sardonic vs. sarcastic

Discussion in 'English Only' started by Packard, Jan 12, 2009.

  1. Packard

    Packard Senior Member

    USA, English
    I was watching an episode of the TV series "Monk", and Mr. Monk said to his brother, "No need to be sarcastic", to which the brother replied, "I wasn't being sarcastic, I was being sardonic."

    Well, I've always used these words as synonyms, so I looked them up on Websters 3rd International.

    Sarcastic: marked by contempt or disgust.

    Sardonic: expressive of, or characterized by derision or scorn.

    I'm thinking that I should see some clear-cut differences between the two words (based on the dialogue in the TV show). I'm not seeing it. It sounds like different ways to express the same thought.

    Can someone explain what the difference is? I don't do well with subtlety.
    Last edited: Jan 12, 2009
  2. Dimcl Senior Member

    British Columbia, Canada
    Canadian English
    I, too, think of them as synonyms. Perhaps Mr. Monk's brother was being supremely sarcastic/sardonic when he made the statement? Not knowing the series or the characters, that's the first thing that leapt to mind - "if you think I'm being sarcastic, you haven't seen anything yet... you're such a contemptible cretin that I'll heap more scorn on you by arguing with your use of "sarcastic", you dweeb". Just a thought.:)
  3. Packard

    Packard Senior Member

    USA, English
    No. The brother offered his response as a simple matter-of-the-fact "correction". There was no apparent antagonism (other than a natural sibling rivalry).
  4. Thomas Veil Senior Member

    English - USA
    Do you remember what the sentence was before this exchange? If you're really curious, you can google the terms (interestingly enough, the first result is another thread in this forum). But I think that the main thrust of that exchange was simply to poke fun at the characters; they are so nitpicky that they can have a debate about whether something is sarcastic or sardonic.
  5. Starfrown

    Starfrown Senior Member

    Columbia, SC
    English - US
    I tend to agree with TV and Dimcl, but perhaps it will be helpful to note that Merriam-Webster's gives the following advice on these synonyms:

    "sarcastic implies an intentional inflicting of pain by deriding, taunting, or ridiculing <a critic known for his sarcastic remarks>...sardonic implies scorn, mockery, or derision that is manifested by either verbal or facial expression <surveyed the scene with a sardonic smile>."

    Also, it might be worth noting that "sarcastic" often, but not necessarily, implies the use of rather caustic irony.
  6. Cypherpunk Senior Member

    Springdale, AR
    US, English
    I found interesting etymology that may help. Sardonic at one time referred to a type of plant that would make anyone who ingested it draw their face into an apparently scornful grin, before they died. It means to be ironically mocking or cynical.
    Sarcasm originally meant 'to flay the skin', and it's usually characterized by over-emphasis of certain syllables or words to convey the opposite meaning from the phrase's normal meaning. It consists of mocking with irony.

    They still sound pretty similar to me, even with different definitions. At one time, there seems to have been a clear emphasis on facial expression with sardonic, while sarcasm always seems to have meant comments of a cutting and ironic nature. However, there seems to be a convergence in meaning, now.
  7. Packard

    Packard Senior Member

    USA, English
    I use "sarcastic" more often in conversation because I find that it is understood by more people than "sardonic".

    Thanks for the replies.
  8. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    Unfortunately, Fowler's famous table won't transcribe here, but I think it's both accurate and helpful, so I'll give the important details:

    Sardonic humour:

    Motive - self-relief; province - adversity; method - pessimism; audience - the self.

    Sarcastic humour:

    Motive - inflicting pain; province - other people's faults; method - inversion; audience - victim & bystanders

    An example of Sardonic humour: When Lord Holland was dying he knew that the necrophile, George Selwyn, was likely to call on him. He said to his servant: if Mr Selwyn calls, show him up. If I'm alive, I'll be pleased to see him; if I'm dead, he'll be pleased to see me.

    The key feature of sarcasm is inversion, saying the opposite of what you think in order to hurt the other person. It's very common among schoolchildren and rather cheap. For instance, if another person makes quite a good joke and you say very funny, we all really liked that to stop the other children from laughing, and to hurt the feelings of the teller.

    I think there is quite a large difference between the two.
    Last edited: Jan 12, 2009
  9. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
    If I've understood Thomas and Henry,

    Sardonic: I'm so out-of-touch that I've never heard of Fowler's famous table. I wonder how many it seats?

