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"Ironic" redirects here. For the song by Alanis Morissette, see Ironic (song).

'Irony is a literary or rhetorical device in which there is a gap or incongruity between what a speaker or a writer says, and what is understood. More generally, irony is understood as an aesthetic valuation, which is variously applied to texts, speech, events and even fashion. All the different senses of irony, however, revolve around the notion of incongruity, or a gap, between our understanding or expectation and what actually happens.

There are different kinds of irony. For example:

  • Tragic irony occurs when a character onstage is ignorant, but the audience watching knows his or her eventual fate, as in Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King.
  • Socratic irony takes place when someone pretends to be foolish or ignorant, but is not.
  • Cosmic irony is a sharp incongruity between our expectation of an outcome and what actually occurs, as if the universe were mocking us.

H. W. Fowler, in Modern English Usage, had this to say of irony:

Irony is a form of utterance that postulates a double audience, consisting of one party that hearing shall hear and shall not understand, and another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware, both of that “more” and of the outsider’s incomprehension.

Irony has some of its foundation in the onlooker’s perception of paradox. The reader’s perception of a disconnection between common expectation, and the application of logic with an unexpected outcome, both has an element of irony in it and shows the connection between irony and humor, when the surprise startles us into laughter. Not all irony is humorous: “grim irony” and “stark irony” are familiar.



The Greek etymology of the word irony, εἰρωνεία (eironeia), means feigned ignorance (a technique often used by the Greek philosopher Socrates, see further), from είρων (eiron), the one who makes a question pretending to be naïve (a rhetorical question), and είρειν is also a verb radical of the Greek “to speak.” The verb είρειν (eirein) itself is probably from the Proto-Indo-European root *wer- 'say.

Socratic irony

Socratic irony is feigning ignorance in order to expose the weakness of another’s position.

The Greek word eironeia—ειρωνεία applied particularly to understatement in the nature of dissimulation. Such irony occurred especially and notably in the assumed ignorance which Socrates adopted as a method of dialectic, the “Socratic irony.” Socratic irony involves a profession of ignorance that disguises a skeptical, non-committed attitude towards some dogma or universal opinion that lacks a basis in reason or in logic. Socrates’ “innocent” inquiries expose step by step the vanity or illogicality of the proposition by unsettling the assumptions of his dialogue partner by questioning or simply not sharing his basic assumptions. The irony entertains those onlookers who know that Socrates is wiser than he permits himself to appear and who may perceive slightly in advance the direction the “naïve” questioning will take. Fowler describes it:

The two parties in his audience were, first, the dogmatist, moved by pity and contempt to enlighten this ignorance, and, secondly, those who knew their Socrates and set themselves to watch the familiar game in which learning should be turned inside out by simplicity.

Many have interpreted Socrates as not feigning ignorance so much as expressing a form of philosophical skepticism.

Television journalist Louis Theroux demonstrated expert use of Socratic irony to his audience, by interviewing a number of diverse individuals with an air of relaxed naivety and appreciative curiosity. This has led to his subjects becoming less guarded and more open in answering questions than they would have been in a more adversarial dialogue, while more often than not also granting Theroux subtle control of the interview.

In his character of Ali G, Sacha Baron Cohen uses Socratic irony to satirical effect. For instance, in one sketch he interviews a professor from the National Poison Information Centre about recreational drug use. Ali’s pretended stupidity in the form of asking questions such as “Does Class A drugs absolutely guarantee that they is [sic] better quality?” elicits a response that makes drugs look like any other consumer article.

The 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard admired Socratic irony and used a variation of Socratic irony in many of his works. Kierkegaard wrote on Socratic irony in his master’s thesis, titled On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates. In the thesis, Kierkegaard praises Plato’s and Aristophanes’ use of Socratic irony, and argues that Aristophanes’ portrayal of Socrates in The Clouds most accurately captured the spirit of Socratic irony.

Roman irony

In Roman times, irony was used in public speaking and rhetoric, in which the words used were opposite their meaning or intent.

