We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out moreJump to Main NavigationJump to Content
  • Text size: A
  • A

satire, n.

Brit. Hear pronunciation/ˈsatʌɪə/
U.S. Hear pronunciation/ˈsæˌtaɪ(ə)r/

α. 1500s–1700s satyr, 1500s–1700s satyre.

β. 1500s (Scottish) 1600s–1700s satir, 1500s– satire.

(Show Less)
Frequency (in current use):  Show frequency band information
Origin: Either (i) a borrowing from French. Or (ii) a borrowing from Latin. Etymons: French satire; Latin satira, satura.
Etymology: < (i) Middle French satire, satyre (French satire, †satyre) poem in which prevailing immorality or foolishness is ridiculed or denounced (1355 in a translation of Livy; the specific senses ‘satirical writing’ and ‘mockery’ are not paralleled until later than in English: 1663 and 1690 respectively),
or its etymon (ii) classical Latin satira, variant of satura literary composition consisting of a miscellany of prose and verse on various topics (Quintilian, Aulus Gellius), poem in which prevailing immorality or foolishness is ridiculed or denounced, of uncertain origin.
Compare Spanish sátira (1417), Italian satira (a1308); also German Satire (1540).
Classical Latin satura   is probably a specific application of satura   medley. According to the grammarians satura   is short for lanx satura   (literally ‘full dish’; < lanx   dish (see launce n.1) + satura  , feminine of satur   full: see saturate v.), which is alleged to have been used for a dish containing various kinds of fruit, and for food composed of many different ingredients. It has also been suggested that classical Latin satura   denoting a literary composition is a different word, possibly of Etruscan origin, and that the association with satura   ‘medley’ reflects popular etymology.
The word was formerly often associated in English with satyr n., from the common view (found already in some ancient grammarians) that classical Latin satira   was derived from ancient Greek σάτυρος  satyr n., in allusion to the chorus of satyrs which gave its name to the Greek ‘satyric’ drama. This association is reflected by the α. forms; it is likewise found in French, where the spelling †satyre   is common until the mid 18th cent., and was the headword form in the French Academy dictionary until its 1740 edition.
Sense 4, which is not paralleled in Latin or any of the Romance languages, shows a specific use probably resulting from association with satyr n.
 I. A literary composition, and related senses.

 a. A poem or (in later use) a novel, film, or other work of art which uses humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize prevailing immorality or foolishness, esp. as a form of social or political commentary. Frequently with on, of, against.Originally distinguished from lampoon in being directed at a fault rather than at a person who has that fault, though there is now considerable overlap between the two terms.Horatian, Juvenalian, Menippean, prose satire: see the first element.

1509   A. Barclay Brant's Shyp of Folys (Pynson) f. lviii   Therfore in this satyre suche wyll I repreue.
1546   T. Langley tr. P. Vergil Abridgem. Notable Worke ix. f. xviii (heading)    The beginnyng of tragedies, comedies, satyres, and newe comedies.
1595   T. Lodge (title)    A fig for Momus: containing pleasant varietie, included in satyres, eclogues, and epistles.
1605   W. Camden Remaines ii. 25   The Exchequer officers were extortours in the time of King Henry the 4, otherwise Henry Bell..would neuer haue written a riming long Satyre against them.
a1682   Sir T. Browne Let. to Friend (1690) 10   Impotent Satyrs write Satyrs against Lust.
1711   R. Steele Spectator No. 88. ⁋2   This honest Gentleman, who is so desirous that I should write a Satyr upon Grooms, has a great deal of Reason for his Resentment.
1738   J. Ozell tr. G. Mayáns y Siscár Life Cervantes 72   If Manners are chastized with an open Acrimony and a great severity of Temper, the Novel will be a Satire.
1756   J. Warton Ess. on Pope I. iv. 246   The Rape of the Lock, is the best Satire extant.
1808   Sporting Mag. 32 16/2   A Satire on the Melo-dramatic mania of the present day..was produced at this Theatre last evening.
1814   S. T. Coleridge Coll. Lett. (1959) III. 532   I fully intend to..publish two long Satires in Drydenic Verse, entitled Puff and Slander.
1878   E. Dowden Stud. Lit. 278   A great proportion of the book [sc. Middlemarch] is only not a satire because with the word satire we are accustomed to associate the idea of exaggeration and malicious purpose.
1912   Americana XX. at Swift   ‘A Tale of a Tub’..is in its narrative parts a satire against religious abuses and schism.
1948   Jrnl. Aesthetics & Art Crit. 7 148   Proudhon admires the same picture because it is a telling satire of the corrupt bourgeoisie.
1987   D. Clandfield Canad. Film iii. 52   Jacques Leduc's Cap d'espoir (1969) was more of a political satire than a documentary.
2008   N.Y. Rev. Bks. 17 July 12/1   Patten's memoir itself often seems like a satire on the international drinking aristocracy.

