Irony, sarcasm, cynicism – what’s the difference?

There are sarcastic cynics and cynical irony. So are they just different ways of saying the same thing? Not exactly. We’d like to show you the not-so-small differences.

“Let’s go for a walk, the weather is so beautiful,” he said as he turned on the TV. No, it was not nice weather. And yes, it was an ironic remark. Not sarcastic or cynical. We often use sarcasm, irony and cynicism as synonyms in everyday life, but this sells them short.

Irony: gives emphasis. If it is recognized.

Irony is by far the most widespread style in spoken communication. It reverses the message; you say the opposite of what you actually mean. This stylistic device is often used to criticize someone or something, or as humorous emphasis. Generally speaking, it gives a statement more weight.

“Spelling is overrated anyway.”

Anyone familiar with us here at Supertext knows that this statement can only be meant ironically. In everyday life, though, decoding irony is often a bit more difficult. It requires some worldly knowledge on the part of the listener, information about the context, and also an understanding of the speaker. Use irony carefully to avoid embarrassing incidents – and having to explain that you “meant it ironically”. Particularly in writing, where supporting factors like tone of voice and facial expression are missing.

Sarcasm: (passive) aggressive

Unlike irony, sarcasm is rarely funny. It’s a kind of mockery that aims to hurt the recipient or make others look ridiculous. It’s no wonder that it comes from the ancient Greek sarkázein, meaning ‘to strip off the flesh’ or ‘to tear to pieces’.

Sarcasm describes the intention of a statement, not the actual stylistic device. So sarcastic statements aren’t necessarily ironic:

“Marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way.” Søren Kierkegaard

Sarcasm and irony are often combined, especially in personal communication. And this is exactly why it is always difficult to distinguish them.

“Oh, no problem, wait a little longer. The light will definitely turn green again soon.”

Despite generally unkind intentions, sarcasm is not always bad – provided that it is properly decoded by the recipient. If it’s used in moderation, sarcasm stimulates a culture of conversation and even improves the creativity of the sender and recipient.

Cynicism: bitterness or just realism?

Sarcasm and irony relate to individual statements; cynicism goes far beyond that. It is a mindset that rejects existing norms and considers them ridiculous. Cynics therefore often use sarcastic and/or ironic statements, which means they are seen as embittered.

“Good luck is when misfortune happens to other people.” Horace

“If you want your conscience to remain pure, you shouldn’t use it.” Otto von Bismarck

It doesn’t have to be bitterly angry, however. Take Oscar Wilde, for example: “I am not at all cynical, I have merely got experience, which, however, is very much the same thing.” In Great Britain, black humor is an ever-popular form of cynicism.

Irony, sarcasm and cynicism, then, can be clearly distinguished in theory. However, there is almost always overlap when they are actually used in practice. Which is a bit ironic.

Image via Flickr: Ironic – Mark Harrington (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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Ein Kommentar zu “Irony, sarcasm, cynicism – what’s the difference?”

  • maurits am 22. September 2018 14:41 Uhr

    Great article

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