Saturday, February 07, 2015

If It Weren't For Sarcasm, Nino Wouldn't Have A Personality

The longest-serving member of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) is Senior Associate Justice Antonin Gregory Scalia. Nino, as he was known in childhood, was appointed to the Court by St. Dutch in 1986. Scalia's multifarious separate opinions are loaded with sharp, bitter, or cutting remarks at those justices with whom he differs. If this is (fair & balanced) etymology, so be it.

[x Lingua Franca/CHE]
Nice Going, Genius
By Ben Yagoda

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In the slim annals of professorial humor, one of the cherished entries concerns an anthropological linguistics conference where the speaker declaims, “In languages all over the globe, one finds examples of the double negative denoting affirmation, but never the double positive denoting negation.” At which point a guy in the back of the room stands up and says, “Yeah, sure.”

I’ve been pondering sarcasm since Adam Liptak’s recent New York Times article about a law review essay by Richard Hasen called “The Most Sarcastic Justice.” And just who might that justice be? Hello! Duh! Spoiler alert!! It’s Antonin Scalia. You were expecting maybe Ruth Bader Ginsburg????

Sorry, don’t know what came over me.

Hasen scoured law-review databases for references to Supreme Court opinions and found that Scalia’s were referred to as sarcastic roughly seven times more frequently than the second-place finisher, Samuel Alito. Interestingly, as the Times piece points out, Scalia—a self-described “snoot” when it comes to semantics—might not accept the methodology. Hasen explains that he charted descriptions of opinions as “sarcastic or caustic... or a similar term.” Liptak found that the five occasions where Scalia has actually used the words “sarcasm” or “sarcastic” all denoted a more restrictive meaning: saying one thing to mean the opposite or near opposite. In 1994, for example, he argued that “modify” cannot mean “to change fundamentally”:

“Modify,” in our view, connotes moderate change. It might be good English to say that the French Revolution “modified” the status of the French nobility, but only because there is a figure of speech called understatement and a literary device known as sarcasm.

I share Scalia’s sense of the word. As I see it, irony is a more general figure of misdirection, encompassing a wide range of differentiations from the intended meaning, some of them subtle. Sarcasm is blunt irony: saying black when you mean white. But it turns out that meaning arrived relatively late. The word comes from the Greek σαρκάζειν, meaning “to tear flesh, gnash the teeth,” and the early citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, starting in the 1600s, all have the more general sense of caustic expression. Black-means-white isn’t suggested until a quote from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848): “Mrs. Firkin... flung up her head and said, ‘I think Miss is very clever,’ with the most killing sarcastic air.” (Of course, sarcasm in this sense was used long before that, to great effect by Shakespeare.)

That meaning has since solidified. John Haiman, in Talk Is Cheap (1998), defined sarcasm as “overt irony intentionally used by the speaker as a form of verbal aggression.” In Woody Allen’s "Small Time Crooks," the Allen character says the gang should follow his plan: after all, when they were in prison together, his nickname was “The Brain.” “But, Ray!” one of the cronies replies, “that was sarcastic!”

Sarcasm speaks to adolescents. It certainly represented the height of wit when I was at Albert Leonard Junior High School, where “Yeah, right” was a common rejoinder. My students, not too far from that age, find it an inviting route to written humor, in lines like, “It was just a typical exciting Friday night in the lovely town of Newark, Delaware.” I try to help them understand that doesn’t really work on the page. Occasionally, sarcasm can actually be funny, as when deployed by a person or fictional character we know to be obsessively sarcastic, like Chandler Bing, Niles Crain, or Basil Fawlty. When a character in "Fawlty Towers" complains about the view, Fawlty responds: “What did you expect to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window? Sydney Opera House perhaps? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically...?”

Group sarcasm can be amusing, too. It always gives me a chuckle when a pitcher puts a strike over the plate after nine consecutive balls, sparking exaggerated applause from the crowd. Speaking of mute sarcasm in sports, David Beckham was once sent off from a soccer game for pointedly applauding a referee’s call that had gone against him; mild-mannered NBA star Tim Duncan was actually ejected for laughing about an official’s call, while he was sitting on the bench.

Clearly, listeners or readers aren’t always going to get sarcasm; false positives and false negatives are pitfalls. I ran into this myself when, texting with my daughter Maria, I would write something like “That was a nice dinner.” She said the period came off as sarcastic and explained that if I really wanted to convey that it was a nice dinner, the proper punctuation was either no punctuation at all or a single exclamation mark. (Two might come off as ironic.) As this suggests, detecting degrees of irony and sarcasm online is an extremely difficult task, and failing to do so can cause problems. Last year, The Washington Post reported the Secret Service had put out a request for analytics software that could detect sarcasm in tweets.

Good luck with that. Sarcasm on the Internet is so endemic and multifaceted that not even the geniuses at Google could create an algorithm to consistently and accurately parse it.

Appropriately, The Onion deserves the last word here. The website once ran an item with the headline “Internet Rocked By Blogger With Sarcastic Sensibility.” They had found one Charles Edo, who “has taken the Internet by storm in recent weeks with a series of posts in which he conveys his opinions using the rhetorical device of sarcasm, sources reported Thursday.”

“A couple weeks ago he posted this thing saying he really loved the "Dexter" series finale, but it was weird—he kept calling the episode ‘great’ while detailing all of its flaws,” said reader Ryan Zalch, explaining his initial puzzlement with Edo’s sarcasm. “Then suddenly it hit me: This guy didn’t actually like the show at all. Somehow, he was writing the literal opposite of what he meant, going way over-the-top with what seemed like praise to express his hatred.”

“It’s this whole new way of conveying ideas about something,” Zalch added. “It’s confusing at first, but once you understand how it works, it’s incredibly impressive.”

Not bad. Ω

[Ben Yagoda (B.A. Yale, M.A. University of Pennsylvania) is the author of Memoir: A History (2009), About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made (2000), and Will Rogers: A Biography (1993) and the coeditor (with Kevin Kerrane) of The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism (1997). He has contributed articles, essays, and reviews to more than fifty national publications, including Esquire, the New York Times Magazine, and the New York Times Book Review. Yagoda has been a Lingua Franca blogger at the Chronicle of Higher Education since August 2011.) He is a professor of journalism and literary non-fiction in the Department of English at the University of Delaware.]

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