“Oh great, you’re early ” (As said to someone who is actually egregiously late.)
The SarcMark (short for “sarcasm mark”) is actually the trademarked creation of a man named Douglas Sak, who markets it as “the official, easy-to-use punctuation mark to emphasize a sarcastic phrase, sentence, or message.” Today I examine this useful little device, and sarcasm more generally.
The word sarcasm comes from the Greek σαρκασμός (sarkasmós) which is taken from σαρκάζειν (sarkázein) meaning “to tear flesh, bite the lip in rage, sneer”.
However, the word sarcastic, meaning “Characterized by or involving sarcasm; given to the use of sarcasm; bitterly cutting or caustic”, doesn’t actually appear anywhere until 1695.
Of course sarcasm existed before then, it just didn’t have a name!
Enter ‘Sarcasm, Inc.’
Tom Meltzer from the Guardian wrote about the genesis of the SarcMark. He wrote:
“You may not yet have heard of Michigan-based Sarcasm, Inc but it would be no exaggeration to say that it may soon be as big a household name as Tesco or Google.
Its product, perhaps the most innovative and original of the century so far, is a punctuation mark for sarcasm.
And although strangers to the mark might mistake it for a squiggle with a dot inside, the “SarcMark” will soon be turning up in our inboxes every day. The question that will baffle future generations is how we managed to live without it for so long.”
Like most inventions, the SarcMark came to be out of necessity.
Its creator, toy manufacturer and businessman Douglas Sak, was writing an e-mail to a friend and was attempting to be sarcastic. It occurred to him that the English Language, and perhaps other languages, lacked a punctuation mark to denote sarcasm.
Sarcasm, Inc. was formed in 2006 to pursue this idea, and the punctuation mark for sarcasm came to life.
Despite treading the unchartered territory of inventing a new punctuation mark, the shareholders of Sarcasm, Inc. have been pleasantly surprised by the rate at which it has spread and the demands for the SarcMark to be available on various platforms.
Sarcasm, Inc. states that they intend to relentlessly pursue development and spread what is a simple idea, but they believe absolutely necessary in the sarcastic world we live in today.
The first SarcMarks?
It’s surprising, given the simple brilliance of the idea, that it has never been overtly suggested before, although linguistically we have often sought to express irony or sarcasm in typography.
In 1668, John Wilkins, in An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, proposed using an inverted exclamation mark to punctuate ironic statements. In 1841, Marcellin Jobard, a Belgian newspaper publisher, introduced an irony mark in the shape of an oversized arrow head with small stem (rather like an ideogram of a Christmas tree). The next year he expanded his idea, suggesting the symbol could be used in various orientations (on its side, upside down, etc.) to mark “a point of irritation, an indignation point, a point of hesitation”.
Hervé Bazin, in his essay “Plumons l’Oiseau” (1966), used the Greek letter ψ with a dot below for the same purpose (). In the same work, the author proposed five other innovative punctuation marks: the “doubt point” (), “conviction point” (), “acclamation point” (), “authority point” (), and even a “love point” ().
In March 2007, the Dutch foundation CPNB (Collectieve Propaganda van het Nederlandse Boek) presented another design of an irony mark, the ironieteken: ()And US writer and satirist Josh Greenman proposed the upside-down exclamation mark as a “sarcasm point” in an article for Slate magazine in 2004.
The are numerous alternative solutions to express sarcasm already in use, from emoticons such as :p, (a tongue sticking out), 😉 (a winking eye), and others, to pseudo-html markers such as [/s] and </sarcasm>, but none are likely to be an obstacle to the SarcMark’s predicted success.
But in our view, none match up to the scribbled brilliance of the SarcMark.
The real breakthrough of Sarcasm, Inc is the realization that, despite having used sarcasm and irony in the written word for hundreds of years, humans are simply not wired to consistently recognise when someone has said the opposite of what they mean when writing. (And sometimes when they are beiong spoken to – see below.) The SarcMark solves that problem where writing is concerned, and you can download it from the inventors for the reasonable price of US$1.99 (£1.20).
The prayers of the helplessly sarcastic are answered!
Sarcasm is growing. And we’re not being sarky.
With the spoken word, we use our tone, inflection and volume to question, exclaim and convey our feelings. The written word has question marks and exclamation points to document those thoughts, but sarcasm has for too long had nothing to denote it!