1509—2008(Hide quotations)


 b. The genre of literature which consists of satires; satirical writing. Now also in extended use of other art forms.

1589   G. Puttenham Arte Eng. Poesie i. xiii. 24   The said auncient Poets vsed for that purpose [of reproving the people], three kinds of poems reprehensiue, to wit, the Satyre, the Comedie, & the Tragedie.
1660   R. Allestree Gentlemans Calling 31   If any shall think this character partakes of the Satyre, I shall beseech him to compare it with the true state.
a1661   B. Holyday in tr. Juvenal Satyres (1673) Pref.   According to the ancient use and law of Satyre, it should be nearer the Comedy, then the Tragedy, not declaiming against Vice, but jeering at it.
1683   T. Shadwell Lenten Prol. 1   Bayes's crown'd Muse, by Sovereign Right of Satyre, Without desert, can dubb a man a Traitor.
1693   J. Dryden Disc. conc. Satire in J. Dryden et al. tr. Juvenal Satires p. xxi   Thus..I..have prov'd, I hope, from the best Critiques, that the Roman Satire was not borrow'd from thence [sc. Greece], but of their own Manufacture.
1728   E. Young Love of Fame: Universal Passion (ed. 2) i. 1   My verse is satire; Dorset, lend your ear, And patronise a muse you cannot fear.
a1831   H. Thompson in Encycl. Metrop. (1845) X. 391/2   Lucilius is asserted by Horace to have been the founder of the New Satire.
1841   M. Elphinstone Hist. India I. iii. vi. 295   I have seen no specimen of Hindú satire.
1880   Atlantic Monthly Feb. 199   There are different kinds of satire: the epicurean, which laughs at mankind,..the stoical, which indignantly lashes mankind,..the cynical, which hates and despises mankind.
1929   Musical Q. 15 32   An excursion into the genre of satire is the two-part fantastic opera Ausflüge des Herrn Brouček.
1981   G. S. Fraser Short Hist. Eng. Poetry viii. 174   The purpose of satire was supposed to be to correct the milder follies and vices of the day by mild ridicule.
2001   Advocate 3 July 63/2   Rakoff's writing conveys a quality rarely found in satire: vulnerability.

1589—2001(Hide quotations)


c. A satirical utterance; a speech or saying which ridicules and criticizes a person, thing, or quality. Also as a mass noun: satirical speech. Obsolete.

1606   G. Chapman Monsieur D'Oliue i. i. sig. B2v   Tush man, I meane at my chamber, where we may take free vse of our selues, that is, drinke Sacke, and talke Satyre, and let our wits runne the wilde Goose chase ouer Court and Countrey.
1642   T. Fuller Holy State iii. xxi. 210   Speaking constant satyrs to the disgrace of others.
1678   R. L'Estrange tr. Epistles ii. 9 in Seneca's Morals Abstracted (1679)    The Poor Man wants many things, but the Covetous Man wants All. Can any Flesh forbear being delighted with This saying, though a Satyre against his own Vice.
1877   Jrnl. Asiatic Soc. Bengal 46 i. 440   They feared lest he should utter satires against them, and make them a by-word among the Arabs.

1606—1877(Hide quotations)


 d. Usually with capital initial. Satire personified. In some later quots. perhaps personifying sense 2a.

1691   tr. Callimachus To Two Universities 2   You point an Epigram; you trill a Song; Lash with Lampoon, or Satyr's harder Thong.
1712   tr. N. Boileau-Despréaux Wks. II. 87   Thee only I admired—This, I with Pleasure said a thousand Ways, And ev'n in Satire's Bosom [Fr. au Sein de la Satire] learnt to Praise.
1761   tr. C. Batteux Course Belles Lettres III. iv. ii. v. 141   Satire's keen sword, when good Lucilius wields, Astonish'd guilt before the victor yields.
1820   P. B. Shelley Fragm.: Satire upon Satire 17   If Satire's scourge could wake the slumbering hounds Of Conscience, or erase the deeper wounds, The leprous scars of callous Infamy.
1855   H. H. Milman Hist. Lat. Christianity IV. ix. viii. 172   Satire began to aim its contemptuous sarcasms at the Pope and the Papal power.
1866   A. C. Swinburne Sel. from Byron Pref. p. xxi   Satire in earlier times had changed her rags for robes. Juvenal had clothed with fire, and Dryden with majesty, that wandering and bastard Muse.
1918   G. Frankau One of Them in Poet. Wks. (1923) II. 67   Green herbs from memory's campo santo Provide no flavouring for Satire's pot.
2011   B. D. Moyers Bill Moyers Jrnl. 1   Truth is satire's spermatozoon, and where it lands it leaves us not only laughing but thinking.

