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‘Facetious,’ ‘Sarcastic,’ or ‘Sardonic’?

Sarcastic and sardonic comments are usually more sneering and mean than facetious comments.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #633
A facetious court jester

A listener named Carrie asked, "What’s the difference between ‘facetious,’ ‘sarcastic,’ and ‘sardonic'?"

"Facetious," "sarcastic," and "sardonic" all have similar meanings, and in practice, many people use them interchangeably, but I’m sure enterprising teenagers, comedians, and political commentators can find uses for all three kinds of comments.

The roots of the words may help you remember which is which.

Facetious

"Facetious" comes from a Latin word that means "jest." A facetious comment is a joking comment—often an inappropriate joking comment. Think of a jester or joker making a funny face at you, and remember the first part of "facetious" is spelled "face."

Sarcastic

"Sarcastic" comes from a Greek word that means "to speak bitterly or to sneer." Ouch! A sarcastic response is less funny than a facetious response and more bitter and harsh. Think of a sarcastic person sneering at you, and remember that both words—"sneer" and "sarcastic"—start with the letter S.

Sardonic

"Sardonic" also starts with S, and some dictionaries actually list "sardonic" as a synonym for "sarcastic," but "sardonic" still has an interesting history. Try to associate it with the Greek island of Sardinia because the Greeks coined the word sardonic from the name of that island, which is now part of Italy. A plant was said to grow on Sardinia that, if eaten, would force a person’s face muscles into a grimacing smile—not a smile of happiness, but a smile of pain—a sardonic smile. Scientists in Italy recently reported that they believe a Sardinian plant called water celery is the lethal herb the Greeks had in mind.

Sardonic means "cutting, cynical, and disdainful" and is often used to describe a kind of humor.

That’s your Quick and Dirty Tip: These comments aren’t sweet or earnest, but a sarcastic comment and a sardonic comment are more sneering and are both meaner than a facetious comment, which is more like a quip you’d hear from a jester whose face is behind a mask.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

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