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Writing in Britain's Observer newspaper a few years back, Italian-born journalist Cristina Odone argued that America is "the land of the irony-free":

Americans don't like humble pie: they regard themselves--collectively and individually--as Number One; and they approach their selves, their countrymen, and every institution with a corresponding degree of seriousness. History, economics and geopolitics have schooled them in self-importance: every little thing they say, every little thing they do, has worldwide implications. When Americans slip on a banana skin, the rest of the world breaks its legs. Conscious of their global role, Yanks uphold this earnest ethos.
("The Bleakest Link," The Observer, April 22, 2001)
Apparently many Brits believe that Americans "don't get irony"--that the classic trope is a kind of cultural consolation prize acquired only through the loss of an empire. When a Los Angeles reporter asked British actor Tim Curry what he missed most about England, he said simply, "Irony."

But not everyone agrees. The notion that Americans have no sense of irony, says British journalist Zoe Williams, is "absolute moonshine." In fact, Americans have a "superior grasp of irony," as demonstrated by the "well-documented superiority of US telly over British telly" (The Guardian, June 28, 2003).

Indeed, says Simon Pegg--witness The Simpsons. The British comedian (and star of Shaun Of The Dead) insists that "the whole 'Americans don't do irony' thing" should be consigned to "the dustbin/garbage pail of passive/aggressive international preconception." Americans, he says, "just don't feel entirely comfortable using it on each other, in case it causes damage. A bit like how we feel about guns" (The Guardian, February 10, 2007).

From our rhetorical perspective, such debates reveal just one thing: irony is one sorely misunderstood figure of speech and thought.

Some people appear to confuse irony with understatement--in particular, litotes. To others (such as Alanis Morissette), irony vaguely suggests misfortune, disappointment, or an unhappy coincidence. And still others apparently equate it with invective--or with humor or anger or pessimism or cynicism or even (my apologies) postmodernism.

A tricky concept to begin with, irony has become a Humpty Dumpty word, meaning "just what I choose it to mean," as each of us seems to be saying, "neither more nor less."

To advance the discussion (rather than try to resolve the debate), we've gathered various definitions, interpretations, and criticisms of the trope in an article smartly titled What Is Irony? Ranging from the eiron, or mask of ignorance, adopted by Socrates to the digitized chatter in our own "age of irony" (which may or may not have ended on 9/11), our survey draws on the wisdom of a rowdy crowd of wiseguys, both ancient and modern.

Join the conversation by visiting What Is Irony? And let us know what you think by clicking on the comments button below.


June 2, 2008 at 8:12 pm
(1) lemley says:

i think americans have a healthy sense of irony though they may not recognize it when it occurs. consider the use (or misuse) of French terms by rednecks when giving home tours of their trailers: “y’all come on in, welcome to my domocile, if you step here to the left, you’ll enter our boudoir!” See the film “Raising Arizona” for similar examples of verbal irony.

June 3, 2008 at 7:17 am
(2) Ann says:

Can one say the irony is “The Bleakest Link,” a rather prophetic piece, which was written before 9-11 (April 22, 2001), and still Americans don’t recognize its significance? What had been America’s historical role as imperialist nation had never been so clearly demonstrated as after 9-11 and the supposed role of “terrorism” in foreign policy and in the Iraqi War. Humble pie has never been part of the American diet, unfortunately.

December 4, 2009 at 3:48 pm
(3) Liz says:

Unless this whole essay is a very subtle exercise of irony, it just proves The Observer’s point.

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