THE AMATEUR WORD NERD: Sarcasm can tear the flesh right off

By Barbara McAlister

Word of the Day: Sarcasm

“Sarcasm” refers to using words to mean the opposite of what is said, often to be insulting, mocking or humorous. Sarcastic remarks are often described as hurtful, cutting or biting. Not surprising, since it comes from Greek sarco, with the original meaning “to tear flesh.” The Greek root is also seen in the word sarcophagus, a stone coffin originally made of limestone. Limestone was used because it quickly decomposes bodies. “Sarcophagus” literally means flesh-eating. The sarco root also appears in medical terms that refer to flesh, like “sarcoma” and “carcinosarcoma,” types of fleshy tumors. Because it often depends on voice inflection and context, sarcasm is not conveyed well in print.
Sardonic humor differs from sarcastic humor in that sardonic is cynical, scornful and mocking, but tends to lack the sharpness of a sarcastic barb. The word itself is said to come from a plant the ancient Greeks called sardonion, literally as “a plant from Sardinia.” Eating this plant caused facial convulsions usually followed by death. Since the Greeks thought the facial seizures resembled laughter, they called it “sardonic laughter.” Between tearing flesh and fatal convulsions, there’s not much funny in the origins of these two words used to describe types of humor.