Irony (from the Ancient Greek εἰρωνεία eironeía, meaning hypocrisy, deception, or feigned ignorance) is a literary or rhetorical device, in which there is an incongruity or discordance between what one says or does, and what one means or what is generally understood. Irony is a mode of expression that calls attention to discrepancy between two levels of knowledge. In fiction, it is a demonstration of the distance between the character's knowledge and that of the audience.
What qualifies as ironic is subjective, but all senses of irony revolve around the perceived notion of an incongruity between what is said and what is meant; or between an understanding of reality, or an expectation of a reality, and what actually happens.
Henry Watson Fowler, in The King's English, says “any definition of irony—though hundreds might be given, and very few of them would be accepted—must include this, that the surface meaning and the underlying meaning of what is said are not the same.”
The word 'ironic' is sometimes used as a synonym for incongruous or coincidental in situations where there is no “double audience,” and no contradiction between the ostensible and true meaning of the words. An example of such usage:
Ironically, Sir Arthur Sullivan is remembered for the comic operas he found embarrassing, rather than the serious works he hoped would be his legacy.
The American Heritage Dictionary recognizes a secondary meaning for irony: “incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.” This sense, however, is not synonymous with "incongruous" but merely a definition of dramatic or situational irony. The American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel found it unacceptable to use the word ironic to describe mere unfortunate coincidences or surprising disappointments that “suggest no particular lessons about human vanity or folly.”
Types of irony
These modern theories of rhetoric distinguish between three types of irony: verbal, dramatic and situational.
- Verbal irony is a disparity of expression and intention: when a speaker says one thing but means another, or when a literal meaning is contrary to its intended effect. An example of this is sarcasm.
- Dramatic irony is a disparity of expression and awareness: when words and actions possess a significance that the listener or audience understands, but the speaker or character does not.
- Situational irony is the disparity of intention and result: when the result of an action is contrary to the desired or expected effect. Likewise, cosmic irony is disparity between human desires and the harsh realities of the outside world (or the whims of the gods). By some older definitions, situational irony and cosmic irony are not irony at all.
Verbal irony, including sarcasm
Verbal irony is distinguished from situational irony and dramatic irony in that it is produced intentionally by speakers. For instance, if a speaker exclaims, “I’m not upset!” but reveals an upset emotional state through her voice while truly trying to claim she's not upset, it would not be verbal irony by virtue of its verbal manifestation (it would, however, be situational irony). But if the same speaker said the same words and intended to communicate that she was upset by claiming she was not, the utterance would be verbal irony. This distinction gets at an important aspect of verbal irony: speakers communicate implied propositions that are intentionally contradictory to the propositions contained in the words themselves. There are examples of verbal irony that do not rely on saying the opposite of what one means, and there are cases where all the traditional criteria of irony exist and the utterance is not ironic.
Ironic similes are a form of verbal irony where a speaker does intend to communicate the opposite of what they mean. For instance, the following explicit similes have the form of a statement that means P but which conveys the meaning not P:
- as hard as putty
- as funny as cancer
- as clear as mud
- as pleasant as a root canal treatment
A fair amount of confusion has surrounded the issue regarding the relationship between verbal irony and sarcasm, and psychology researchers have addressed the issue directly (e.g, Lee & Katz, 1998). For example, ridicule is an important aspect of sarcasm, but not verbal irony in general. By this account, sarcasm is a particular kind of personal criticism leveled against a person or group of persons that incorporates verbal irony. For example, a person reports to her friend that rather than going to a medical doctor to treat her ovarian cancer, she has decided to see a spiritual healer instead. In response her friend says sarcastically, "Great idea! I hear they do fine work!" The friend could have also replied with any number of ironic expressions that should not be labeled as sarcasm exactly, but still have many shared elements with sarcasm.
Most instances of verbal irony are labeled by research subjects as sarcastic, suggesting that the term sarcasm is more widely used than its technical definition suggests it should be (Bryant & Fox Tree, 2002; Gibbs, 2000). Psycholinguistic theorists suggest that sarcasm ("Great idea!", "I hear they do fine work."), hyperbole ("That's the best idea I have heard in years!"), understatement ("Sure, what the hell, it's only cancer..."), rhetorical questions ("What, does your spirit have cancer?"), double entendre ("I'll bet if you do that, you'll be communing with spirits in no time...") and jocularity ("Get them to fix your bad back while you're at it.") should all be considered forms of verbal irony (Gibbs, 2000). The differences between these tropes can be quite subtle, and relate to typical emotional reactions of listeners, and the rhetorical goals of the speakers. Regardless of the various ways theorists categorize figurative language types, people in conversation are attempting to decode speaker intentions and discourse goals, and are not generally identifying, by name, the kinds of tropes used.
