Present at the creation: the weaponization of sarcasm

A Mick Stevens Caveman cartoon in the 9/30/19 New Yorker (about to arrive in the mail), memorializing a signal moment in the cartoon Stone Age:


(#1) The weaponization of sarcasm in prehistoric times

The later history of weaponized sarcasm is vast, but certainly reaches one of its high points in 1970 in the career of British gangster Doug Piranha. During a period of perhaps 70 years sarcasm has spread to become, in the view of some cultural critics, absolutely pervasive in modern society, at least in the Anglophone world.

Meanwhile, the idea that elements of culture can be weaponized — used like bludgeons not just against individuals, but also to aggressively serve social or political purposes — has recently become fashionable.

(And then, of course, there’s the question of the semantic work that the derivational suffix –ize does in converting various groups of lexical items to verbs (as in N weapon > V weaponize).)

As mocking insincerity, expressing contempt and intended to be painful, sarcasm has presumably been with us ever since human beings began exchanging emotional attitudes, by speech or whatever means. An effective literary device — “For Brutus is an honorable man” — sarcasm is deployed to great effect by vernacular speakers as well.

Doug. Which brings us to … shudder … Doug. The Piranha Brothers, Doug and Dinsdale; the small-time crook Luigi Vercotti; and interviewers on the BBC1 show ‘Ethel the Frog’, as reported by the Monty Python crew in 1970:


(#2) The crime lords Doug (who flayed his opponents with words) and Dinsdale (who preferred nailing people’s heads to the floor)

2nd Interviewer [to Vercotti]: Why didn’t you call the police?

Vercotti: Well I had noticed that the lad with the thermonuclear device was the chief constable for the area [a Piranha collaborator]. So a week later they called again and told me the cheque had bounced and said… I had to see… Doug.

2nd Interviewer: Doug?

Vercotti: Doug (takes a drink) Well, I was terrified. Everyone was terrified of Doug. I’ve seen grown men pull their own heads off rather than see Doug. Even Dinsdale was frightened of Doug.

2nd Interviewer: What did he do?

Vercotti: He used… sarcasm. He knew all the tricks, dramatic irony, metaphor, pathos, puns, parody, litotes and… satire. He was vicious.

Unspeakable viciousness. From the brutish beast’s cabinet of figurative horrors.

Weaponize this!  From NOAD:

verb weaponize: [with object] 1 convert to use as a weapon: a list of pathogens that terrorists might weaponize. 2 supply or equip with weapons: an active program to weaponize smallpox.

Sense 1 has been much in fashion recently with abstract rather than concrete direct objects. A few examples:

Trump is weaponizing the EPA against California (link)

Australia’s Gladys Liu scandal shows how the Chinese Communist Party is weaponizing race (link)

New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger accused President Trump of weaponizing the term “fake news” as part of what the Gray Lady boss calls a “worldwide assault” on journalism. (link)

Jason Chaffetz: Activists are weaponizing charitable giving — And that means big trouble for every American (link)

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in particular, have long been accused of weaponizing social media platforms to promote their increasingly aggressive foreign policy agenda. In 2017, hundreds of thousands of bots were used to launch attacks on Qatar as part of a blockade. (link)

This rush to weaponization hasn’t gone unnoticed by cultural critics. It got a NYT Magazine column, on-line on 3/14/2017 (print version on 3/18/17), by John Herrman: “If Everything Can Be ‘Weaponized,’ What Should We Fear?:


(#3) Derek Brahney illustration for the NYT

Politics is something like an art, if you ask those who practice it, and it’s something like a science, if you ask those who study it. But to the journalists who cover it, it has always been something like something else: a sport. Writing in 1968, Milton Rokeach, the social psychologist, articulated what would become a perennial complaint. “The kinds of data obtained by public-opinion research and disseminated in the mass media seem designed more to entertain than to inform,” he wrote. “The quality of the information conveyed seems not much different from that conveyed in the sports pages or, better yet, the daily racing form.” The press, especially during election years, frequently failed to exercise “journalistic conscience”; it had internalized a “racehorse philosophy.”

Nearly half a century later, Rokeach’s assessment still echoes in our gripes about political news. His chosen metaphor, however, has been beaten to death. Coverage is now turning away from a language of sports and toward a language of war. The horse race has given way to an arms race, in which everything, and everyone, have the potential to be “weaponized.”

According to the past year in headlines, [REDACTED] has amassed a particularly enormous arsenal. Since the beginning of the election, he has been credited with improvising (or trying to improvise) weapons out of everything within reach: Twitter, “the dollar,” conspiracy theories, “fake news,” harassment, Bill Clinton, emails, the media, “merry Christmas,” federal funding, unintelligibility and chaos — to name just a few. … The left has been accused of weaponizing political correctness, weaponizing “safe spaces” and weaponizing racism — meaning accusations of racial hatred, not racial hatred itself.

… “Weaponize” was born in the 1950s as military jargon. It was an instantly comprehensible neologism, useful and compact and inflected with the managerial style then in vogue. “To turn into a weapon” sounds clumsy and crude, bringing to mind early man gripping a fist-size rock or a prisoner sharpening a toothbrush. “Weaponize,” on the other hand, conjures thick-rimmed glasses and pomade, official reports and secret plans. It’s a contemporary of “collateral damage,” another term emblematic of what had not yet been termed the military-industrial complex.

