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Last Updated: Friday, 28 October 2005, 10:23 GMT 11:23 UK
The rules of sarcasm

By Steve Tomkins

Sarcasm is so ubiquitous these days, it almost goes unnoticed. But, as David Beckham proved, when he was sent off this week for seemingly clapping a referee who had just booked him, not everyone is a fan. The trick is to use sarcasm intelligently, and sparingly.

They say sarcasm is the lowest form of wit. Yeah, right. Assuming "they" are the same experts who tell us "Look before you leap" and "He who hesitates is lost", then I think we all know how incisive and invaluable their advice is. What would we do without it?

What have these geniuses got against sarcasm? Well, it's rude. It is a put-down, and often unkind. If someone says to you, "That was really clever", you would prefer them not to be sarcastic.

Also, it's crude. It's about as clever as pointing and laughing. Compared to the incisive brilliance of Oscar Wilde or Dorothy Parker, simply saying the opposite of what you mean does not impress anyone with your razor-sharp repartee.

When David Beckham got himself sent off for clapping the referee who had booked him, that so boosted his standing in the nation, didn't it? (Incidentally, the England captain had the last laugh, when it was later judged he hadn't meant to insult the ref.)

Beckham and Rooney
Beckham and Wayne Rooney - both red-carded for sarcastic clapping
But "they" aren't so big and clever themselves, putting down sarcasm. For a start, surely the lowest form of wit is loud flatulence, not sarcasm. It can be a beautiful and impressive thing (sarcasm, not the other, though each to their own).

So may I offer, in all due sincerity, my tips on how to love sarcasm and make it work for you.

Note first of all that we are all sarcastic, often without noticing it. "Oh, very funny," we say, without cracking a smile. When the cat suffers an upset tummy on the lounge carpet: "That's all I need."

Some phrases are only ever used sarcastically: My heart bleeds. Wise guy. My hero. Big deal. Our beloved leader (in Britain, anyway). And any phrase at all that begins "oh so..." ("He's oh so smart").

Some phrases have been used sarcastically for so long they now mean the opposite of what they once did: "Too bad," was once an expression of sympathy, till the sarcastic crowd got their hands on it.

But if you're willing to move on from everyday sarcasm to something bigger and better, you will find it an art, with a noble tradition. Learn from the masters.

Follow the bard

It goes back as far as the Biblical prophets. When the prophets of Baal fail to call down fire from heaven in a contest with Elijah, he cries: "Pray louder! He is a god! Maybe he is daydreaming or relieving himself, or perhaps he's gone on a journey! Or maybe he's sleeping, and you've got to wake him up!" (Good News version)

Robert Reynolds as Claudio, Robert Lindsay as Benedick
Benedick, right, makes light of the cattle drover's reputation for dishonesty
Some of the great figures of comedy, from Beatrice and Benedick to Chandler Bing, have endeared themselves to discerning audiences with sarcasm. "Why, that's spoken like an honest drover" says Benedick, in Much Ado About Nothing, when Claudio lies to him: "so they sell bullocks."

"Ooh," says Chandler as Ross attaches his nicotine patch, "I'm alive with pleasure now".

Then there's Eddie Izzard, recounting how he saw a London Underground guard checking an unattended bag by shaking it: "Oh, Captain Clever! Rattle it, if it doesn't go off it can't be a bomb!"

And the king of sarcasm, Basil Fawlty, when Mrs Richards complains about the view of Torquay: "What did you expect to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window? Sydney Opera House perhaps? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically...?"

So there is no reason why sarcasm has to be dumb. Just as there are corny puns and inspired ones, and funny and feeble versions of three men going into a pub, so the glories of sarcasm are only limited by your wit. Learn from the examples above: apply a flair for words, wit, a pinch of attitude, and maybe a toilet reference, and the world will marvel. How hard can it be?

People repellent

Could "they" be equally wrong about sarcasm being especially rude and unkind? As if. Almost all jokes are at someone's expense after all, apart from puns. And if sarcasm is particularly apt for putting the fools in their places, it can equally be self-deprecating, or just a complaint about the outrageous trials of life that beset good people like us.

Modern-day master
Modern-day master of the sarky quip, Jack Dee
That said, it can be a powerful anti-personnel device, when the personnel around you really deserve it. But a couple of caveats.

Firstly, make sure you're right. Like all powerful weapons, you don't want sarcasm to blow up in your face. I once worked for an uptight, hyper-organised and over-sarcastic supervisor, and was sent in my first week to an interview. "Still here?" she demanded, shortly before it.