Shakespeare imitated Roman irony in his play Julius Caesar in Mark Antony’s speech: "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears! I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him." (III, ii, 78-79), continually emphasising that Brutus and the conspirators "are honorable men." The subsequent monologue uses extensive irony to glorify Caesar; Antony selects words that seem to support the assassins, while his purpose and his effect is to incite the crowd against them.

Verbal irony

Verbal irony is traditionally defined as the use of words to convey something other than, and especially the opposite of the literal meaning of the words. One classic example is a speaker saying, “What lovely weather we are having!” as she looks out at a rainstorm intending to express her dissatisfaction with the weather. However, 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.

Verbal irony is distinguished from related phenomena such as 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 his voice while truly trying to claim he is not upset, it would not be verbal irony just 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 he was upset by claiming that he 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.

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!" (Note that this could easily be spoken literally by a person who believes in spiritual healing as a legitimate treatment for cancer). 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 (see examples below).

Research shows that most instances of verbal irony are considered to be sarcastic, suggesting that the term sarcasm is more widely used than its technical definition suggests it should be (Bryant & Fox Tree, 2002; Gibbs, 2000). Some psycholinguistic theorists suggest that sarcasm (Great idea! I hear they do fine work), hyperbole (That's best idea I have heard in years), understatement (Sure, it's only cancer), rhetorical questions (Does your soul have cancer?), and jocularity (Get them to fix your bad back while you're at it) should all be considered kinds 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 folk taxomonies 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.

Use of irony

The word “irony” is frequently used figuratively, especially in such phrases as “the irony of fate,” of an issue or result that seems to contradict normal expectations derived from the previous state or condition.

Situational irony

An example of situational irony — the juxtaposition of the sign and its surroundings are unexpected

Players and events coming together in improbable situations creating a tension between expected and real results. Situational irony occurs when the results of a situation are much different from what was expected. This results in a feeling of suprise and unfairness because of the odd situation.


  • A shipboard scene of reconciliation and hope for an estranged couple ends with the camera pulling back to reveal a life preserver stenciled “RMS Titanic.”
  • An unemployed man buys a car for his wife with the last money he has. When he arrives home with the keys for the new car his wife tells him she has lost her driver's license.
  • A child works all day on a beautiful painting of a horse for his sister because he knows how much she loves to ride horses. When the child goes home his sister is asleep and he wakes her up to give her the horse painting. She screams and sobs when she sees it because earlier in the day, her horse jumped the fence and was hit by a car.
  • A man goes over a giant waterfall in a barrel. He then goes home to take a shower and clean up and he slips on the soap and dies.

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 cosmic irony, it arises from sharp contrasts between reality and human ideals, or between human intentions and actual results. Minor examples are daily life situations such as the rain that sets in immediately after one finishes watering one’s garden, following many days of putting off watering in anticipation of rain. Sharper examples can include situations in which the consequences are more dramatic.

For example:

  • The artist Monet's loss of vision, but not hearing.
  • Ludwig van Beethoven’s loss of hearing, but not vision.
  • The 1956 loss by fire of the top of Harvard’s Memorial Hall tower, while being restored by workmen to make sure it would last for generations.
  • American astronaut Gus Grissom's death inside Apollo 1 may have been partly because of a spacecraft redesign that he had recommended after the Mercury-Redstone 4 mission. After a Mercury hatch opened prematurely, nearly causing his death, Grissom had recommended the Apollo hatch be made more difficult to open. The new hatch proved too difficult to open.
  • Seymour Cray, supercomputer architect, died of head and neck injuries suffered in a traffic collision. His vehicle — a Jeep Cherokee — was designed using a Cray supercomputer.
  • Chemist and mechanical engineer Thomas Midgley invented both tetraethyl lead and the chlorofluorocarbon Freon-12 as intended boons to the world. However, both compounds were environmental disasters: the first resulting in widespread lead poisoning, and the second class of compounds in widespread harm to the ozone layer.
  • At the age of 55, Midgley contracted polio and invented a complicated system of pulleys and ropes to move him in his bed. Although he was an accomplished engineer, this system also badly departed from its ideal task, strangling its inventor to death.
  • At the turn of the century, Charles Justice, a prison inmate at the Ohio State Penitentiary, devised an idea to improve the efficiency of the restraints on the electric chair. After a parole, he was convicted in a robbery/murder and returned to prison 13 years later under a death sentence. On November 9, 1911, he died in the same electric chair that he had helped to improve.Template:Fact

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. When the World War which began the 20th century was called The War to End All Wars, this later became an example of historical irony. Historical irony is therefore a subset of cosmic irony, but one in which the element of time is bound up. Examples:

  • When the telephone was invented, some people were especially quick to see the possibilties. One man even said: "I can easily see that every town will want one."
  • Contrasting statements were made at the dawn of computers, which were initially thought to be devices never capable of use outside a government or academic setting.