    Sarcastic: He's so clever that he asks the difference between sardonic and sarcastic six and a half dozen.
  10. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England

    I think your example of sardonic humour would only be sardonic if you yourself had no supper. For us, one key element of sardonic humour is that it is humour in adversity - like Oscar Wilde's remark to a warder, when he was made to wait in prison uniform on Reading station for half an hour as a crowd formed jeering him, that if Her Majesty often treated her prisoners like this, she soon wouldn't have any left.
  11. Packard

    Packard Senior Member

    USA, English
    So, if I understand this difference correctly you might sometimes feel obliged to apologize for a sarcastic comment because it might offend someone, but you would not have occasion to apologize for a sardonic comment because it would likely be to yourself.

    But what of a comment about a group to which you are a member? Would that be sardonic or sarcastic?

    Take this comment by a fictitious member of the Ku Klux Klan:

    "With the FBI breathing down our backs I don't know if we'll dress in white tonight or in black and white."

    (Black and white strips is the traditional pattern for prison garb.)

    Is this "sardonic"? It is thrown at both the speaker and the co-members of his fraternal organization.
  12. se16teddy

    se16teddy Senior Member

    London but from Yorkshire
    English - England
    I agree. Basically, sarcasm attacks a person; sardony attacks the nature of the universe.
  13. Franzi Senior Member

    Astoria, NY
    (San Francisco) English
    Different people make different nitpick-y distinctions between 'sarcastic' and 'sardonic'. When Adrian uses 'sarcastic', he means "I was saying the opposite of what I really meant and that was obvious, so stop answering as though I'd meant it literally."

    When Ambrose responds, he means, "Stop misusing 'sarcastic' like that. Here's what it actually means, so there!"

    For what it's worth, I agree with Ambrose's definitions. Sarcasm is much more contemptuous than being sardonic. Sardonic implies cynical, but not contemptuous.
  14. sebastian_stone New Member

    English - Arkansas
    hmmm i made a 36 on my ACT English and almost an 800 on the SAT back in the day...i always wondered about the difference between those two...what i'd say is that "sarcastic" is more limited in use; i.e.
    "If they all jumped off a bridge, you'd jump too."
    "Yeah mom, sure, I'd REALLY jump off a bridge."
    that sort of usage. but for sardonic i was under the impression that it could be anything said explicitly in a hurtful way...either way there's not a whole lot of difference that i know of. i suppose i'm taking the opposite viewpoint of Packard. i was thinking that being sarcastic was a specific subset of being sardonic toward another.
  15. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    For me this is to overlook the following:

    1. The origin of the word sardonic - the Sardinians have a particular line in humour, and it is remarkable for its bitter quality. This may be the result of their history of suffering conquest.

    2. Being sardonic need not mean being sarcastic: the Oscar Wilde example I gave isn't an example of sarcasm, neither is Lord Holland's famous remark, often cited as an example of sardonic humour: George Selwyn would indeed have been pleased to see his dead body; he was attracted to them.

    3. Fowler makes an important point about the different targets of the two forms of humour: sarcasm attacks another person; sardonic humour attacks the speaker himself.

    Here's another example of sardonic humour - some people regard it as satirical too, but I don't think it's sarcastic; it has the bitter quality which I mentioned as characteristic of sardonic humour:

    At the end of his Modest Proposal for preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public in which he argues that these admirable ends would be met if we ate our children at the age of one year old, Swift, after arguing the advantages of his scheme, how it would provide sustenance for the people, and prevent the children from suffering, at the very end, makes to reject the criticism that he has advanced his proposal out of self-interest, saying:

    I profess in the sincerity of my heart that I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. I have no children by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past childbearing.

    He may be satirizing the sort of argument put forward by the English to "improve the lot of the Irish" but he is not being sarcastic - he does not have a child whom he could send to the butcher's shop - and he has shown in the essay how the other ends could indeed be met by his Modest Proposal.

    I'm aware that people confound these two words, but to do so is, for me, to impoverish a language, in which, properly used, they have very separate meanings.
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2010
  16. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    Another Country
    English English
    Welcome to the forum, Sebastian:)
    "I assume you got a distinction for your skills in capitalization and punctuation."
    That's sarcasm. I say something deliberately mocking (and which means the opposite of what it appears to say) in order to hurt you and possibly entertain others.