Its first documented appearance in front of a wide audience came in 1957, in an Associated Press interview with Wernher von Braun, the former Nazi engineer who would become an integral figure in the American space program. Von Braun explained to the unnamed reporter that his work had been to “weaponize” the military’s ballistic-missile technology. Army rocketry was, of course, always destined for war, so von Braun’s use of the word suggested the fulfillment of a plan, more than a conversion. Over the decades that followed, “weaponization” proliferated alongside nuclear warheads, describing their constantly multiplying delivery systems, and lingered through the late stages of the Cold War. But it has periodically re-entered the lexicon to address fresh fears: anxiety about new infectious diseases being put to sinister ends; weapons of mass destruction, during the run-up to the first and second American wars in Iraq; and of course, 21st-century terror attacks, in which horrifying and surprising things — passenger planes, trucks — were converted into instruments of slaughter.

Snark on this! During the time that weaponization-talk has spread in political talk in American English, a variety of sarcasm has apparently been elevated to a commonplace feature of everyday English talk: snark. This too has caught the attention of cultural critics. (The spread of weaponization-talk is easily documented, but the claim about the apparent spread of sarcasm is harder to verify, though a number of people have a strong subjective impression that this is also a real — though almost surely unrelated — trend.)

From NOAD:

adj. snarkyinformal, chiefly North American (of a person, words, or a mood) [a] sharply critical; cutting; snide: the kid who makes snarky remarks in class. [b] cranky; irritable: Bobby’s always a bit snarky before his nap. [hence a noun snark ‘snarkiness’ and a verb snark]

Briefly, from a Smithsonian Magazine article “The Science of Sarcasm? Yeah, Right: How do humans separate sarcasm from sincerity? Research on the subject is leading to insights about how the mind works. Really” by Richard Chin on 11/14/11:

Sarcasm so saturates 21st-century America that according to one study of a database of telephone conversations, 23 percent of the time that the phrase “yeah, right” was used, it was uttered sarcastically. Entire phrases have almost lost their literal meanings because they are so frequently said with a sneer. “Big deal,” for example. When’s the last time someone said that to you and meant it sincerely? “My heart bleeds for you” almost always equals “Tell it to someone who cares,” and “Aren’t you special” means you aren’t.

“It’s practically the primary language” in modern society, says John Haiman, a linguist at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the author of Talk is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation and the Evolution of Language.

So: undeniably common, in certain expressions. But has there been an increase in sarcasm overall? Were the common folk of the 18th century less given to sarcasm than the common folk today? Hard to say.

The –ize of weaponize. Back on the weaponization front, there’s the extremely popular derivational suffix –ize / -ise, used productively to churn out neologistic verbs from a wide assortment of adjectives and nouns. From Michael Quinion’s affixes site:

Forming verbs. [French -iser, via late Latin -izare from Greek verbs ending in -izein.]

Verbs in this ending are a large and diverse set. Very broadly, one group is of verbs that take a direct object, which describe acting on something or treating it in a given way, so causing it to change its state (baptize, computerize, dramatize, fossilize, oxidize, pasteurise, privatize, sterilize, terrorize). A second set, of verbs that do not take a direct object, refers to following some line of behaviour, action, practice, or policy (agonize, apologize, extemporize, moralize, realize, theorize).

… The ending is commonly used to make new verbs from adjectives or (especially) nouns and has done for centuries. In the twentieth century some people have objected to new forms such as finalizeprioritize, or hospitalize. However, such formations are now widely accepted, and new ones appear as needed (incentivize, medicalize, strategize, technologize), though not always with hopes of long-term survival (angularize, flexibilize, graffitize, radarize). Many apparently new forms, such as ceremonialize and novelize, actually have a long history.

There’s a phonological condition on the eligibility of bases for suffixation with –ize — briefly, bases with final accent are very poor candidates: Manháttanize, but ??New Yórkize; Toróntoize, but ??Montreálize; pérfumize, but ??perfúmize; etc. (In some cases, the accent on the base is shifted forward one syllable to satisfy the condition: Carmél (CA), but Cármelize.)

Beyond that, the semantics of neologisms is all over the map; it might be that the best we can say is that the bulk of them are simply causatives (change-of-state transitives) with Adj or N bases, with the details of the semantic relationships involved as contextually specific to each base. Consider this sample of sightings from my files:

‘The movement’s conflicts…remained ecclesiastical, conducted almost exclusively by clergymen and clericized (or at least theologically engaged) laymen.’

‘But in the 1860s there were dissenting voices.  More typical was the London Quarterly Review, which denounced “the plot for Romanizing the Church of England…”’

‘We specialize and interpret the general outline of the theory given above in the context of science careers.’  [seems to mean ‘apply to a special context’]

‘With the Latinoization of Texas and…’

‘White then seeks to “sinisterize” the rest of my father’s life, offering malign reinterpretations of ordinary events…’

‘Collins casts his book with rip-roaring characters, then sizes them up with practiced ease.’

‘Ailes is a needy, talented raconteur, [Ted] Turner is a visionary who wackily rages against being “clitorized” by Time Warner, and…’ [‘feminized’, presumably.]

‘”They are what I call the Wal-Mart-ization of American religion,” Dr. Leonard said, referring to a tendency he sees toward a consumerist approach to religion on their part.’

‘Of course, some see the rise in second-home buying as the Carmel-ization of San Francisco.  (In Carmel, only 42 percent of homes are primary residences, according to a 2000 census.)’

‘And particularly in the middle of so wrenching a tragedy, tone matters as much as content. Hurricane Katrina, even more than 9/11, emboldened television newscasters to fold themselves and their feelings into the story, and that has led to the Anderson Cooperization of the evening news.’

‘”What we see today is the pentecostalisation of Latin American Christianity,” says Mr Chestnut.’

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