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What Is Irony?

Definitions and Interpretations of Rhetorical Irony

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What Is Irony?

Irony: the T-shirt

"To say one thing but to mean something else"--that may be the simplest definition of irony. But in truth there's nothing at all simple about the rhetorical concept of irony. As J.A. Cuddon says in A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (Basil Blackwell, 1979), irony "eludes definition," and "this elusiveness is one of the main reasons why it is a source of so much fascinated inquiry and speculation."

To encourage further inquiry (rather than reduce this complex trope to simplistic explanations), we've gathered a variety of definitions and interpretations of irony, both ancient and modern. Here you'll find some recurrent themes as well as some points of disagreement. Does any one of these writers provide the single "right answer" to our question? No. But all provide food for thought.

We begin on this page with some broad observations about the nature of irony--a few standard definitions along with attempts to classify the different types of irony. On page two, we offer a brief survey of the ways that the concept of irony has evolved over the past 2,500 years. Finally, on pages three and four, a number of contemporary writers discuss what irony means (or seems to mean) in our own time.

Part I: Definitions and Types of Irony

  • The Three Basic Features of Irony
    The principal obstacle in the way of a simple definition of irony is the fact that irony is not a simple phenomenon. . . . We have now presented, as basic features for all irony,
    (i) a contrast of appearance and reality,
    (ii) a confident unawareness (pretended in the ironist, real in the victim of the irony) that the appearance is only an appearance, and
    (iii) the comic effect of this unawareness of a contrasting appearance and reality.
    (Douglas Colin Muecke, Irony, Methuen Publishing, 1970)


  • Five Kinds of Irony
    Three kinds of irony have been recognized since antiquity: (1) Socratic irony. a mask of innocence and ignorance adopted to win an argument. . . . (2) Dramatic or tragic irony, a double vision of what is happening in a play or real-life situation. . . . (3) Linguistic irony, a duality of meaning, now the classic form of irony. Building on the idea of dramatic irony, the Romans concluded that language often carries a double message, a second often mocking or sardonic meaning running contrary to the first. . . .

    In modern times, two further conceptions have been added: (1) Structural irony, a quality that is built into texts, in which the observations of a naive narrator point up deeper implications of a situation. . . . (2) Romantic irony, in which writers conspire with readers to share the double vision of what is happening in the plot of a novel, film, etc.
    (Tom McArthur, The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Oxford University Press, 1992)


  • Applying Irony
    Irony's general characteristic is to make something understood by expressing its opposite. We can therefore isolate three separate ways of applying this rhetorical form. Irony can refer to (1) individual figures of speech (ironia verbi); (2) particular ways of interpreting life (ironia vitae); and (3) existence in its entirety (ironia entis). The three dimensions of irony--trope, figure, and universal paradigm--can be understood as rhetorical, existential, and ontological.
    (Peter L. Oesterreich, "Irony," in Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, edited by Thomas O. Sloane, Oxford University Press, 2001)


  • Metaphors for Irony
    Irony is an insult conveyed in the form of a compliment, insinuating the most galling satire under the phraseology of panegyric; placing its victim naked on a bed of briars and thistles, thinly covered with rose leaves; adorning his brow with a crown of gold, which burns into his brain; teasing, and fretting, and riddling him through and through with incessant discharges of hot shot from a masked battery; laying bare the most sensitive and shrinking nerves of his mind, and then blandly touching them with ice, or smilingly pricking them with needles.
    (James Hogg, "Wit and Humour," in Hogg's Instructor, 1850)


  • Irony & Sarcasm
    Irony must not be confused with sarcasm, which is direct: Sarcasm means precisely what it says, but in a sharp, bitter, cutting, caustic, or acerb manner; it is the instrument of indignation, a weapon of offense, whereas irony is one of the vehicles of wit.
    (Eric Partridge and Janet Whitcut, Usage and Abusage: A Guide to Good English, W.W. Norton & Company, 1997)


  • Irony, Sarcasm, & Wit
    George Puttenham's Arte of English Poesie shows appreciation for subtle rhetorical irony by translating "ironia" as "Drie Mock." I tried to find out what irony really is, and discovered that some ancient writer on poetry had spoken of ironia, which we call the drye mock, and I cannot think of a better term for it: the drye mock. Not sarcasm, which is like vinegar, or cynicism, which is often the voice of disappointed idealism, but a delicate casting of a cool and illuminating light on life, and thus an enlargement. The ironist is not bitter, he does not seek to undercut everything that seems worthy or serious, he scorns the cheap scoring-off of the wisecracker. He stands, so to speak, somewhat at one side, observes and speaks with a moderation which is occasionally embellished with a flash of controlled exaggeration. He speaks from a certain depth, and thus he is not of the same nature as the wit, who so often speaks from the tongue and no deeper. The wit's desire is to be funny, the ironist is only funny as a secondary achievement.
    (Roberston Davies, The Cunning Man, Viking, 1995)


  • Cosmic Irony
    There are two broad uses in everyday parlance. The first relates to cosmic irony and has little to do with the play of language or figural speech. . . . This is an irony of situation, or an irony of existence; it is as though human life and its understanding of the world is undercut by some other meaning or design beyond our powers. . . . The word irony refers to the limits of human meaning; we do not see the effects of what we do, the outcomes of our actions, or the forces that exceed our choices. Such irony is cosmic irony, or the irony of fate.
    (Claire Colebrook, Irony: The New Critical Idiom, Routledge, 2004)

Continued on page two

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