Culture and Entertainment

Sarcastic or Facetious?

I feel like I’ve heard discussion on a couple of podcasts the confusion of meanings between works like “irony” and “sarcasm” and “facetious.”

Word origin for “sarcasm” is about flesh tearing, which I think Jake Triplett mentioned in one of the Ghostrunner’s podcast episodes which got me thinking about this. It ties in with modern Brits discussing (seemingly constantly) Americans allegedly not understanding sarcasm and me not liking what passes for modern British humor yet adoring the classic humor (more on that in a minute) as well as thinking about how my family and our broader circle talks.

I know it’s not linguistically sound to hold onto language to concretely. The Wired language guy even discusses the use of “irony” here.

  1. Oxford Learner’s Dictionary “a way of using words that are the opposite of what you mean in order to be unpleasant to somebody or to make fun of them”
  2. Merriam Webster “a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain” or “a mode of satirical wit depending for its effect on bitter, caustic, and often ironic language that is usually directed against an individual”
  3. Cambridge Dictionary “the use of remarks that clearly mean the opposite of what they say, made in order to hurt someone’s feelings or to criticize something in a humorous way”

All of the definitions point out the intent to hurt in sarcasm. Whenever I’ve thought about sarcasm and Brits saying we don’t know it, I always thought, well we do, we just it as weapon as an ax (as opposed to a rapier wit), and always as a weapon. Now, I know that that IS what it is, it’s mainly as a weapon.

I’ve thought that some of what passes for “British humor” now is Brits trying to pass spite and/or insecurity off as humor and that the connotation of British humor is them resting on “long dead laurels” (I don’t know where I heard that phrase or to what it was even applied, but it is SO apt here). I never thought the classics stuff was mean-spirited, there was of course plenty of poking fun, but it was intrinsically witty while the impression I get of a lot of modern stuff is intrinsically petty and mean. I think looking up the definitions made things clearer. Modern Brits seem to call sarcasm humor and their humor sarcastic, but classic British humor had more than that and sarcasm was more honed and specific.

  1. Oxford Learner’s trying to appear funny and clever at a time when other people do not think it is appropriate, and when it would be better to be serious” Synonym is “flippant.”
  2. Merriam-Webster “joking or jesting often inappropriately” or “meant to be humorous or funny : not serious”
  3. Cambridge “not serious about a serious subject, in an attempt to be funny or to appear clever” Synonym is tongue-in-cheek.

These are all vaguer definitions than I thought. I was thinking facetious was the opposite meaning humor and insincere statements without the weaponization, like the connotation I have of “tongue-in-cheek.” But then I’m probably expecting to much rigidity in language.


  1. Oxford Learner’s not intended seriously; done or said as a joke”
  2. Merriam-Webster “characterized by insincerity, irony, or whimsical exaggeration”
  3. Cambridge “If you say something tongue in cheek, you intend it to be understood as a joke, although you might appear to be serious”

The Merriam-Webster definition is definitely more the connotation I have of “facetious” and “tongue-in-cheek.”

  1. Oxford Learner’s “the funny or strange aspect of a situation that is very different from what you expect; a situation like this” while Ironically “in a way that shows that you really mean the opposite of what you are saying”
  2. Merriam-Webster “the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning” and “a usually humorous or sardonic literary style or form characterized by irony” OR “incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result”
  3. Cambridge “a situation in which something which was intended to have a particular result has the opposite or a very different result” while Ironically “in a way that is interesting, strange, or funny because of being very different from what you would expect” and “in a way that suggests you mean the opposite of what you are saying, or are not serious”

It seems like “ironically” maybe is a modern sort of definition creep. I think these definitions match what I think of as “facetious” and “tongue-in-cheek.” It looks like Merriam-Webster moved that type of humor to irony rather than only have situational irony under the definition.

  1. Oxford Learner’s “​showing that you think that you are better than other people and do not take them seriously.” Synonym is mocking.
  2. Merriam-Webster “disdainfully or skeptically humorous derisively mocking”
  3. Cambridge “humorous in an unkind way that shows you do not respect someone or something”

I was thinking sardonic was closer to sarcasm that it actually is, I mean I guess sarcasm IS sardonic, like a type of sardonic comment but they aren’t interchangeable. Sardonic is just a broad category.

So there is clearly a spectrum of humor ranging from intending to hurt with sarcasm to the milder/not necessarily mean irony/facetiousness/tongue-in-cheek banter. I think that my circle has both. And I think when people use sarcasm we often try to pass it off as banter when it really is not. This explains a lot of hurt feelings and communication problems in my family. It also explains why often modern British “humor” raises my hackles while I positively adore the classic stuff particularly à la Sayers and Trollope. Actually, this kind of humor is present in Montgomery (it also explains why Anne hates sarcasm but uses lots of ironical humor) and Alcott and some modern American middle grades. It’s the American Classics that seem to be entirely devoid of humor, even often the cruel kind. And that topic will be featured in another post.

As far as modern Americans not understanding sarcasm and or tongue-in-cheek humor, we do, I think perhaps it has more to do with missing the British deadpan delivery. And no, no more definitions, I’m exhausted with that now, that one I think is fairly obvious.


    • Livia Rose

      I know, right?! I’ve heard facetious in conversation, but not near as much as sarcastic by a long shot. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard or read of sardonic outside a few British novels.

  • Marian

    This is so interesting!! I had some of the same assumptions about those words. When it comes to “sardonic” I always think of Sherlock Holmes; in fact, I think Doyle uses the word at one point to describe him. 😆

    With one or two exceptions, my family circle is pretty literal, so sometimes sarcasm or irony is lost on me. I have started to use more tongue-in-cheek humor since joining the workforce (it seems to be appreciated) and sometimes I’ll be facetious, which, true its definition, is not always enjoyed by the audience.

    Also, I totally see what you mean in the difference in British humor – say, P.G. Wodehouse (classic) vs. Doctor Who or Sherlock TV series (modern). I don’t care much for the modern variety either.

    • Livia Rose

      I think Sherlock Holmes was my first introduction to “sardonic” or at least the first time I noticed it.

      I was pretty literal growing up (even still probably), I’d fall for a lot of my siblings’ jokes (and I was the oldest) and this is super embarrassing, but I had to have the Onion site explained to me, but once I got it, I thought it was funny.

      PG Wodehouse is great. I’ve read all the Jeeves and Wooster novels and listened to the radio dramas, and now I have some of his other books in my library stacks. This is definitely a year more than others to delight in light reads.

  • Skye

    I like sarcasm in moderation and not as a means to show how clever you think you are, and it does bother me when people use it simply to cut and make other people seem stupid. Great post!

  • Catherine@basedonthebook

    I’ve never been able to understand what ironic means. How ever many definitions I read I still don’t get it! This was really interesting, but the sarcasm thing is tricky – I think what it comes down to is Americans are just more generally polite? English sarcasm I think comes from a fear of ever being earnest about anything!! In my experience it’s very rarely meant personally or spitefully – I try not to be sarcastic with people I’m not close to as it’s soo awkward if it goes over someone’s head, but it’s definitely the natural instinct!

    • Livia Rose

      I think we don’t do subtlety well (and I’m on the least subtle end of that lack), I mean everyone lies and I know Americans have a reputation for false politeness, but to me, it’s not very subtle or hard to miss. So our sarcasm is also not hard to miss. Whereas, at least the stereotype for British humor and or sarcasm is far greater subtlety.

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