    "By the way, I don't usually welcome new members in this way ~ I'm usually a lot more vicious."
    That's sardonic humour (more or less). I say something which mocks me in the hope of entertaining others. [It also happens to be totally untrue ~ see illustration above].

    I completely agree with you, Mr.T: there's a world of difference between sarcasm and sardonicness.
  17. Johnfused New Member

    In the same way that you might use 'dog' more often in conversation because you find it is understood by more people than 'canine'? Or in the same way that you use 'dog' more often in conversation because you find it is understood by more people than...'sardonic'?

    Excuse my sardony. I can only assume that you don't understand that people are trying to say there are two distinct phenomena, requiring two distinct names.

    I, too, appreciated that episode of Monk, and indeed made a recording of just that part.

    I wandered here looking for the distinction because I had just read a review on a creationist book and a comment on the review, and a comment on that comment. Here's the review:

    <TWells boook iz good. Soo glad to ssee other freinds like me here who lik wells and who scared of evolutshcion like me. Mr Wells scared tooo. Like my freinds here i think educsation iz bad. Too much complicdtion makes brain huurt, my freinds who lik Wells brians hurt too.

    Stopp hurting brain! Make thinkn easy!

    Wells make things easy four us. comfort us from ffear and coplicated tinking.

    Im glad i fownd so many freinds here who think like mme. With Wells help well show those stoopid intiLECT-youalls that you can be smaert without science.

    Im afread of flying too. I hope Wellls will write boook that shows flyying is bad and doesnt egxist either. Flyingg shuld go away too. >

    Now here's the comment:

    'A':<Kindly utilized a spell-check; your comments are not readable>

    And the comment on that comment:

    'B': <Kindly "utilized [sic]" a dictionary; you apparently don't know what sarcasm is.>

    Now, whereas 'A' is clearly shit-for-brains, 'B' is a smart-Alec, and I'd like to bring her down a peg. A distinguishing feature of the phenomenon I'm inclined to call 'sarcasm' is that of contrariness that some have referred to in these discussions, that is absent in this piss-taking; in other words she's not saying "...your erudite review". So I'd _like_ to respond to the accusation that 'A' doesn't understand sarcasm by saying, "Yeah, and you clearly do... The reviewer was being sardonic, you ignorant twat. Don't you even know the difference between sarcastic and sardonic?

    Over to you geniuses (no, no, I mean it!!) for your comments. (And if I ever find that Monk recording, I'll transcribe and post it.) Thanking you in advance.
  18. rayden54 New Member

    English - US
    The exchange between Monk and Ambrose does give definitions for both words. Monk is mad at Ambrose for not calling him after his wife, Trudy, died.
    << Four lines/sentences maximum. >>
    Adrian Monk: Oh, so you can dial a telephone! I was worried. I thought you might be paralyzed, or something.
    Ambrose Monk: I wasn't paralyzed.
    Adrian Monk: I was being sarcastic.
    Ambrose Monk: You were being sardonic. Sarcasm is a contemptuous ironic statement. You were being mockingly derisive. That's sardonic.

    Merriam-Webster Online does seem to confirm their definition of sardonic; listing it as "disdainfully or skeptically humorous : derisively mocking." It also says that sarcasm is often characterized by either satire or irony.
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 17, 2012
  19. Johnfused New Member

    Thank you!
    I find that dictionary definitions are not really that useful simply because they do not make the distinction between similar words. We shouldn't be surprised that the dictionary 'seems to confirm' Adrian's brother's version: it was written by literate types who use dictionaries. But isn't it lovely that one has 'mockingly derisive', the other 'derisively mocking'!
    It seems to me one clear distinction is that sarcasm contains not an insult, not something derogatory, but on the contrary, something ostensibly complimentary; this 'compliment' is not true, it is insincere, disingenuous, and it is this that is the source of the 'irony' we find in the -- rather unhelpful, unexplanatory, -- dictionary definitions.
    Looking forward to reading another contribution in another couple of months!
  20. morzh

    morzh Banned

    Since in my language we have exact ssame words with exact same meanings, I know for a fact they are not the same.

    When I try to make others (and myself) laugh at you out of spite, out of resentment, to make you look bad and laughable in the eyes of others, this is sardonic.

    When I do more or less the same, but just trying to ridicule you (without necessarily involving others), being ironic, trying to wound your pride, making you feel laughed at and inferior to me - this is sarcastic.
  21. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    Well it may be, Morzh. But to be sarcastic, you've got to say the opposite of what you believe to be the truth. You've got to say things like 'that was really great' when you think it's the biggest cock-up you've ever seen.

