The history of sarcasm - the lowest form of wit

‘Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence’. So said Oscar Wilde who would have been amazed to find that over a century later there would be a National Sarcasm Awareness Month each October in the UK. Sorry, you’ve just missed it.

Thursday, 17th October 2019, 11:54 am
Updated Friday, 1st November 2019, 1:08 pm
Winston Churchill in Sheffield in November 1941

Sarcasm is generally defined as the opposite of what is true in order to make someone look or feel stupid. People can use irony to mock or convey contempt of a person and it can be extremely hurtful.

Of course, not everyone recognises it as being sarcasm and then in that case it can be a complete waste of time on the part of the perpetrator.

The best way to deal with it I suspect is to give as good as you get, but unfortunately you usually only think of a witty retort well afterwards, much like the brilliant questions you could have asked at a job interview and which come to you on the bus home.

Put downs, insults as well as witty one-liners have been part of the lives of politicians and celebrities for long enough and I suppose they know just how far they can go before it becomes libel or scandal.

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Sarcasm actually has a noble tradition and there are many instances of it in both the Bible and in some of Shakespeare’s plays.

Insults or epithets are not usually considered defamatory as they are generally seen as outbursts of emotion with no real substance, except to show dislike of a person. Opinions are not normally considered defamatory because they don’t usually contain specific facts that can be proven untrue.

Slander, which is the spoken word, is harder to prove as defamatory than libel which, as the written word, is seen to be more powerful.

The House of Commons has, over the years, provided much amusement in the ‘witty put-down’ league. Winston Churchill was considered to be the outright winner in a list of the funniest insults doled out by musicians, actors, politicians and other public figures.

He was famous for his quick wit and sharp tongue and had an on-going verbal duel with leading Conservative Lady Astor who was forever chastising him for his cigar smoking and consumption of alcohol. But he was not one to take insults lying down. One memorable exchange had her saying to him ‘If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea!’ To which he replied, ‘If you were my wife, I’d drink it!’

He also said to her on one occasion, ‘I may be drunk Miss, but in the morning, I will be sober, and you will still be ugly!’

He said of Clement Attlee that he was ‘a modest man who had much to be modest about!’ Obviously aggrieved by the fact that Attlee won a landslide victory to become Prime Minister in 1945, Churchill said that ‘An empty taxi drew up to 10 Downing Street and Attlee got out.’ Clement Attlee certainly had a quiet personality and didn’t court celebrity status despite being lauded in many quarters as the greatest Prime Minister of all time.

And Churchill said of another Labour opponent ‘I’m not insulting you; I’m describing you!’ and ‘I’m busy right now. Can I ignore you some other time!’

Of more recent times, David Cameron, when Prime Minister, famously said to the then Leader of the Opposition’ I am told you enjoy a game of bingo. It’s the only time you’ll ever get close to Number 10!’

Even the peaceable Gandhi could be cutting when he wanted to. On a visit to London, a reporter asked him what he thought of Western civilisation. Gandhi replied scathingly ‘I think it would be a good idea!’

Showbiz stars of yesterday were always good for some memorable sarcastic lines. Groucho Marx after an acrimonious divorce said of his ex-wife ‘She got her good looks from her father. He was a plastic surgeon’

Mae West, the mistress of the put-down remark said of a popular actress ‘Her mother should have thrown her away and kept the stork’, with Dorothy Parker saying of an acquaintance ‘She can speak eighteen languages and can’t say ‘no’ in any of them!’

An unknown wit was credited with ‘I wasn’t always sarcastic. It took years of dealing with stupid people to become this good at it!’

The well-publicised back biting between musician brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher had Noel saying ‘Liam only has two problems. Everything he does and everything he says!’

It’s a fact that public spats between celebrities sells newspapers. At the moment readers are transfixed by the row between the two footballing ‘wags’

As Rebecca Vardy allegedly said of Coleen Rooney, ‘Arguing with Coleen would be like arguing with a pigeon!’. Profound or what?

Of course, the undisputed King of Sarcasm was always Basil Fawlty.

When a guest complained about the view from her hotel bedroom window he retorted ‘What did you expect to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window? Sydney Opera House, The Hanging Gardens of Babylon or herds of wildebeests?’

Our American friends haven’t been excluded from witty or sarcastic one liners. Someone said about George H W Bush – ‘He can’t help it; he was born with a silver foot in his mouth!’

Ronald Reagan said ‘I have left orders that I am to be alerted at any time in case of national emergency, unless I’m in a cabinet meeting’

With Abraham Lincoln’s remark that ‘It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt’ being as relevant in today’s political world as it was then!’

My love of perfume is well known, but at least I have never been subjected to the sarcastic remark made to one young woman. She was told ‘Nice perfume! How long did you marinate in it?’