1691—2011(Hide quotations)


 a. The type of derisive humour or irony that is typical of a satire (cf. sense 1a); mocking wit; sarcasm, esp. as employed against something perceived as foolish or immoral. Also with on.

1634   W. Habington Castara Author's Pref. sig. A4   If [these lines want] Satyre to win applause with the envious multitude; they expresse my content, which maliceth none.
c1675   Duke of Buckingham Satire Follies Age 6   Nothing helps more than Satyr to amend Ill manners, or is trulier Virtues Friend.
1699   R. Bentley Diss. Epist. Phalaris (new ed.) 31   His Animadversions may have other faults, besides Satyr and Abuse.
1705   J. Addison Remarks Italy 265   This..is therefore interpreted by many as a hidden Piece of Satyr.
1724   R. Welton Substance Christian Faith 359   Those Pharisees, whom our Blessed Saviour, with the utmost satyre, and indignation, call'd painted sepulchres.
1736   Bp. J. Butler Analogy of Relig. ii. vii. 251   The Mythological [Writing], and the Satyrical where the Satyr is, to a certain Degree, concealed.
1811   Philadelphia Repertory 13 Apr. 396/2   The severity of its satire on a practice foolishly prevalent.
1828   W. Scott Fair Maid of Perth viii, in Chron. Canongate 2nd Ser. III. 207   Rothsay thought he discovered a smile upon his countenance; and to be the subject of this man's satire, gave him no ordinary degree of pain.
1847   Ld. Tennyson Princess ii. 46   And to us came Melissa, hitting all we saw with shafts Of gentle satire, kin to charity, That harm'd not.
1877   M. Oliphant Young Musgrave I. 10   Even now there would be a tone of satire in her voice when she noted the late marriage of one or another of her old adorers.
1929   Jrnl. Mod. Hist. 1 553   This letter, charged with biting satire, was intercepted at the London post office.
1947   K. S. Walker Brief for Ballet 45   The Green Table's provocative satire on political affairs.
1988   Times 15 Dec. 20/7   ‘Backwater Blues’ was there too, sung with feeling and not a hint of satire.
2007   N. H. Persley in M. Hess Icons Hip Hop II. 468   British performance artist Ali G has used satire to mock the bling-bling culture of hip hop.

1634—2007(Hide quotations)


b. A disposition to make satirical or sarcastic comments; a tendency to mock. Obsolete. rare.

1829   E. Bulwer-Lytton Devereux I. i. iv. 36   The kindness of his temper so softened the satire of mine.

1829—1829(Hide quotations)


 3. A thing or circumstance which exposes the faults or absurdities of something or someone; a mockery. Chiefly with on, of. Also occasionally as a mass noun.

1680   Earl of Rochester et al. Poems 49   When in thy Person, we more clearly see, That Satyr's of Divine Authority, For God, made one on Man, when he made thee.
1698   J. Norris Pract. Disc. Divine Subj. IV. 11   Religion has no advantage from the Commendations of those whose Lives are a constant Satyr upon it.
1770   ‘Junius’ Stat Nominis Umbra (1772) II. xxxviii. 87   Their very names are a satire upon all government.
1847   W. M. Thackeray Vanity Fair (1848) xxiv. 202   Some few score of years afterwards, when all the parties represented are grown old, what bitter satire there is in those flaunting childish family-portraits.
1848   W. M. Thackeray Vanity Fair lvii. 515   You..whose rank may be an ancestor's accident, whose prosperity is very likely a satire.
1863   B. Taylor Hannah Thurston i. 15   Seth was an awkward, ungainly person, whose clothes were a continual satire on his professional skill.
1908   Poet Lore Spring 90   The court ‘fool’ was become a man whose dignity was nil and wit extravagant, whose garb was a satire of splendor and patches, who moved a living cartoon of humanity.
1968   Brit. Jrnl. Psychiatry 114 670/2   Monstrous living satires of the intelligence-testing movement such as Mensa.
1994   R. Fox Challenge Anthropol. (1995) i. 66   The ‘Mall of America’..is not the friendly ‘local’ mall but a kind of grotesque satire on consumption and entertainment.

