Sarcastic vs. Sardonic vs. Facetious

By Maeve Maddox

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Reader ApK has asked for a discussion of the words sarcastic, sardonic, and facetious
all examples of verbal irony.

verbal irony: the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.

Sarcastic derives from the noun sarcasm.

sarcasm: a sharp, bitter, or cutting expression or remark; a bitter gibe or taunt.

Both the noun and the adjective derive from a Greek verb that had the meanings “to tear flesh, gnash the teeth, speak bitterly.”

Among the usual synonyms for sarcastic and sardonic are words that conjure up hurt and pain: caustic, scathing, trenchant, cutting, biting, sharp, acerbic.

caustic: burning, corrosive, destructive of organic tissue
scathing: from the verb “to scathe”: to injure, hurt, damage
trenchant: having a sharp edge, for cutting
acerbic: bitter, sharp, cutting

Sardonic does not have a corresponding noun in modern English, but it does derive from a Latin noun, sardonius, a poisonous plant that grew on the island of Sardinia. This plant was said to produce facial convulsions resembling horrible laughter, usually followed by death.

In a Rambler essay, Samuel Johnson referred to “Sardinian Laughter, a distortion of the face without gladness of heart.”

In modern medical terminology, risus sardonicus is a facial expression characterized by raised eyebrows and grinning distortion of the face resulting from tetanus, strychnine poisoning, or Wilson’s disease. It may also occur after a judicial hanging.

[Wilson’s disease: a hereditary disease that is characterized by excessive accumulation of copper in the body—as in the liver or brain due to abnormal copper metabolism—is determined by an autosomal recessive gene, and is marked especially by liver dysfunction and neurologic disease.]

Much of twentieth and twenty-first comedy takes the form of sarcasm and insult.

The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus lists numerous synonyms for each of these words—sarcastic (18), sardonic (17), and facetious (22).

Sarcastic and sardonic are synonyms for each other and they share most of the synonyms given for them in the OAWT. In the list given for facetious, only two of the words also appear in the lists for the other two adjectives: ironic and sardonic.

Ironic as a synonym for facetious is appropriate. Irony, after all, is a common source of humor.

Irony: the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.

In reaching for a synonym for facetious, however, I would never choose the dark word sardonic.

Synonyms for facetious include flip, glib, frivolous, tongue-in-cheek, jokey, jocular,
playful, teasing, mischievous, witty, amusing, funny, droll, comical, lighthearted
, and
jocose.

Sardonic humor is contemptuous and derisory. It sneers at its targets. Like sarcasm, it intends to hurt.

Facetious humor is silly, often inappropriate to the occasion, but never mean. Sarcastic and sardonic belong to the humor of such comedians as Don Rickles and Lewis Black. Facetious humor is the flippant jokiness of P. G. Wodehouse characters like Bertie Wooster.

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5 Responses to “Sarcastic vs. Sardonic vs. Facetious”

  • ApK

    Thanks for the article!
    One of the things that spurred my request was that I had always that thought that “sarcastic” and “sardonic” were indeed synonymous.
    Then I saw an episode of “Monk” where Monk’s even-more-of-a-genius brother corrected him, saying “I’m not being sarcastic, I’m being sardonic.” and Monk pondered and said “You’re right.”
    Now, I am quite aware that TV writers who create dialog for genius characters are not always writing from a position of personal experience (in fact, geesh, talk about irony), but for them to make it a plot point, I figure there may be something to it. The definitions for “sardonic” and “sarcastic (by way of ‘sarcasm’)” in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary are different in wording enough that I thought there must be something I just wasn’t getting, like perhaps one required irony, and one just needed to be scornful wit of any type? But now perhaps I think the take away is just that either ‘sardonic’ or ‘sarcastic’ can be used when there is some insult or hurtfulness in a non-literal quip, and “facetious” should be used when there is not?
    “Gee, you eat like a bird” is facetious when said to a hungry child who just finished a healthy meal, but it’s sardonic or sarcastic when said to an overweight person who just finished a large dessert?

  • Maeve

    ApK,
    Thanks for suggesting the topic. I enjoyed researching it. And yes, context governs word choice.

  • Amber Polo

    And what about snarky?

  • Maeve

    Amber Polo,
    I know that M-W gives “sarcastic” in its definition of “snarky,” but I wouldn’t put it in the same category as the three words discussed in this post. The three in this post refer to intended humor. I think a snarky remark arises from a feeling of irritability. Perhaps the speaker is tired or angry or jealous or just generally out of sorts.

  • venqax

    This also brings back the seemingly intractable problem of defining what irony is. Despite what some sources say, at least now, I have never understood irony to be even very similar to sarcasm, or meaning “the opposite” of the stated meaning. I have always reserved irony to mean something the opposite of what is expected, more or less. E.g., “My safe was stolen”. “He suffocated to death in his HAZMAT suit.” Those, to me, would be ironic.

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