In drama, the device of giving the spectator an item of information that at least one of the characters in the narrative is unaware of (at least consciously), thus of placing the spectator a step ahead of at least one of the characters. Dramatic irony has three stages - installation, exploitation and resolution (sometimes called preparation, suspension and resolution) - producing dramatic conflict is produced in what one character relies or appears to rely upon a fact, the contrary of which is known by observers (especially the audience; sometimes to other characters within the drama) to be true.
- In City Lights, we know that Charlie Chaplin's character is not a millionaire, but the blind flower girl (Virginia Cherill) is unaware.
- In Cyrano de Bergerac, we know that Cyrano loves Roxane and that he is the real author of the letters that Christian is writing to the young woman; Roxane is unaware of this.
- In North by Northwest, we know that Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is not Kaplan; Vandamm (James Mason) and his acolytes do not. We also know that Kaplan is a fictitious agent invented by the CIA; Roger and Vandamm do not.
- In Oedipus the King, we know that Oedipus himself is the murderer that he is seeking; Oedipus, Creon and Jocasta do not.
- In Othello, we know that Desdemona has been faithful to Othello, but he doesn't. We also know that Iago is pulling the strings, a fact hidden from Othello, Desdemona, Cassio and Roderigo.
- In Pygmalion, we know that Eliza is a woman of the street; Higgins's family does not.
Tragic irony is a special category of dramatic irony. In tragic irony, the words and actions of the characters belie the real situation, which the spectators fully realize.
Ancient Greek drama was especially characterized by tragic irony because the audiences were so familiar the legends that most of the plays dramatized. Sophocles' Oedipus the King provides a classic example of tragic irony at its fullest.
Irony threatens authoritative models of discourse by "removing the semantic security of ‘one signifier: one signified’"; irony has some of its foundation in the onlooker’s perception of paradox which arises from insoluble problems.
- In the William Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo finds Juliet in a drugged death-like sleep, he assumes her to be dead and kills himself. Upon awakening to find her dead lover beside her, Juliet kills herself with his dagger.
This is a relatively modern use of the term, and describes a discrepancy between the expected result and actual results when enlivened by 'perverse appropriateness'.
- When John Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, all of his shots initially missed the President; however a bullet ricocheted off the bullet-proof windows of the Presidential limousine and struck Reagan in the chest. Thus, the windows made to protect the President from gunfire were partially responsible for his being shot.The Trial of John W. Hinckley, Jr. by Doug Linder. 2001
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a story whose plot revolves around irony. Dorothy travels to a wizard and fulfills his challenging demands to go home, before discovering she had the ability to go back home all the time. The Scarecrow longs for intelligence, only to discover he is already a genius, and the Tin Woodsman longs to be capable of love, only to discover he already has a heart. The Lion, who at first appears to be a whimpering coward turns out to be bold and fearless, The people in Emerald City believe the Wizard to have been a powerful deity, only to discover he was a bumbling eccentric old man.
- In "The Three Apples", a medieval Arabian Nights tale, the protagonist Ja'far ibn Yahya is ordered by Harun al-Rashid to find the culprit behind a murder mystery within three days or else be executed. It is only after the deadline has passed, and as he prepares to be executed, that he discovers that the culprit was his own slave all along. (Story-Telling Techniques in the Arabian Nights ISBN 9004095306) (The Arabian Nights Reader, ISBN 0814332595)
- After astronaut Gus Grissom's first flight into space, the hatch on his spacecraft accidentally blew off while Grissom was waiting for a rescue helicopter to fish the capsule out of the ocean, causing the capsule to fill with water and sink and Grissom to nearly drown. The hatch system was re-designed in later spacecraft to prevent similar accidents, and, while training for his third spaceflight, a fire broke out inside Grissom's spacecraft, causing Grissom and two other astronauts to suffocate. The hatch redesign triggered by the accident with Grissom's first spacecraft, meant to help save astronaut's lives, prevented Grissom from being rescued in the subsequent fire accident.
Irony of fate (cosmic irony)
The expression “irony of fate” stems from the notion that the gods (or the Fates) are amusing themselves by toying with the minds of mortals with deliberate ironic intent. Closely connected with situational irony, it arises from sharp contrasts between reality and human ideals, or between human intentions and actual results.
