Many years ago, I spent the princely sum of one pound and fifty pence for a copy of The Lowest Form Of Wit by Leonard Rossiter. Rossiter, who died in 1984, was best known in the UK for his comedic roles as the landlord Rigsby in the series Rising Damp, and Reginald Perrin in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. In both of these classics, he was not averse to the use of sarcasm, and his 1981 book was a paen to what has been called “the lowest form of wit.”
The phrase, “the lowest form of wit” is oft used, but its origin is obscure. The Internet, being the Mother of All Lies, ascribes it to Oscar Wilde, who was a master of sarcasm himself and certainly a worthy owner of the phrase. Alas, no Wilde scholar has been able to point to its existence in any of his works. Some folks say that it is actually a corruption of “sarcasm is the lowest form of humor but the highest form of wit,” a phrase that is similarly cited as being from Wilde, yet just as impossible to demonstrate!
And it doesn’t stop there. Michael DeJong, in an article for The Huffington Post, wrote a piece on “Sarcasm Month” and supplied a new misquote where he says, “as Oscar Wilde stated, Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence.'” Sorry Michael, it appears he didn’t say that either!
Proverbial origins aside, the actual word sarcasm is of Greek origin, from σαρκάζειν meaning “to tear flesh, gnash the teeth, speak bitterly.” (OED, Vol. XIV, p. 480). This evolved into the Latin sarcasmus, and took on the meaning of “A sharp, bitter, or cutting expression of remark; a bitter gibe or taunt.” (Ibid.)
If you use sarcasm, you are being sarcastic, or you may even be described as being a sarcast. The word can also be used in its adverbial form, sarcastically – or even, at a pinch, sarcasmically. This is a rare word indeed and first appears in John Jones’ 1658 tome, Ovid’s Invective or curse against Ibis, where he writes, “It is inhumane sarcasmically to insult over a captive as a Cat over a Mouse.”
Recent research suggests that contrary to its “lowest form of wit” appellation, sarcasm requires some sophisticated mental processing. In an article entitled The Neuroanatomical Basis of Understanding Sarcasm and Its Relationship to Social Cognition, psychologists Simone Shamay-Tsoory, Rachel Tomer, and Judith Aharon-Peretz found that understanding sarcasm requires a healthy right frontal lobe. Underlying this is the fact that in order to know sarcasm is taking place, you have to be able to appreciate the point of view of the speaker – a skill that requires the hearer to shift from an egotistical point of view. This is thought to be a skill lacking in folks who exhibit autistic behavior; the inability to appreciate the perspective of other people.
So let me finish with a few examples of sarcasm culled from the wit of various writers – including Oscar Wilde:
“I often have long conversations all by myself, and I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying. ” Oscar Wilde.
“Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” Mark Twain.
“I did not attend his funeral: but I wrote a nice letter saying that I approved of it. Mark Twain.
“Jane Austen’s books, too, are missing from this library. Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it.” Mark Twain.
“I believe in luck: how else can you explain the success of those you don’t like?” Jean Cocteau.
“The trouble with her is that she lacks the power of conversation but not the power of speech.” George Bernard Shaw.
“He is a man of great common sense and good taste… meaning thereby a man without originality or moral courage.” George Bernard Shaw.
“The brain is a wonderful organ. It starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.” Robert Frost.
“This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” Voltaire.
“I must say I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on I go to the library and read a good book.” Groucho Marx.