could cause in interrogations. Great point.

      Happy Father’s Day, and have a great remainder of the weekend.

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