An old friend of mine once explained this to me, and now I will pass this precious wisdom to the rest of the world. Here is how to identify what degree of sarcasm you are using or experiencing:
- First degree sarcasm: Saying what you don’t mean, and saying it insincerely.
E.g. “Oh! Now that was intelligent!” [said sardonically after something stupid is done]
- Second degree sarcasm: Saying what you don’t mean, but saying it sincerely.
E.g. “Oh, now that was intelligent.” [said in a complimentary way after something stupid is done]
- Third degree sarcasm: Saying what you mean, but saying it insincerely.
E.g. “Yeah, you’re a good friend.” [said in a mocking tone of voice to a true friend]
- Fourth degree sarcasm: Saying what you mean, and saying it sincerely.*
E.g. “Yeah, you’re a good friend.” [said in a matter-of-fact tone of voice to a true friend]
Or in tabled form:
|Say it insincerely||Say it sincerely|
|Say what you don’t mean||1st degree sarcasm||2nd degree sarcasm|
|Say what you do mean||3rd degree sarcasm||4th degree sarcasm|
The first degree of sarcasm is the least subtle. It is the easiest to use in conversation and the hardest to misunderstand. It is also not very funny.
Metasarcasm can occur when someone realises that first degree sarcasm is undesirable, but makes a statement that is, on the surface, first degree sarcastic—saying what one doesn’t mean, and saying it like one doesn’t mean it. This is done in full knowledge of the comedic limitations of this degree of sarcasm, and as a mockery of first degree of sarcasm itself.
The second degree of sarcasm is slightly more subtle, and depending on timing and other contextual factors, it can be very witty or very harsh. The power in this degree of sarcasm depends on the contrast between the sincerity of the statement, while actually conveying the opposite meaning.
Third degree sarcasm can be used when first or second degree sarcasm are too coarse or obvious. Imagine that your friend is obviously working very quickly at some task. You could use first degree sarcasm to say, “Wow, you’re working really slow.” That would not be very funny at all, unless it is an example of metasarcasm, so instead you might try saying in a matter-of-fact tone, “Could you pick up the pace a bit?” which would be better—a good example of second degree sarcasm—but that might seem obvious. Another option is the use of third degree sarcasm. You might say while rolling your eyes, “Yeah, that’s impressive.” You actually are impressed by your friend’s industriousness, but you say so in a way that seems to convey the opposite meaning.
The third degree of sarcasm is also sometimes used to express vulnerable truths in a way that protects the speaker. The speaker is protected by the ambiguity of the statement. Coated with a thin layer of sarcasm, the speaker can, in subsequent sentences, make the third degree sarcastic statement appear to be either an attempt at humour or alternately, a heartfelt expression of feeling, depending on how the speaker feels it has been taken.
The fourth degree of sarcasm is the most subtle, and many deny that it is sarcasm at all. Indeed, by its definition, “a sincere expression of what one really means,” it is not hard to see why it is often missed. I leave, as an exercise for the reader, the task of coming up with some examples.
[ * I have put an asterisk after this definition because this definition gives the necessary, but not the sufficient conditions for a statement to be fourth degree sarcastic. That is, not all members of the set of statements that are sincere expressions of ideas that one means to convey are also members of the set of fourth degree sarcastic statements.]