"Do you want to be late?" "No..." "Because you're going to be, aren't you?" "No, it's next door in half an hour." "Oh." She left a humbled tyrant, and I enthroned on the adoration of my peers, which I like to believe was sincere.

Secondly, don't overuse it. It's like chilli. A little here and there spices things up and shows them who's boss, but you don't make many friends by sprinkling it in everything.

Finally, my secret weapon against overly sarcastic people: fail to understand sarcasm - take everything they say at face value. "Well that's just great!" they snarl. "Really?" you reply sweetly, "I thought you'd be upset." Keep it up and they'll be banging their head against the wall. And we wouldn't want that now, would we?

Add your comments on this story, using the form below. Your enjoyable (really) article makes the usual mistake of confusing sarcasm with irony. I believe a little research will confirm that sarcasm is cutting and insulting and not always witty and intends words to be taken for what they mean, while it is IRONY that twists an expression into its opposite. "You have the face of a pig" is sarcasm: "Your face is so beautiful..... for a pig" is ironic.
Richard, Wellingborough

I used to work in a section that was lorded over by a not wholly un-attractive man. He used and abused his good looks to ogle the women in the section. I was not long in the section and I accidentally put mail for someone else on his desk. He roared down the office that this letter was for "Tim, the ugly guy". I replied (just loud enough to be heard) "I see how I got confused". Cue much derisory laughter aimed at him and much adoration (nudge, nudge) from the women in the office.
Stephen, Dublin

My ex used to think he was the greatest at sarcasm. Unfortunately, most of the time he was just actually being rude to me and couldn't understand why constant, never-ending sarcasm actually felt like abuse a lot of the time. That's why he's my ex.
K, London, UK

It all reminds me of that character on the "Mary Whitehouse Experience" (played, I think, by Rob Newman) who had the unfortunate affliction of sounding sarcastic when he was being sincere, and only sounding sincere when he was trying to be sarcastic. Got him into all sorts of trouble. I still use his catchphrase "Oh what a personal disaster" (said in sarcastic tones).
John Myhill, Northampton, UK

Yeah, great article.
Steve R, London, UK

What annoys me about sarcasm is people's general inability to distinguish it from irony. Irony and sarcasm are two separate and distinct subjects, although they do overlap at times.
Michael S, Lancaster, UK

I find in these politically correct days sarcasm is the only tool you have against the PC Nazi's, they simply don't understand it, so they can not ban it.
Matthew Graal, Stoke-on-Trent

They say sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, they are of course wrong. Michael Jackson jokes are of course the lowest form of wit as they require absolutely no form of imagination or intelligence to create. However we still smile a little smile and laugh a shallow sarcastic laugh happy to know where the true butt of the joke lies.
Dan, UK

People are so sarcastic these days that if someone's not on the ball, they can often get the wrong end of the stick.
Dan, Bristol

As a defence to sarcastic wit, when I was younger, my manager used to ask me to stop being facetious ... to which I would reply to spell it and I'll stop it. Any right minded person faced with that challenge would return with the 100% correct spelling and shut me (a smart mouthed 19 year old) up, but no, I must have used that line as a reply at least 10 times inside 6 months without ever being challenged.
Joe Postin, Tamworth UK

The problem with the written word is that with no verbal clues it can sometimes be difficult to tell whether a comment is sincere or sarcastic. Great article, by the way.
Adam, Leicester, UK

Being rather proud of her still youthful looks she asked: 'Do I look 50?' 'Not any more'
Phil Jones, Frangy France

I've noticed, particularly at work, a lot of people like to think of themselves as sarcastic, when all they do is say the opposite of everything, and smirk. Hmmm, endlessly entertaining.
Paul G, Fleet, Hampshire

Sarcasm is to the British, what Sincerity is to the Americans. and it's easily proved. Just say "Have a nice day!"
Oli, Deeside

If you have been sarcastic, and the victim retorts by saying, "sarcasm is the lowest form of wit", simply ask them to name higher forms of wit. They will respond, rather sharply, by saying, "...erm, er".
Mike, London

The people who regard sarcasm as the lowest form of wit are the dullards who (a) think up a witty riposte some eight hours after it would be useful and (b) are most often its victims. Since sarcasm of the non-footballer variety requires intelligence, it's only natural that it should be resented by them.
Jason, Herts, UK

Anyone who thinks that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit has obviously never seen a custard pie thrown in someone's face. Or heard of "happy slapping".
Rob, Swansea

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