Sarcasm: A cutting remark intended to express contempt or ridicule. From late Greek sarkasmos: a sneer, jest, taunt, or mockery. Its original meaning was “tear flesh”; its root is sarco-, a Latinized form of a Greek root meaning “flesh.” Compare sarcophagus (limestone used for coffins; literally “flesh-eating”) and sarcoma (a fleshy tumor).
Sarcasm was defined and debated last week after the Republican presidential nominee – who had insisted multiple times at an August 10 rally in Florida, and in an August 11 radio interview with Hugh Hewitt, that President Obama is “the founder” of ISIS and Hillary Clinton the group’s “co-founder” or, alternately, “most valuable player” – shout-tweeted that the remarks were “sarcasm.”
Ratings challenged @CNN reports so seriously that I call President Obama (and Clinton) "the founder" of ISIS, & MVP. THEY DON'T GET SARCASM?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 12, 2016
Nope, wrote Anna North in a New York Times opinion blog:
This is not sarcasm, which the Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines as “the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really want to say especially in order to insult someone, to show irritation, or to be funny.” The Washington Post offered a helpful example on Friday, titling a story on Mr. Trump’s tweet, “Donald Trump has an airtight, sensible excuse for why he said President Obama ‘founded ISIS.’”
It’s possible that Mr. Trump does not know what sarcasm is. It’s possible that he does know, and that he only tweeted about the ISIS comments again to keep the issue alive and to further stir up controversy. It’s also possible that what he says has essentially no relationship to what he actually means.
Later in the day on August 12, the candidate backtracked again, saying the remark was “not that sarcastic.”
Correct, wrote Josh Voorhees in Slate: “it was hyperbole, and a particularly hate-filled version of it at that.”
This is not the first time the New York casino owner has labeled one of his inflammatory remarks “sarcasm.” In a July 27 news conference, he said he hoped Russia had hacked Clinton’s email servers, adding: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” The following day, he told a Fox News interviewer that “of course” he’d been sarcastic.
Like irony, sarcasm conveys the opposite of what is said. The difference between irony and sarcasm, Merrill Perlman writes in the Columbia Journalism Review, is intent: sarcasm is meant to wound, while irony – generally used in reference to situations rather than people – merely points out an absurdity or contradiction:
So it’s “irony” when the movie audience knows the villain is lurking behind the door as the hero opens it, saying “The bad guy is gone.” But when the villain knocks out the hero and says “Gee, what a smart guy,” that’s “sarcasm.”
Here’s a useful chart for distinguishing types of humorous devices (from H.W. Fowler, Modern English Usage, via Online Etymology Dictionary):