Sarcasm or Gallows Humor?

by Bill Brenner on January 14, 2010

It’s appropriate to start with Dilbert’s take on the topic at hand:


My wife just read my post on the Power of Sarcasm and decided to go digging for the actual definition. She’s an editor. That’s what she does.

Here’s what she found:

“Sarcasm” is “a keen or bitter taunt : a cutting gibe or rebuke often delivered in a tone of contempt or disgust” or “the use of caustic or stinging remarks or language often with inverted or ironical statement on occasion of an offense or shortcoming with intent to wound the feelings.”

She pointed out that I’m not really a bitter person, and that my jabs are playful. So why bring myself down in the gutter and suggest I’m a bad person when I’m not?

In the comments section of that post, she wrote:

Why you say the off-color remark is as important as what you say. If the intent is to show your contempt, to point out an offense, or to hurt someone, you are being sarcastic.

But if your intent is to make light of a tough situation as a release, not to wound, that seems to me to be more of a black humor: humor marked by the use of usually morbid, ironic, grotesquely comic episodes.” It may be something else altogether as well; I won’t pretend to be an expert on humor and all its vagaries. But I do sense different emotions and intents behind different humorous responses.

Sarcastic seems very mean to me (esp. in light of the definition above) and a very different thing from a gentle teasing, not meant to wound at all.

Fair point. I would definitely describe mine as a dark humor. Or Gallows humor. Sarcastic when I’m in a bad mood, perhaps.

As I said before, sarcasm is also a root of dysfunction in other parts of my family. Several of my family members are equally sarcastic, if not more so. But I sometimes get offended by it because I feel like people are laughing AT someone instead of laughing WITH them. This has produced a fair share of strain on that side of the family, and I have to claim fault on my end.

I described it as hypocrisy on my part in the last post. But if one is to take these definitions in their purest meaning, maybe I’m not being hypocritical after all.

Which means I’m now free to unleash even more sarcasm. Or dark humor.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Erin Brenner January 17, 2010 at 7:39 am

I’d agree that you have more of a gallows sense of humor: “Humorous treatment of a grave or dire situation: “conveying with gallows humor the utter insanity of the nuclear-arms race” (New York).” If you’re going to be surrounded by so many gallows, you’re going to get immune to it somewhat and find the humor in it. Not always a bad thing.

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