    Also, I don't think the two categories are mutually exclusive. Some forms of sarcasm are sardonic, though it's often best to go easy on adjectives.
  22. morzh

    morzh Banned


    Both are valid points.

    For me in a nutshell, it is:

    Sarcastic - I am mocking you (yes, by saying something opposite to what I really think, just to exaggerate the truth as I see it)
    Sardonic - I am making you look bad by mocking you and / or being sarcastic.

    Also let's remember there are things like "sarcastic / sardonic smile/laugh".
  23. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    I don't think we should forget the link between the sardonic and the Sards.

    Sardonic humour is often self-mockery, so I wouldn't start to go along with your definition of the Sardonic. The key characteristic of sardonic humour is deep bitterness; it's the humour of a people who have been shat upon from a great height over the centuries, without losing their independence of mind or spirit. The old Polish joke about the light at the end of the tunnel being the light on the front of the train coming down it to crush you seems sardonic to me.
    Last edited: Mar 17, 2012
  24. morzh

    morzh Banned

    Well, sardonic was first mentioned in Odissey, I think.
    Also it had something to do with laughing at death, or laughing when sacrificing old people, when everyone laughs, including those sacrificed.
    Also there was a belief about some plant in Sardinia that made people laugh (and die).

    I however tried to look up English dictionaries about "sardonic" (to see if there is a difference that would make the same word in my language a "false friend") and I have not found anything, especially what explicitly says that it is about "laughing at self". It may be one of the meanings, but :

    >>Scornfully or cynically mocking. See Synonyms at sarcastic. (AH dict)
    >>characterized by irony, mockery, or derision (Collins dict)

    There is nothing here about "self", is there?
  25. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    No, there isn't, but then I didn't say that its being self-directed was a necessary condition of sardonic humour, did I?
  26. morzh

    morzh Banned

    No, you didn't; you said it's often self-mockery.
    This does not invalidate what I said.
    One can treat oneself as bad as anyone else, but then he'd be sardonic towards himself, and this is the sole difference.
    I am talking about "sardonic" in general, whether you mock yourself or others.

    Otherwise, I have to differentiate between, say, mutilation and the self-mutilation, saying "mutilation is not really just inflicting disfiguring wounds, as it may be used on self". Yes, it may. But it is still inflicting disfiguring wounds. Whether on self or others. What matters is the action.

    Same here.
  27. skeptical1 New Member

    After reading this forum, I've concluded the writers of Monk screwed up. I too watched that episode and Adrian's motivation was anger. His brother never called after Adrian's wife died. He said these things of front of his assistant Sharona, to wound his brother, to embarrass him and to inflict pain, because of all the pain he himself had suffered. So if the definition of sarcastic is that it is said to wound another person, the whole statement is sarcastic. If the definition depends on whether you are saying something that is the opposite of the truth, it's a mixture of sardonic and sarcastic. Here's how I see it:



    I thought you might be paralyzed, or something. THAT IS SARCASTIC. HE NEVER THOUGHT AMBROSE WAS ACTUALLY PARALYZED.

    Ambrose Monk: I wasn't paralyzed.
    Adrian Monk: I was being sarcastic.
    Ambrose Monk: You were being sardonic. Sarcasm is a contemptuous ironic statement. You were being mockingly derisive. That's sardonic

    Of course the point of the scene, was to showcase Monk's anger, that Ambrose is even more of a "head case" than Monk, and that they share certain qualities. I thought it was well written. But in hindsight, perhaps they could have "tweaked" Monk's lines.
  28. Barbara21685 New Member

    German - Austria
    Can I say: Karl Kraus, the sardonic critic

    I only found sardonic collocates with comment, wit, tone, voice, grin - something a person does,
    but never a directly, like in this case.

    So, can I say that or is it wrong in this case? If yes, what else could be used? Would native speakers of AE and BE use " a sardonic person (critic)"?
  29. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Re post 28

    Hello Barbara - welcome to the forums!
    I think you're right that "sardonic" normally collocates with words like comment, wit, tone: in the British National Corpus, by far the most frequent collocate is smile (24 examples) followed by amusement (10 examples), grin (7 examples) and humour (5).
    But it's not, at all, impossible to describe someone as a sardonic critic. If you put the phrase "sardonic critic" (in inverted commas) into a Google Books search, you'll find plenty of examples:).

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