Mommy, Where Does Sarcasm Come From?

I feel it is my job to spread the awesomeness of the Middle Ages to the masses, and to remind medievalists, of both the stuffy and non-stuffy species, of said awesomeness.* I know that I am often remiss in my duties, but these days, when I go to post something on my blog, I end up deciding mid-post that I probably ought to be working on my thesis. Then I stumble off in shame, leaving the half-written husk somewhere in my drafts folder to taunt me with my failure.

Lucky for you, while working on my thesis, I stumbled over some medieval awesome in the middle of re-rereading R. Howard Bloch’s Etymologies and Genealogies.** Bloch describes a medieval manual of rhetoric and love, the Leys D’Amours. Apparently, the manual describes the results of an allegorical war between the three kings of bad writing: Barbarism, Misspelling, and Allebolus;**** and three queens of good writing: Diction, Oration, and Meaning. When the war is brought to a close by Lady Rhetoric, the kings and queens are married off and produce offspring.

Though my favorite rhetorical tool, Snarkiness, is not represented in the geneaology, Sarcasm and Irony are. As it turns out, Sarcasm and Irony are two of seven daughters born of Allegory and “Foreign Language”. Allegory is herself the daughter of Allebolus and Figure of Speech, who is the sister of Queen Meaning. What does all of this have to do with anything? Not much. But I think it’s definitely pretty awesome to spend your time mapping out which personifications of abstract linguistic concepts got it on to produce Sarcasm.

So the short answer to the question in my title is, “When Allegory and a Foreign Language love each other very much, Sarcasm is made. But you shouldn’t worry about that until you’re older, because it’s something that Figures of Speech do, and not children. Now go to bed.”

It’s hard to appreciate the full, glorious absurdity of the genealogy without seeing it sprawling across your page. Here’s the beginning of the breakdown given by Bloch (pp. 131-2), for those interested, translated even further for those who don’t know what a paranomasia (what people who want you to ask, “what’s paranomasia?” call a pun) is:

King Barbarism married “Mixing-up-and-deleting-letters,” the sister of Diction and produced fourteen daughters: “Adding-letters-to-the-front-of-words,” Rebuke, “Adding-a-syllable-to-a-word,” Augerese (no clue), Contractions, “Dropping-the-last-syllable-of-a-word,” Ecstasy, “Shortening-a-syllable,” and several others more obscure.*****

King Misspelling married Arranging-Things-Properly, the sister of Oration and produced twenty-two daughters: Summary, “Repeating-a-word-for-rhetorical-effect,” and lots of others.

I originally intended to type out the whole thing, but after spending far too much time looking up words like autonomasia****** (using a generic noun for a proper one, like saying how obnoxious Northeasterners say “We’re going to the city” to mean they’re going to New York City), I decided that even this post about how I never post because of my thesis was in danger of becoming one of the things I never post because of my thesis and decided to cut it short.

So instead, I’ll end with my own probable derivation of Snarkiness. I believe Snarkiness must be the daughter of Sarcasm and Faux Hipster Coolness, the latter being the offspring of Duke “Watching-bad-movies-because-they’re-so-bad-they’re-good” and the Duchess of Threadbare Pop Culture Reference, who is herself the illegitimate daughter of Classical Allusion and Gary Coleman’s father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate.

*I know that I’ve been giving the word “awesome” a bit of a workout lately. For me, the word “awesome” has finally reached that sweet spot between “funny because it’s lame” and “funny because it’s awesome.”
**This is no mean feat–way past finding a needle in a haystack. It’s like finding the awesome in the middle of “For the family, narrowed around its outer edges, temporalized and rendered vertical, also underwent a reorientation, an axial shift, such that its articulation of itself acquired the dimensions of a straight line… Implicit to the production of sufficient progeny to insure dynastic continuity without a surplus to deplete its wealth is a model of marriage essential to the transmission of the fief.”***
***Did you spot it? The awesome was hiding behind the l in “axial shift.” Thanks for playing along! Now try to find the eight everyday household objects hidden in the title of Bloch’s A Needle in the Right Hand of God: The Norman Conquest of 1066 and the Making and Meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry. Hint: One of the eight has an eye, but cannot see the smile on the face of a child.
****Unfortunately, I can’t figure out what error “Allebolus” or “Alebolus” is supposed to be. The best fake etymology I can muster ends up with “A tendency to get bloated or pill-shaped,” a problem I find my writing always butts up against eventually.
*****Just think: there are six errors more obscure than adding a letter to the front of a word that the medievals had names for. And to think that some people only think of the middle ages in connection with grunting and burning witches. The medievals probably had seven different categories of witch-burning divided into fifteen species each.
******Not to be confused with antonomasia, or using an epithet for someone, like calling President Bush “the current occupant.”

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