- In O. Henry's story The Gift of the Magi, a young couple are too poor to buy each other Christmas gifts. The wife cuts off her treasured hair to sell it to a wig-maker for money to buy her husband a chain for his heirloom pocket watch. She's shocked when she learns he had pawned his watch to buy her a set of combs for her long, beautiful, prized hair.
- In the ancient Indian story of Krishna, King Kamsa is told in a prophecy that a child of his sister Devaki would kill him. In order to prevent it, he imprisons both Devaki and her husband Vasudeva, allowing them to live only if they hand over their children as soon as they are born. He murders nearly all of them one by one, but the eighth child, Krishna, is saved and raised by a cowherd couple, Nanda and Yasoda. After growing up and returning to his kingdom, Kamsa is eventually killed by Krishna, as was originally predicted by the self-fulfilling prophecy. It was Kamsa's attempt to prevent the prophecy that led to it becoming a reality.
- In 1974 the Consumer Product Safety Commission had to recall 80,000 of its own lapel buttons promoting "toy safety", because the buttons had sharp edges, used lead paint, and had small clips that could be broken off and subsequently swallowed.
- Importing Cane Toads to Australia to protect the environment only to create worse environmental problems for Australia.
- Jim Fixx, who did much to popularize jogging as a form of healthy exercise in his 1977 book The Complete Book of Running, died at the age of 52 of a heart attack (a death associated with sedentary, unhealthy lifestyles) while out jogging.
- Eartha Kitt, who is popularly known for her Christmas song Santa Baby, died on Christmas Day, 25th December 2008.
Historical irony (cosmic irony through time)
When history is seen through modern eyes, it sometimes happens that there is an especially sharp contrast between the way historical figures see their world and the probable future of their world, and what actually transpired. For example, during the 1920s The New York Times repeatedly heaped scorn on crossword puzzles. In 1924 it lamented "the sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern;" in 1925 said "the question of whether the puzzles are beneficial or harmful is in no urgent need of an answer. The craze evidently is dying out fast;" and in 1929 judged that "The cross-word puzzle, it seems, has gone the way of all fads." Today, no U.S. newspaper is more closely identified with the crossword than The New York Times.
In a more tragic example of historical irony, what people now refer to as "World War I" was originally called "The War to End All Wars" or "The Great War". Historical irony is therefore a subset of cosmic irony, but one in which the element of time is bound to pop up.
- "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." Nearly the last words of American Civil War General John Sedgwick before being shot through the eye by a Confederate sniper.The Death of General John Sedgwick
- In Dallas, in response to Mrs. Connolly's comment, "Mr. President, you can't say that Dallas doesn't love you," John F. Kennedy said, "That's very obvious." He was assassinated immediately afterwards.
- Ibn al-Haytham of Basra invented the modern camera obscura, as described in his Book of Optics in 1021. Nearly a thousand years later, his hometown of Basra was attacked using camera-guided missiles during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
- Several inventors were killed by their own creations, including Haman, Ismail ibn Hammad al-Javhari, "The First Attempts of Flight, Automatic Machines, Submarines and Rocket Technology in Turkish History", in The Turks (ed. H. C. Guzel), pp. 804-810 
Irony in use
One point of view has it that all modern art is ironic because the viewer cannot help but compare it to previous works. For example, any portrait of a standing, non-smiling woman will naturally be compared with the Mona Lisa; the tension of meaning exists, whether the artist meant it or not.
While this does not appear to exactly conform to any of the three types of irony above, there is some evidence that the term "ironic art" is being used in this context Guardian Online: The Final Irony. This definition could extend to any sort of modern artistic endeavour: graphic design or music sampling, for example).
Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice begins with the proposition “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” In fact, it soon becomes clear that Austen means the opposite: women (or their mothers) are always in search of, and desperately on the lookout for, a rich single man to make a husband. The irony deepens as the story promotes his romance and ends in a double wedding.
Comic irony from television sketch-comedy has the distinction over literary comic irony in that it often incorporates elements of absurdity. A classic example is where a shark tries to impress his shark friends by learning to surf. He then surfs so well that his friends mistake him for an actual surfer and eat him.
