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
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.