Passive aggressive people will sometimes veil insulting, critical, derogatory or generally aggressive comments with humor. The patina of humor makes the comment seem like a joke, not to be taken seriously, all in good fun, and it safeguards the aggressive person. If someone gets offended, they are being too serious, can't take a joke, and so they cannot voice their upset without seeming to be the one escalating the situation, when in fact it was the aggressor who did that.

This behavior seems to lie on a spectrum. On one side are comments which are simultaneously aggressive and genuinely funny (though of course both, especially the latter, are fairly subjective). On the other side would be lame attempts at the behavior, something like "you are fat!... just joking!" in which nothing in the tone or delivery signals a register of humor. In the middle of the spectrum, I imagine, are aggressive statements genuinely delivered as jokes. Their register signals that they are jokes, but they are aggressive rather than funny. They are aggressive comments masquerading as jokes.

A friend once called this "joking on the square", but I have never heard or seen this phrase. This type of comment is both pervasive and psychologically subtle and in my experience there is often an exact word describing such things. If not a word, is there an astute phrase which cuts to the heart of this?

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    Well, there is left-handed compliment (or backhanded), which describes some such veiled insults, but not all. And certainly not "you're fat ... just kidding lol!". – Dan Bron Apr 28 '15 at 11:30
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    I have never heard of "joking on the square" either. Good terms for human types and subtle psychological games frequently appear first in Yiddish, think "nebbish", "schlemiel" and so forth. You might see whether Rosten's "The Joys of Yinglish" has anything. Perhaps Eric Berne of "Games People Play" coined one too. I hope you find it, this phenomenon certainly needs a good word. – David Pugh Apr 28 '15 at 11:42
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    Reminds me of "I'm actually not funny. I'm just really mean and people think I'm joking" someecards.com/usercards/viewcard/MjAxMi04NWE5Mzk1Njg0NjY5NGVl – amdn Apr 28 '15 at 19:57
  • Haha! Very nice. – Wapiti Apr 28 '15 at 20:14
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    The strategy is a form of plausible deniability and frequently employed by bullies. – amdn Apr 28 '15 at 20:33

13 Answers 13


You could call it a barbed joke. From Reverso Dictionary:

A barbed remark or joke seems polite or humorous, but contains a cleverly hidden criticism.

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    Barbed joke is very good because it does not inject anything extraneous to the description. It is vague enough to be inclusive, but precise enough to be immediately understandable to the aggressor / bystanders. The only problem is that it does not include this notion of inauthenticity. This is maybe the only area where 'sarcastic joke' does better. A barbed joke need not be aggressive at all. – Wapiti Apr 28 '15 at 19:24

I believe "veiled" insult is what you are looking for. Although I am sure this is in fairly common usage I cannot find a good definition of it, but Collins has 'veiled' as:


  1. disguised ⇒ a veiled insult


...Though I admit this does not necessarily imply humour as the veil.

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    Yes, this is the obvious choice. I guess I posted the question because a veiled insult does not need to be veiled with humor. The veiling of aggression with humor seems common enough and specific enough to merit its own phrase... – Wapiti Apr 28 '15 at 11:42

In the US, we often use the term "crack", which is short for "wisecrack" which is basically a (somewhat) witty insult. Ex:

"When she showed up at the funeral in that red dress, people were making cracks, like: "You look lovely - where's the fire?" and "Hey, the Devil is here to pick up Bob."

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    This is quite good. The problem seems to be twofold though: the first is that wisecracks are not necessarily aggressive. They seem more like jokes with an edge. Second, wisecracks are meant to be funny. The wisecrack might be quite cutting, but the joke comes first. It's not actually a psychological defense mechanism. – Wapiti Apr 28 '15 at 19:12

I think passive aggressive sarcasm is what you are looking for. It is mentioned in an article about what passive aggressive people say.

"I was only joking"

Like backhanded compliments, sarcasm is a common tool of a passive aggressive person who expresses hostility aloud, but in socially acceptable, indirect ways. If you show that you are offended by biting, passive aggressive sarcasm, the hostile joke teller plays up his or her role as victim, asking, "Can't you take a joke?"


There are also two other similar phrases that you can see in the above excerpt. They are also close to what you are looking for.

Biting sarcasm:

..some researchers [...] argue that there are two types of sarcasm -a biting sarcasm typically worded positively, which expresses a negative intent, and playful or bantering sarcasm, typically worded negatively but which expresses a positive feeling or intent.

Psychology of Moods By Anita V. Clark

Hostile joke:

Where a joke is not an aim in itself (where it is not innocent), it is either a hostile joke (serving the purpose of aggressiveness, satire, or defense) or an obscene joke (serving the purpose of exposure).


