I have sometimes been called a “sarky b*****d”, my own attempts at dry wit, edgy word play and irony dismissed as, well, mere sarcasm. Indeed, I was once beaten up after offering someone a genuinely felt compliment, taken entirely the wrong way because of the arid manner of delivery. I didn't make that mistake again and have stuck to insults ever since.
So Britain's wider sarky community – larger proportionately than in many other irony-free cultures such as America, Germany or North Korea, say – will be as gratified as I am that some academics (and when did they get anything wrong?) have determined that sarcasm is a higher form of wit delivered by those enjoying a higher form of intelligence, and can help dullards improve their intellectual capacities – which might also suggest that sarcasm is also associated with a higher form of arrogance.
Not that they're at all arrogant at Harvard Business School, Columbia Business School and Insead (“the Business School for the World”), all renowned for their humility; it is they who have produced the paper with the modest title The Highest Form of Intelligence: Sarcasm Increases Creativity for Both Expressers and Recipients.
Naturally, as you can tell, I always knew this to be the case, and that the old saying – insult is too grand a term for it – that “sarcasm is the lowest form of wit” was the most elevated of nonsense. Let us take one of the greatest, if not the greatest, wits of all time – I'm not being ironic now – Groucho Marx. Virtually everything the old boy said, the way he said it and what he was doing while saying it, was a form of sarcasm. A lazy journalist would take that cue to just fill up the rest of an article with old Marx Brothers lines, but not this one. No, this one is a hard-working journalist who is going to take the opportunity to fill up the rest of the space with lines from the Marx Brothers. And a few others, too.
“I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it.”
“A child of five would understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five.”
“Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honour, which is probably more than she ever did.”
And surely the funniest exchange ever in a British TV comedy series – nothing more or less than a burst of inventive, inspired, ingenious sarcasm…
Mrs Richards: “When I pay for a view, I expect something more interesting than that.”
Basil: “But that is Torquay, madam.”
Mrs Richards: “Well it's not good enough.”
Basil: “Well may I ask what you expected to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window? Sydney Opera House perhaps? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plain…”
Mrs Richards: “Don't be silly. I expect to be able to see the sea.”
Basil: “You can see the sea! It's over there between the land and the sky.”
Mrs Richards: “I'd need a telescope to see that.”
Basil: “Well, might I suggest you move to a hotel closer to the sea. Or preferably in it.”
Credit to John Cleese and Joan Sanderson, a brilliant actress (non-ironic tribute there).
And how can I omit Blackadder…
“Edmund: The eyes are open, the mouth moves, but Mr Brain has long since departed, hasn't he, Perce?”
There. You have just witnessed the power of sarcasm. The verbal dexterity and imagination required to craft it – and for an audience to “get it” – is incredibly challenging. It is the sincerest form of flattery in a way, as you always assume your “victim” is going see that behind the barb is some respect, even affection. It can overcome shyness, deal with difficult colleagues at work and enrich your relationships as well as make you cleverer. You must be feeling smarter already, eh?
- More about:
- Groucho Marx
- Marx Brothers
- Sean O'Grady
- Harvard Business School
- Columbia Business School
- John Cleese