“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence.” — Oscar Wilde

This week I’m going to be taking a look at sarcasm.

If that revelation just prompted you to say to yourself, “Big deal, Mr. Word Guy,” well, congratulations. You just used sarcasm.

I also plan to take a swing at defining parody and satire. So, hopefully, I’ll make somebody’s Sunday morning. (Yeah, right).

A parody, which gets its name from the Greek “parodia,” meaning “counter song,” is mimetic or imitative. In other words, it’s a literary or musical work that imitates the style of an author or work for comic effect. (By the way, for you legal eagles, even though some copying of an original is allowed under the Copyright Act’s “Fair Use” principle, performers have to be careful not to borrow too much of the original or it’s not considered fair use.)

Generally, parodies are meant to entertain and not criticize. For example Mike Myers’ “Austin Powers” movies were a send-up mainly of James Bond films, while Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” and “Spaceballs” were take-offs of “Frankenstein” and “Star Wars” movies respectively.

For examples of parodies in music, we need look no further than Al Yankovic’s versions of several popular songs, such as “Eat It” (“Beat It”), and “Fat” (“Bad”), while a recent literary parody is Seth Grahme-Smith’s “Pride and Prejudice and Vampires,” which is his version of Jane Austin’s “Pride and Prejudice.”

Satire is the use of humor or exaggeration to expose peoples’ stupidity in topical issues — especially politics. Unlike parody, satirical works can’t depend on the Fair Use doctrine for protection; they are expected to “stand on their own two feet,” and there’s no justification for borrowing.

Good examples of satire, which is often used in the hopes of creating positive change, are: “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report” and the Weekend Update segment of “Saturday Night Live.”

Now back to my verbal weapon of choice, sarcasm. From the Greek “sarkezein,” meaning “to tear flesh, bite the lip in rage, sneer,” sarcasm is insincere speech that, according to Merriam-Webster, “is designed to cut or give pain.” In other words, if no one is being insulted, it’s not sarcasm.

The T-shirt that says “National Sarcasm Society, like we need your support,” makes the point very succinctly, but others have used the verbal irony equally effectively.

Dorothy Parker was a frequent sarcastophile, if I may, often using her characteristic negative swipes for humorous effect. Consider her sarcastic look at spring: “Every year back comes spring, with nasty little birds yapping their fool heads off and the ground all mucked up with plants.”

In his weekly “Thank You Notes” segment of “The Tonight Show,” Jimmy Fallon penned one to the leader of North Korea saying, “Thank you, Kim Jong Un, for banning sarcasm. Great idea.”

Even The Washington Post couldn’t resist getting in a little dig when it reported that “The Secret Service is looking to buy software that can detect sarcasm on social media. Yeah, good luck with that.”

I recently saw another T-shirt that made a pretty good argument for the use of sarcasm saying, “Tact is for people who aren’t witty enough to use sarcasm.” Besides, studies have shown that exposure to sarcasm enhances creative problem solving by making the brain work harder, thereby keeping it sharper. You’re welcome.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.”


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