Hostile jokes fall under tendentious jokes also in the Freudian view of humor.

  • Thanks for the detailed response. It's clear that all these sources are very pertinent to the question. I like also the link to a theory of humor. I don't think passive aggressive sarcasm works because it is too broad. It does not need to include humor and as I commented to @Samuel|Vimes sarcasm has overtones of acidity or bitterness. The joke I am describing is delivered as an invitation to laugh. The phrase biting sarcasm is subject to the same observation, despite seemingly being used in a technical sense which coincides closely with mine. – Wapiti Apr 29 '15 at 14:14
  • Hostile joke, on the other hand, is extremely good. It is basically the same as barbed joke, but more precise. Though less metaphorically pleasing, it carries the notion of inauthenticity within itself very cleverly, through the tension created by the relationship of the two words. – Wapiti Apr 29 '15 at 14:16
  • @Wapiti: Thanks for the comments. I also read your other comments and you said "sarcasm" is broad but you also added that it might be a type of sarcasm (or a sarcastic joke). That's why I offered some specific types of sarcasm that focus on aggressiveness in a disguised way. You also mentioned the phrase "just joking" in the original post and I also provided a context that has the phrase "I was only joking" and calls it a "passive aggressive sarcasm". I think my answer covers humor, aggressiveness and masquerading all together. – ermanen Apr 29 '15 at 14:32
  • Next step would be combining different words in the phrases I mentioned. For example, "passive aggressive joke". It might convey what you are looking for also. – ermanen Apr 29 '15 at 14:32
  • By the way, joking on the square appears to be used in the sense your are looking for but it is uncommon. There is a similar phrase kidding on the square which has a different meaning and it is common. – ermanen Apr 29 '15 at 14:44

Maybe you can use sarcasm or a sarcastic joke

According to Collins:



1) mocking, contemptuous, or ironic language intended to convey scorn or insult
2) the use or tone of such language

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    Sarcasm is not right at all. A sarcastic tone is much broader than the phenomenon I am trying to describe, and need not have anything to do with humor. Someone being sarcastic can be downright nasty, for example. However, sarcastic joke is very close. I think that what I described is definitely an instance of a sarcastic joke, because the sarcasm has as a necessary component this inauthenticity, which seems to be at the heart of the phrase I am looking for. The only problem I have with this phrase is that it seems to be slightly too broad, since it inherits the acidity of sarcasm. – Wapiti Apr 28 '15 at 19:18
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    When downvoting, it is much more contructive to explain the reason in a comment, so we can know the reason for such downvote... – SamuelVimes Apr 29 '15 at 9:55

Sounds like a Schrödingers Joke, made by someone called this

The expression refers to a thought experiment by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger about a cat (= Schrödingers Cat).

It means that the person making this kind of statement decides only afterwards whether to claim it was a joke, depending on people's reaction to it.

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    perhaps consider rewording this so people understand what you're trying to get at without just using three dots to the link, as it makes no sense as it stands. Just think of a suitable word for the A word ;) – user163849 Aug 15 '16 at 1:05
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    Added an explanation. – geh Aug 15 '16 at 1:16
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    Yeh, a good answer, and describes a lot of people – user163849 Aug 15 '16 at 5:18
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    Ha. That's funny! – Wapiti Aug 16 '16 at 3:03

I think you are searching for the word asteism. (not asterism but asteism) Look it up and you will see! Rob Musgrave

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    Hi, Rob Musgrave. To make your answer more useful to readers, please consider adding a dictionary definition of asteism to the answer (with a link to its page online, if possible), instead of inviting readers to look it up themselves. Self-contained answers tend to do better on this site than what amount to link-only or "look this word up" answers. – Sven Yargs Apr 3 '17 at 8:57

Satirical criticism or commentary?

satire noun:

the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

synonyms: mockery, ridicule, derision, scorn, caricature; Google satire

  • Ok, but I don't think that you can satirize somebody if it is just you and them in your home. Satire requires a public forum, no? Also, the intent behind satire need not have any psychological component at all. – Wapiti Apr 28 '15 at 19:25
  • Satire can indeed be personal and often serves psychological ends. – user98990 Apr 28 '15 at 19:28
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    I suppose you're right that I could satirize my wife in the bathroom, and that it doesn't necessarily need to be public. Trying to be more precise about what doesn't seem to fit here: generally the object of satire deserves to be satirized, or else it's not really satire. Satire is an exposé. It seems the phenomenon I'm thinking of an inverse, failed, or undeserved/unfair satire. But this inherits the associations of satire, which then seem a bit extraneous. I am trying for the exactness of 'satire' in a single word or phrase... – Wapiti Apr 28 '15 at 19:58
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    Yes, I see what you mean, and you are correct, satire serves a higher master than humor. Satire is truly (optimistically) intended as a "corrective," disarming psychological defenses via a humor which is really but a means to an end. – user98990 Apr 28 '15 at 20:07
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    Satire serves a higher master than humor. Very well said! – Wapiti Apr 28 '15 at 20:13


A mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing.