1680—1994(Hide quotations)

II. A satirist.

 4. A satirical person, a satirist. Also figurative. Obsolete.Sometimes with punning allusion to, or perhaps confused with, satyr n. 1   (see etymology).

1596   Vlysses vpon Aiax sig. E1v   Harke in thine eare, Misacmos is a Satire, a quipping fellow.
1609   W. Shakespeare Sonnets c. sig. Gv   Rise resty Muse, my loues sweet face suruay, If time haue any wrincle grauen there, If any, be a Satire to decay, And make times spoiles dispised euery where.
1628   J. Shirley Wittie Faire One (1633) i. iii. sig. B 3 b   Prethee Satyre chuse another walke, and leaue vs to inioy this.
a1629   T. Goffe Couragious Turke (1632) ii. iii. sig. D2v   Poore men may love, and none their wils correct: But all turne Satyres of a Kings affect.
1640   J. Shirley Humorous Courtier i. i. B j b   We may As well condemne our fathers, and declaime 'Gainst them for our begetting, come Orseollo, Desist to be a Satire.
1656   Earl of Monmouth tr. T. Boccalini Ragguagli di Parnasso ii. xxxii. 276   It being..forbidden to play the Satyr, gallant men who saw things..committed, which ought to be publickly declaimed against, were forst to see, to say nothing.
1711   A. Pope Ess. Crit. 34   Leave dang'rous Truths to unsuccessful Satyrs, And Flattery to fulsome Dedicators.

1596—1711(Hide quotations)




 C1. General attributive and other compounds.

1553   T. Wilson Arte of Rhetorique 24 b   The whiche thyng appereth plaine by the Satyre Poete.
?1553  (c1501)    G. Douglas Palice of Honour (London) ii. l. 907 in Shorter Poems (1967) 62   Thare wes the satyr [1579 Edinb. Satir] poete Iuuinale.
1635   in J. Rutter Shepheards Holy-day sig. A4   All bitter straines, that suite a Satyr Muse.
1732   S. Johnson Blazing Comet p. viii   Let there by no Gaul in your Ink, be not guilty of the meanest of Wit, a Satire-Writer is a Feeder of Wolves.
1887   New Englander (New Haven, Connecticut) Aug. 161   The idyls of Tennyson are in no whit nearer the jaded and satire-inspired pastorals of the extreme Popeans.
1911   C. D. Wright New Cent. Bk. Facts 938/1   In 1910 his satire drama, Chantecler, was produced.
1969   Listener 24 Apr. 588/2   The audience, used to jazz singers, satire companies or stand-up comedians, could make nothing of his work.
1977   Home Office: Rep. Comm. Future of Broadcasting ii. 15 in Parl. Papers 1976–7 (Cmnd. 6753) VI. 1   Lord Hill..saw no reason why the BBC should have been expected to apologise for a wisecrack in a satire programme.
1993   Spy (N.Y.) Dec. 6/1   The first few years of Saturday Night Live..had been satire-based, often salacious.
2010   Independent 18 Mar. (Life section) 2/1   Chris Morris's ‘terrorism comedy’ Four Lions..looks to be at the far end of the satire spectrum from his friend Armando Iannuci's In The Loop.

1553—2010(Hide quotations)


  satire-proof adj. unable to be satirized; immune to satire.

1687   J. Dryden Hind & Panther iii. 139   Frontless, and Satyr-proof he scow'rs the streets.
1691   Satyr against French 2   The Town, alas, is now grown Satyr-proof.
1777   London Rev. Eng. & Foreign Lit. 5 App. 529   We fear that calumny is satire-proof.
1841   Fraser's Mag. Mar. 330/2   Is it [sc. the practice of architects] invariably so insipidly straightforward as to be completely satire-proof and impregnable to ridicule?
1994   J. Schechter Satiric Impersonations i. 18   Ridiculing themselves in an electronically controlled space free from a live audience, they render themselves practically satire-proof.

1687—1994(Hide quotations)


This entry has been updated (OED Third Edition, December 2013; most recently modified version published online September 2021).

In this entry: