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Slap, J.W. (1966). On Sarcasm. Psychoanal Q., 35:98-107.

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(1966). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 35:98-107

On Sarcasm

Joseph William Slap, M.D.

Patients who are liable to depressive moods growing out of experiences of rejection often use sarcasm to express their anger toward those who have hurt them. Most of us have indulged in sarcasm on occasion and to a degree are sensitive to it. Yet it is the depression-prone who employ sarcasm so habitually as to be called sarcastic, and they are often the ones most vulnerable to it. Webster's New International Dictionary reveals that the word sarcasm is derived from the Greek sarkazein meaning to tear flesh like dogs. It defines the word as 'a keen or bitter taunt; a cutting gibe or rebuke'; as 'the use of bitter, caustic, or stinging remarks expressing contempt, often by inverted or ironical statement, on the occasion of some offense or shortcoming, with intent to wound the feelings'. Two elements stand out: first, the oral aggression, largely unconscious, but revealed in the derivation and in the use of the terms bitter, cutting, and contempt; and second, the intent to damage the self-esteem of the target or to lower his prestige in the eyes of others.

It is my thesis that the sarcastic trait appears in persons who have a tendency to become depressed. It represents an oral aggressive attack either on the frustrating object who withholds narcissistic supplies or on an envied rival who appears orally satiated.

For example, an internist suggested to an analyst that he name his newly acquired sailboat, the Couch; later he apologized for his sarcasm. He himself had been considering the purchase of a boat but had not done so. He envied the analyst who seemed quite happy with his new possession. The aim of the gibe was to make fun of the article in which the analyst


Presented before the American Psychoanalytic Association in New York, December 1964.

From the Hahnemann Medical College and the Harrisburg State Hospital.

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