  • No, this is not right at all. Thanks for your contribution, but a euphemism is far more general than the concept in question, and hardly even overlaps with it. An example of a euphemism is 'passed away' for 'died'. In this example there is no insult, and no humor, so both of the required concepts are lacking. – Wapiti Jan 2 at 17:55
  • I agree that euphemism is far more general than the concept in question. I merely tried to present an alternative that may be suitable for broader context. Therefore, it would be a harsh to say that [euphemism is] hardly even overlaps with it. The general concept of euphemism could be used to express insult in humour. eg. 'curvy' to say 'fat'. – rraadd88 Jan 2 at 21:36
  • You are proving my point for me. Curvy for fat is a euphemism, but it does not contain either humor or an insult. The only way these things could be attributed to 'curvy' is through context. In this case, it would be a barbed joke expressed as a euphemism, and the context does all the work. – Wapiti Jan 2 at 22:46
  • That said, I think there are specific contexts wherein a euphemism becomes a barbed joke. Say a bunch of horrible people are thinking some runway model is fat, and a photographer says the model is 'curvy', and people laugh. The insult has been veiled with humor, and the humor is the veiling itself. That is, it is funny because an insult was lanced without being made explicit. This is a very particular case of overlap with the case I was describing. But again, exploring the areas where 'euphemism' is a correct description reinforces my feeling that it hardly overlaps with barbed joking. – Wapiti Jan 2 at 23:13

I suggest that the adjective double-edged can be added to any of the following nouns: joke, remark, or quip etc. These expressions comply nicely with the OP's request.

A single-word alternative, gibe, could work in the appropriate setting. Also spelled jibe they can be launched under the guise of humor.

capable of being taken in two ways

a clever usually taunting remark

to deride or tease with taunting words

All definitions provided by Merriam-Webster

  • But then what would a "double-edged gibe" be? Something apparently taunting but actually intended to make nice? Two negatives make a positive? – David Pugh Apr 29 '15 at 6:38
  • Hey, man! Just because you think Nicole's answer fits that's no reason to downvote all the rest of us. Give us a break.....Jeeze, two upvotes and two downvotes – Mari-Lou A Apr 29 '15 at 12:08
  • Double-edged joke isn't bad, and it would serve, but I don't think quite as well as some of the other responses. The reason is that context is doing the necessary specifying work. In the workplace, say, I can imagine double-edged jokes that are not aggressive or inherently inauthentic (eg some joke which cuts a competitor in two ways at once). The same goes for gibe, I think. The joke I am describing is a gibe underneath, and naming it in the right context would have the desired illuminating effect. But it would leave out something important. I can also gibe the pitcher of the away team. – Wapiti Apr 29 '15 at 14:32
  • @DavidPugh SE frowns on chatty comments, so deleting my stuff at this end. – Mari-Lou A Apr 29 '15 at 18:41

Concealed claim? Hiding the criticism behind humour.


CONCEALED CLAIMS Arguments disguising as claims are called concealed claim. The intention the concealed claim is to sway attitudes without going over the border. I am sure we all had someone try to convince us of something by merely their choice of words and not their valid arguments. For example, someone tries to not even a reason to argue by making a definition that should be the conclusion. To simply put it, if a person defines “euthanasia to mean “legalised murder,it is impossible to debate the "question if a terminally ill patients who requests for assisted suicide is given his wish, is it still considered murder as the patient itself who wanted to die. There are several manner people can conceal claims through rhetoric. Any literary device that attempts to convince by using words that conceal a dubious claims are known as slanters. It should be known that there is a persuasion to assume a claim without reflecting its truthfulness.

  • You are right that what I am describing is an instance of a concealed claim, since if the person decided not to be passive aggressive and state the criticism or underlying thought clearly and without pathos their claim would come to the surface. But concealed claims (as your quote demonstrates) are a very broad class, including many things which I am not describing. – Wapiti Apr 29 '15 at 14:18

lacing one's appreciation with joking criticism

could well work:

Letters of Roger Fry - Volume 1 - Page 62 Roger Eliot Fry, ‎Denys Sutton - 1972

In the case of Sickert, he analyzed an artist whom he knew well and admired; however, the personal relationship did not prevent him from lacing his appreciation with a touch of criticism.


Damning with faint praise may cover what you're looking for:

  1. (idiomatic) To provide praise that is so minimal or inconsequential as to suggest criticism or disregard for the object.

From Wiktionary

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