And in today’s world with increasing commentary, debate and rhetoric, what better time could there be to ensure that no sarcastic message, comment or opinion is left behind un-understood?
The SarcMark was intended to be of roughly the same size as existing glyphs, and included a point because of its presence in other terminal punctuation marks such as the question mark and exclamation point.
Fascinatingly, in certain Ethiopic languages, sarcasm and unreal phrases are indicated at the end of a sentence with a sarcasm mark called temherte slaq, a character that looks like an inverted exclamation point ¡. The usage directly parallels John Wilkins‘ 1668 proposal to use the inverted exclamation point as an irony mark. But a proposal by Asteraye Tsigie and Daniel Yacob in 1999 to include the temherte slaq in unicode – the world standard for text and emojis – was unsuccessful.
It is now very acceptable in Spanish to begin a sentence with an opening inverted exclamation mark (“¡”) and end it with a question mark (“?”), or vice versa, for statements that are questions but also have a clear sense of exclamation or surprise such as: ¡Y tú quién te crees? – “And who do you think you are?!”
Normally, four signs are used, thusly: ¡¿Y tú quién te crees?!
Bucking the modern trend, the Buddhist monk Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu has identified sarcasm as contrary to right speech, an aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path leading to the end of suffering.
He opines that sarcasm is an unskillful and unwholesome method of humor, which he contrasts with an approach based on frankly highlighting the ironies inherent in life.
Or as my Mother-in-law used to say “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit.” Which it sometimes may be, but we still need to understand when it is being used, do we not?
Sarcasm isn’t all that loved in psychology, either
Professionals in psychology and related fields have long looked upon sarcasm negatively, particularly noting that sarcasm tends to be a maladaptive coping mechanism for those with unresolved anger or frustrations.
Psychologist Clifford N. Lazarus describes sarcasm as “hostility disguised as humor”. And while an occasional sarcastic comment may enliven a conversation, Lazarus suggests that too frequent use of sarcasm tends to “overwhelm the emotional flavor of any conversation”. A bit like too much salt in a dish.
Understanding the subtlety of this usage requires second-order interpretation of the speaker’s or writer’s intentions; different parts of the brain must work together to understand sarcasm. This sophisticated understanding can be lacking in some people with certain forms of brain damage, dementia and sometimes autism, and this perception has been located by MRI in the right parahippocampal gyrus. Large numbers of people simply don’t get sarcasm.
Why do some people just not understand sarcasm?
Research on the anatomy of sarcasm has shown, according to Richard Delmonico, a neuropsychologist at University of California, Davis, that people with damage in the prefrontal cortex have difficulty understanding non-verbal aspects of language like tone. Neuroscientist David Salmon at the University of California, San Diego, stated that this type of research could help doctors distinguish between different types of neurodegenerative diseases, such as frontotemporal dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Which means it makes more sense than ever to clearly denote sarcasm in the written word, if you want your sarcasm to be understood.
Need a SarcMark on your device?
¿ and ¡ are available in all keyboard layouts for Spanish-speaking countries. Smart phones typically offer these if you hold down ? or ! in the on-screen keyboard. Auto-correct will often turn a normal mark typed at the start of a sentence to the inverted one. On systems with an AltGr key (actual or emulated via right Alt key) and Extended ( or ‘International’) keyboard mapping set, the symbols can be accessed directly, though the sequence varies by OS and locality: for example on Windows and US-International, use AltGr+1 and AltGr+/; on Chrome OS with UK-Extended, use AltGr+⇧ Shift+1 and AltGr+⇧ Shift+-.
Of course, where sarcasm really becomes important is in the realm of political satire. One only has to recall the eviscerating satire of people in Britain like David Frost, Monty Python or Peter Cook and Dudley Moore or in America like Dorothy Parker, Tom Lehrer, Jon Stewart or the team at Saturday Night Live to understand how central satire is to our world. Puncturing pomposity and exposing cant is an important part of a successful civil society. Subvert the dominant paradigm!
Anyway, if you are at all interested in some research about how influential satire is in today’s television talk shows and in our media today then listen to this fabulous podcast by Malcolm Gladwell – I recommend it highly. https://www.pushkin.fm/podcasts/revisionist-history/the-satire-paradox.
Revisionist History is a wonderful podcast.
And thanks every so much for reading this far. No, that’s not sarcastic – I mean it!
JenieTags: guardian irony Malcom Gladwell media monk punctuation sarcasm sarcmark satire thanissaro bhikki