Historical irony is often encapsulated into statement:

  • "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." Nearly the last words of American Civil War General John Sedgwick[1]
  • In response to Mrs. Connally's comment, "Mr. President, you can't say that Dallas doesn't love you." John F. Kennedy uttered his last words, "That's very obvious." [2]


A typical use of irony of fate occurs in the climax of Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Template:Spoiler Frollo, the villain, stands upon a gargoyle. He raises his sword to strike Esmeralda, and says, “And He shall smite the wicked and plunge them into the fiery pit!” At that moment, the gargoyle breaks off, sending Frollo falling to his death into the courtyard, filled with molten lead that Quasimodo had spilled to stop the oncoming guards. The irony is that Frollo’s line is used in reference to Esmeralda, but instead it winds up applying to Frollo himself as he plunges into the fiery pit of molten lead. Template:Endspoiler

Situations resembling poetic justice, but lacking the aspect of justice, may also be ascribed to the irony of fate.

Tragic irony (dramatic irony)

In tragedy, what is called "tragic irony" becomes a device for heightening the intensity of a dramatic situation. Tragic irony particularly characterized the drama of ancient Greece, owing to the familiarity of the spectators with the legends on which so many of the plays were based. In this form of irony, the words and actions of the characters belie the real situation, which the spectators fully realize. It may take several forms: the character speaking may realize the irony of his words while the rest of the actors may not; or he or she may be unconscious while the other actors share the knowledge with the spectators; or the spectators may alone realize the irony. SophoclesOedipus the King provides a classic example of tragic irony at its fullest and finest.

Irony may come to expression in inappropriate behavior. A witness to a scene involving threats of violence, for example, may perceive continued politeness on the part of the victim as increasingly ironic as it becomes increasingly inappropriate. Sometimes the “second” audience is the private self of the ironist.

When not recognized, irony can lead to misunderstanding. Even if an ironic statement is recognized as such, it often expresses less clearly what the speaker or writer wants to say than would a direct statement.

Another famous case of tragic irony occurs 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 knife.

Comic irony

Layers of comic irony pervade Jane Austen’s novels. The first sentence of Pride and Prejudice famously opens with a nearly mathematical postulate. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” The scene that follows immediately betrays the proposal. “No, a rich young man moving into the neighborhood did not come to seek a wife.” In fact, it soon becomes clear that Austen means the opposite: women (or their mothers) must always be in need of, and desperately on the lookout for, 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. For instance, an ironic situation might involve getting hit by a rib-delivery truck after trying to poison someone with bad rib-sauce in order to steal his or her gems. Reference: Season 4 Cycle 1—SCTV Network / 90 Show 2, Polynesiantown.


Main articles: Metafiction, and [[{{{2}}}]], and [[{{{3}}}]], and [[{{{4}}}]], and [[{{{5}}}]]

Metafiction is a kind of fiction which self-consciously addresses 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. Daniel Handler’s A Series of Unfortunate Events could also be considered a form of romantic irony, in which the action is frequently halted for a warning that the events to follow could be potentially distressing. The concept is also explored in a philosophical context in Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder. A similar example occurs in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy novel where the narrator reveals in advance “in the interest of reducing stress” that nobody will get hurt by a pair of incoming nuclear warheads, but that he will leave some suspense by stating that he would not reveal whose upper arm would get bruised in the process.

Irony as infinite, absolute negativity

While many reputable critics limit irony to something resembling Aristotle's definition, an influential set of texts insists that it be understood, not as a limited tool, but as a disruptive force with the power to undo texts and readers alike. This tradition includes not only Søren Kierkegaard, but 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.

