Sarcasm – Rhetorical stylistic devices

What is sarcasm?

Image result for sarcasmThe rhetorical stylistic device of sarcasm is characterized by acrid sharpness, scorn and malice. The aim of sarcasm is to ridicule and ridicule a person or an opponent’s position.

Sarcasm is not a rhetorical figure in the narrower sense. He refers more to the key and purpose of a text. In order to recognize the stylistic device of sarcasm, one therefore needs knowledge about the context and background of the presented facts. Related stylistic devices are irony and cynicism.

word meaning

The term sarcasm is derived from the Greek word sarkasmós , which literally means “mangling”. The intention of the one who uses the stylistic device of sarcasm is to mangle it with words, that is, to hurt.

Sarcasm in the literature: the satire

In literature, the stylistic device of sarcasm is most often found in satire . Sarcasm is used here to express criticism. This is the case above all in political satire: Bitter scorn and biting ridicule serve to expose social injustices.

A famous literary example of sarcasm is Jonathan Swift’s satire “A Modest Proposal” (1729). Swift makes the government the “humble proposal” to get rid of the poor children of Ireland by eating them. So you solve the same problems of hunger and overpopulation. The target of Swift’s sarcasm is the ruling English upper class.

Sarcasm in journalism and politics: the polemic

Polemics are verbal attacks that are sharp, direct and often insulting. You can find them in political debates and journalistic contributions. Frequently lack objective arguments, this is sometimes alluded to personal weaknesses of the opponent. The offense is intended. Sarcasm is therefore one of the most important stylistic devices in polemics.


The publicist Henryk M. Broder rejects the nuclear agreement with Iran. He writes about the meeting of the Iranian ruler Rouhani with the German vice-chancellor Gabriel:

“That’s what it looks like when a monarch condescends to receive a sales representative.” ( Source )

With the term “commercial agent” (= Gabriel) he degrades the high-ranking politician to the vicarious agent of economic interests. “The monarch” (= Rouhani) “lets himself down.” So there is a power gap. With sarcasm, Broder expresses his criticism of German politics.

Poet conflict and sarcasm

Image result for literatureEven conflicts between poets sometimes end in polemic. The goal is to make the opponent or his work ridiculous. In the well-known Goethe polemic of the German critic Wolfgang Menzel (1798 – 1873) there are many examples of sarcasm.

Example: Wolfgang Menzel

“Goethe felt no pain other than insulting vanity.”

The criticism is inappropriate and does not refer to Goethe’s work. Instead, it targets an imputed personal weakness of the poet – a typical feature of sarcasm.

The romantic Novalis (1772 – 1801) is also sarcastic, but not about Goethe’s person. The statement refers to his novel »Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship«:

Example: Novalis

“[…] a fatal and silly book. The joy that it is now over, you feel in the end in full measure. The whole is a nobilitierter novel. Wilhelm Meister’s apprenticeship, or the pilgrimage after the nobility diploma. “

Demarcation to irony

Sarcasm is often confused with irony. Although both stylistic devices are related to each other, they are clearly distinguishable from each other.

Irony is initially neutral in value: what is said expresses the opposite of what is actually meant. Irony can mean ridicule and scorn (1), but also vice versa praise (2). In this way, it is often used by speakers who are reluctant to voice their feelings. An ironist may fear a too “flowery,” sentimental way of speaking.

Example (1): irony as an element of sarcasm

Anja tells her friend Tabea about a date with a boring classmate. She says, “The evening with him was really exciting.”

Anja wants to belittle the fellow students with a sarcastic remark, using irony. She did not find the meeting entertaining, but claims “ironically” the opposite. Irony can therefore be an element of sarcasm. This is called indirect sarcasm.

Direct sarcasm in this example would be an unequivocal reduction of the fellow student, eg. B .: “The evening with him was worse than a visit to a dentist.”

Example (2): irony without sarcasm

Anja visits Tabea, who cooks well and with whom she gets along well. As she leaves, she says, “Your meal was terrible, as usual.”

Anja wants to thank her friend for the evening and compliment her on her cooking skills. The statement is ironic, but not sarcastic. It is rather meant as a loving joke.

Delimitation to cynicism

The distinction between cynicism and sarcasm is more difficult than that between irony and sarcasm . While irony is a true figure of speech, cynicism , like sarcasm, expresses a certain way of speaking.

Sarcasm and cynicism can only be identified if one knows in which context and with what purpose they are used.

Sarcasm always involves the mocking attitude of the speaker or writer towards the addressee. Here, sarcasm can be used selectively . The speaker or author does not have to have a generally pessimistic view of the world or a necessarily negative attitude towards his subject.

Example: sarcasm

“If you are looking for a good, discerning and beautiful woman, you do not look for one but three.” (Oscar Wilde)

The quote is spiteful and funny at the same time. Wilde seems to make the comment more out of desire for the successful punch line than out of a generally misogynistic attitude out. Since there were women in his life whom he admired and loved, this interpretation is close. The knowledge of his biography makes it possible to interpret this sentence as sarcasm.

The use of cynicism, on the other hand, indicates a destructive to inhumane worldview . A cynic attacks social values ​​or violates moral conventions. The taboo break is often accompanied by cynicism.

Example: cynicism

“The low-growing, narrow-shouldered, broad-legged and short-legged sex could only call the beautiful, man-made, intellect-haunted by the sex instinct.” (Arthur Schopenhauer)

From this statement speaks contempt, yes, disgust for women. Schopenhauer, as a “hatred of women” in the history of philosophy, mocks women with this sentence. The quote is not snappy, but mean. Lightness and wit are sought in vain; they are lost in favor of the devastating offense. That is why cynicism is used here.