Comic irony has long been a staple of comic strips, in which the action is free to be unrealistic. An example is a notable Far Side cartoon in which a hapless cat is trapped against an inside house window, having to watch the once-in-a-lifetime consequences of a collision outside between a truck labeled "Al's Rodents" and another labeled "Ernie's Small Flightless Birds".
Metafictions are kinds of fiction which self-consciously address the devices of fiction. It usually involves irony and is self-reflective. Metafiction (or “romantic irony” in the sense of roman the prose fiction) refers to the effect when a story is interrupted to remind the audience or reader that it is really only a story. Examples include Henry Fielding’s interruptions of the storyline to comment on what has happened, or J.M. Barrie’s similar interjections in his book, Peter Pan. The concept is also explored in a philosophical context in Sophie's World, by Jostein Gaarder.
Post Irony is a technique that uses the juxtaposition of empty symbolism and loaded evocations to create humor whose roots lie not so much in the mocking of any one ideology proper so much as in mocking the stupidity that lies at the roots of the propagation of modern ideologies.
Post Irony exists in the aesthetic lineage of Dadaism and Surrealism. This is evidenced by the premium it places on non-sequiturs as well as its tendency to ignore the meaning of a loaded symbol (such as the Twin Towers falling, a cross, or even some Freudian and Jungian symbols) and to recontextualize such symbols in forums (children's TV show parodies, marketing catchphrases, or pop song parodies) at odds with the gravity that has been ascribed to them. Post-Ironic works also tend to be more reliant on an internal, almost musical logic than on a causal, narrative one.
Irony as infinite, absolute negativity
There is a tradition that sees irony not as a limited tool in the sense of the three types of irony above, but as a disruptive force with the power to undo texts and readers alike. This tradition includes Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, 19th century German critic and novelist Friedrich Schlegel ("On Incomprehensibility"), Charles Baudelaire, Stendhal, and the 20th century deconstructionist Paul de Man ("The Concept of Irony"). Briefly, it insists that irony is, in Kierkegaard's words, "infinite, absolute negativity". Where much of philosophy attempts to reconcile opposites into a larger positive project, Kierkegaard and others insist that irony — whether expressed in complex games of authorship or simple litotes — must, in Kierkegaard's words, "swallow its own stomach". Irony entails endless reflection and violent reversals, and ensures incomprehensibility at the moment it compels speech. Not surprisingly, irony is the favorite textual property of deconstructionists.
- Sarcasm Society: Socratic Irony
- Hutcheon, p. 13
- The Trial of John W. Hinckley, Jr. by Doug Linder. 2001 Retrieved 9 September 2008.
- Pinault, David (1992), Story-Telling Techniques in the Arabian Nights, Brill Publishers, pp. 95-6, ISBN 9004095306
- Marzolph, Ulrich (2006), The Arabian Nights Reader, Wayne State University Press, pp. 241-2, ISBN 0814332595
- New York Times, December 3, 2007, Page B1: It Dawned on Adults After WW II: 'You'll Shoot Your Eye Out!
- The Death of General John Sedgwick
- "Camera Ibn Al-Haytham". FSTC Limited (03 October 2003). Retrieved on 2008-10-18.
- Arslan Terzioglu (2007), "The First Attempts of Flight, Automatic Machines, Submarines and Rocket Technology in Turkish History", in The Turks (ed. H. C. Guzel), pp. 804-810 
- KILLED BY OWN INVENTION.; While Trying Motor Bicycle He Had Made, Schenectady Man Meets Death - Article Preview - The New York Times
- Guardian Online: The Final Irony
- Star, William T. "Irony and Satire: A Bibliography." Irony and Satire in French Literature. Ed. University of South Carolina Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina College of Humanities and Social Sciences, 1987. 183-209.
- Bogel, Fredric V. "Irony, Inference, and Critical Understanding." Yale Review ): 503-19.
- Colebrook, Claire. Irony. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.
- Hutcheon, Linda. Irony’s Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony. London: Routledge, 1994.
- for review of Socratic irony see Kieran Egan The educated mind : how cognitive tools shape our understanding. (1997) University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN p. 137-144
- Lavandier, Yves. Writing Drama, pages 263-315.
- "The final irony"—a Guardian article about irony, use and misuse of the term
- Article on the etymology of Irony
- AHD Definition of irony
- AHD Definition of and usage note for ironic
- Extended discourse in Dictionary of the History of Ideas
- "Sardonicus"—a web-resource that provides access to similes, ironic and otherwise, harvested from the web.
- Excerpt on dramatic irony from Yves Lavandier's Writing Drama