There is more at stake here than a simple quibble over a dictionary definition. Holocaust writer Tadeusz Borowski's brief and fiendishly complex short story "The Death of Schillinger" shows how irony infects not just Holocaust literature, but the acts and lives of victims, perpetrators, and bystanders alike. Cohen's comedy provokes horrified laughter because it ruthlessly exposes cultural norms about race, sex, religion and national origin, often all in the same sketch. Both take on the atrocities of the 20th and 21st centuries without providing a stable perspective from which to judge or a positive program that right-thinking people might pursue. Instead, Borowski and Cohen render any possible position absurd. Any definition of irony quickly becomes mired in philosophy's bitterest debates.

Usage controversy

The material above deals with the primary dictionary meaning of the word irony. There is no controversy that the usage above is a correct usage; the controversy is over whether it is the only correct usage. Authority, in the form of dictionaries and usage guides, can be cited on both sides.

Descriptivists generally discount such self-proclaimed language authorities in favor of studying how individuals currently use the word.

It is currently quite common to hear the word ironic used as a synonym for incongruous in situations where there is no “double audience,” and no contradiction between the ostensible and true meaning of the words. Two examples 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.
Adolph Coors III was the former heir to the Coors beer empire. Ironically, Coors was allergic to beer.

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.” This definition still allows the above usage but excludes examples like “It's a traffic jam when you're already late” as made popular by Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic”.

However, the American Heritage Dictionary recognizes a secondary meaning for irony: “incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.” In other words, ironic in this sense is synonymous with incongruous. The word incongruity is not in the active vocabulary for most speakers of the English language, irony being much more widespread among those wanting to be precise in their language.

Other historical prescriptivists have even stricter definitions for the word irony. 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.” Fowler would thus consider the Sullivan example above as incorrect usage.

Recent developments

Alanis Morissette’s popular 1995 song “Ironic” breathed new life into the ongoing controversy over the definition of irony. The song attracted a great deal of attention from prescriptivistsTemplate:Fact for its (arguably) flagrant misuse of the word ironic. Morissette’s alleged misuses of the word include the following:

It’s a traffic jam / when you’re already late
He won the lottery / and died the next day
And when the plane crashed down / he thought / "Well isn't this nice!"

Among those who assert that the song uses an invalid definition of irony, many find it ironic that Morissette would write a song titled “Ironic” with no actual irony in it. In 2004, Morissette herself acknowledged that the song doesn’t live up to the definition, which is what makes it ironic. Some have referred to the deprecated sense of "irony" as Morissettian irony.

This sort of meta-irony was almost certainly the goal of the writers of Saturday Night Live in their “Tales of Irony” sketch, in which guest host Jason Alexander presided over a Masterpiece Theatre–like presentation of short films which, to his increasing dismay, lacked ironic content. Irony played the role of the punchline in many Bill Brasky skits of Saturday Night Live, famously the interchange “He hated Mexicans!” / “And he was half Mexican!” / “And he hated irony!”

Dave Eggers’ novel, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius contains a lengthy discourse criticizing what the author regards as the misuse of the word irony.

A PhD Comics strip takes up the issue of the disconnect between the popular view of the definition of ironic and the view supported by many academics.

It may be that popular usage patterns are shifting the predominant meaning of irony toward references to ironies of fate. Whether this has been caused, exemplified or popularized by the American Heritage Dictionary (or by Alanis Morissette) is unclear.

Cultural variation

Irony often requires a cultural backdrop to be understood or noticed, and as with any culture-specific idiom, irony often cannot be perfectly transplanted. An expression with a secondary meaning clear to an east-coast American may be obscure to a Canadian, Briton, Australian, or even a west-coast American, though they ostensibly all speak the same language. Attempting a literal translation of an ironic idiom to another language often renders the concept muddled or incoherent. Further, the use of verbal irony may also relies on non-literal cues such as tone of voice or posture. Every culture incorporates its own form of linguistic metaphor, idiom and subtlety. In such cases, translation requires extra care, and perhaps explanation.


  • 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 69 (1980): 503-19.

External links

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