Sarcasm is an ironic or satirical remark tempered by humor. Mainly, people use it to say the opposite of what's true to make someone look or feel foolish. For example, let's say you see someone struggling to open a door and you ask them, "Do you want help?" If they reply by saying, "No thanks. I'm really enjoying the challenge," you'll know they're being sarcastic. Sarcasm is all about the context and tone of voice, which is why it works better verbally. It's something you'll know when you hear it.
Sarcasm can also be used for comedic relief. For example, "I walked into my hotel room and wondered if the interior decorators thought orange was the new black." The main gist of sarcasm is that the words are not meant to be taken literally. Let's walk through some examples of sarcasm for a better understanding.
When a sister faces her sloppy brother:
I love those mustard stains on your oversized hoodie. They really bring out the color in your eyes.
When something bad happens:
That's just what I needed today!
When a husband comes home after a long day at work:
I work 40 hours a week for us to be this poor.
When you expected something to happen, especially after warning someone about it:
Well, what a surprise.
When a roommate is acting bizarre:
Is it time for your medication or mine?
When someone says something that is very obvious:
Really, Sherlock? No! You are clever.
When someone puts on too much perfume:
Nice perfume. How long did you marinate in it?
When someone does something wrong:
Very good; well done!
An author might develop a character with a biting tongue. Perhaps they're very blunt in their delivery. At other times, they might be sarcastic to let the other characters sense their dismissive nature. In our first example, Harry Potter is definitely letting his uncle know he thinks very little of his level of intelligence. Here are some examples:
"What were you doing under our window, boy?"
"Listening to the news," said Harry in a resigned voice.
"Listening to the news! Again?"
"Well, it changes every day, you see," said Harry.
- J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
"Thank you for explaining that my eye cancer isn't going to make me deaf. I feel so fortunate that an intellectual giant like yourself would deign to operate on me."
- John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
"Funny," Venkat said. "Be a smart-ass to a guy seven levels above you at your company. See how that works out."
"Oh no," Mindy said. "I might lose my job as an interplanetary voyeur? I guess I'd have to use my master's degree for something else."
- Andy Weir, The Martian
Leonard: Hey, Penny. How's work?
Penny: Great! I hope I'm a waitress at the Cheesecake Factory for my whole life!
Sheldon: Was that sarcasm?
Sheldon: Was that sarcasm?
- "The Financial Permeability," Season 2, The Big Bang Theory
Dr. House: "Ah, my birthday. Normally, I'd put on a festive hat and celebrate the fact that the Earth circled the Sun one more time. I really didn't think it was going to make it this year. But, darn it if it wasn't 'the little planet that could' all over again."
- "The Socratic Method", Season 1, House, M.D.
Chandler: "I'm glad we're having a rehearsal dinner. I rarely practice my meals before I eat."
- "The One With Phoebe's Wedding, " Season 10, Friends
If someone's being sarcastic, it's likely there's a bite somewhere in their words. If any of these examples remind you of verbal irony, then you're onto something. Sarcasm is closely linked to verbal irony. Both rhetorical devices say one thing but mean another.
The difference is that verbal irony is meant to be eye-catching or funny. Sarcasm is meant to be that, plus a drop of bitterness. For more on sarcasm's kin, check out these examples of irony.