Biting Words and Crowfeet

Dave Pitchford was wondering on Facebook about the distinction between sardonic and sarcastic. I’ve often wondered the same thing, so I looked it up in a few places. The short answer seems to be: not much. Maybe, based on the etymologies, sarcastic is more aggressive, and sardonic is more an expression of an internal (even self-destructive) sense of bitterness, but I don’t know that this controls people’s usage in any significant way.

The etymologies themselves are kind of interesting. The root of sarcasm seems to be derived from σαρκαζεῖν: “to rip flesh like dogs, to bite one’s lips.” (Also “pluck grass with closed lips, as grazing horses do” say Liddell, Scott & Jones, but I’m not sure how that’s relevant here, unless it’s the basis of a metaphor for sneering. I’ll pay closer attention the next time I see a horse grazing and get back to you about that.) Anyway, a vivid image for someone making a biting comment.

Sardonic is weirder. It seems to derive from Greek σαρδάνιος which means “bitter or scornful [laughter]” but even in the ancient world people seem to have been baffled as to why. A folk etymology grew up that it referred a Sardinian plant “Ranunculus Sardoüs, Sardinian crowfoot, called σαρδάνη… which when eaten screwed up the face of the eater” (LSJ). The tyrant OED gives a slightly different version: the plant there is “(L. herba Sardonia or Sardôa), which was said to produce facial convulsions resembling horrible laughter, usually followed by death.” About these weeds I know less than nothing, but I would strongly recommend plucking them out if they get mixed in with your chaw; no good can come of them.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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12 Responses to Biting Words and Crowfeet

  1. brownkitty says:

    I always thought of sarcastic being event-related, and sardonic being more environment-related. You’d make sarcastic comments, but be in a sardonic mood.

    • JE says:

      This makes sense to me, but most of the texts actually cited in the dictionary entries for “sardonic” refer to behavior (especially false or bitter laughter). Maybe the citations need to be updated, though: the most recent one in the OED is from 1964.

      Here’s one (long obsolete) definition of the related word sardonian, which I’d never heard of before today: “one who flatters with deadly intent.” I think I’m going to try to work that one into the next Morlock novel.

      [edited for clarity]

  2. scbutler says:

    I like to think of sardonicism as a subset of sarcasm. You can be sarcastic without being sardonic, but not the other way around.

    • JE says:

      Do you think it’s possible to be sardonic without anyone knowing about it? I guess I’m groping toward a notion that “sardonic” can describe an attitude, whereas “sarcasm” is always an action. (But I’m not sure that even my own usage reflects this, much less the usage of other people.)

      • scbutler says:

        In other words, if trees could be sardonic in a forest, would anyone know?

        I think sardonic can be both an attitude and an action. But can one have a sarcastic attitude? I’d say not.

        • JE says:


          “I think sardonic can be both an attitude and an action. But can one have a sarcastic attitude? I’d say not.”

          I think this sums up my own feeling on the distinction, too.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Oh, haha–horrible facial convulsions, like what’s-his-name. Dr. Sardonicus.

    Wouldn’t a metaphor for sneering involve lips peeled back? Unless “smirk” also enjoys a similar root, somehow (though the internets advise me that this is unlikely).


    • JE says:

      I don’t know–I think of a sneer involving the nose and upper lip, but not necessarily exposed teeth (which would be more of a snarl). But I suppose we know it when we see it, which is the main thing.

      Did you know that “smirk” has no cognates in Indo-European? It’s unique to English. Anyway, that’s what the OED says. I’m skeptical, but it would be interesting, if true.

  4. dindrane says:

    That is fascinating. Thank you for researching that for us!

    • JE says:

      Open dictionaries are a real vice for me. Noticing things while I’m looking up other things tends to eat up a big chunk of most working days.

  5. fpb says:

    I have nothing to say about the etymology, but it strikes me that “sardonic”, as compared with “sarcastic”, has more to do with expectant or satisfied schadenfreude, with an expectation that something must and will, or already has, turn[ed] out wrong. A businessman may sardonically be complimented on an enterprise that shows every sign of going bankrupt, or a coach on a disastrously wrong-headed game strategy. Sarcasm is merely negative, whereas sardonicism (does such a word even exist?) implies a certain fundamental intellectual mastery, a confidence and insight that are sure to be fulfilled.

    • JE says:

      Interesting. People’s reactions to the word are what will really control the word’s meaning in the end–etymology is interesting, but it’s not destiny.

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