The concepts of Irony, Sarcasm and Cynicism are often mentioned in one breath. I however, have never seen how they're intertwined and what they exactly mean. I must have seen at least a dozen different definitions for each words, often not matching. To a layman like me, this is what these words seem to mean (just from hearing it in everyday usage):

  • Irony: Something that you particularly don't expect (for any reason) happens.

  • Sarcasm:Saying one thing, and actually meaning the opposite, in a mean way.

  • Cynicism: Insulting someone in a very painful, rude way. Also, having absolutely no positive feelings towards something (being cynical).

However, this is what I am taught now, and it just seems plain wrong:

  • Irony: Concealed mockery by saying the opposite of what you mean (Isn't this actually sarcasm? You never hear someone say I was being ironic!, riht?)

  • Sarcasm: Stinging mockery. (When is it not stinging? This doesn't seem true to me..)

  • Cynicism: Rejecting towards idealism and enthusiasm, sometimes meant to hurt. (This one is by far most confusing to me..)

So my questions are:

  • Are any of these definitions right?

  • If so, has everyone been using the words ironic and sarcastic incorrectly?

  • What the heck is the difference? They all seem the same, even their definitions..

  • 2
    A cynic or someone using cynicism is not necessarily trying to hurt anyone. I would call all of these General Reference since a visit to Wikipedia will reveal all in more detail than you would even want: [Cynicism] [Irony] [Sarcasm] – mplungjan Apr 2 '13 at 14:45
  • Ironically, the first three definitions given the question above now appears topmost in Google as response to the query "sarcasm vs cynicism", and "framed", too, giving official status to wrong definitions. It is 2018, indeed and John Brunner would love it (he said, sarcastically, letting us see his cynical soul) – David Tonhofer Jun 19 '18 at 18:50

Your questions about irony vs. sarcasm have been answered reasonably well in previous questions (as listed under the heading “Related” in right sidebar). In particular, see What are the similarities and differences between “irony” and “sarcasm”? and Would one call this situation ironic, sarcastic or ...?. Also see What is the difference between “sardonic” and “sarcastic”?, and note that cynical appears in the definition shown for sardonic: “grimly mocking or cynical”.

As noted in mplungjan's comment, “A cynic or someone using cynicism is not necessarily trying to hurt anyone”. The question's suggested meanings for cynicism, “Insulting someone in a very painful, rude way” and “Rejecting towards idealism and enthusiasm, sometimes meant to hurt”, both seem quite off the mark to me. Wikipedia's Cynicism–contemporary article says:

Cynicism is an attitude or state of mind characterized by a general distrust of others' apparent motives or ambitions, or a general lack of faith or hope in the human race or in individuals with desires, hopes, opinions, or personal tastes that a cynic perceives as unrealistic or inappropriate, therefore deserving of ridicule or admonishment. It is a form of jaded negativity, and other times, realistic criticism or skepticism.

Aside from “therefore deserving of ridicule or admonishment”, nothing in the wikipedia excerpt is suggestive of insult or rudeness being part of cynicism. And of course something may be deserving of ridicule or admonishment without being subjected to it. In my experience, a rude and insulting person is more likely to be a boor or a lout than a cynic.

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