The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







: layered visual irony?
Adolf Hitler: layered visual irony?

Irony is a form of speech in which the real meaning is concealed or contradicted by the words used. Irony involves the perception that things are not what they are said to be or what they seem. Dramatic irony lies in the audience's deeper perceptions of a coming fate, which contrast with the character's perceptions.

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 is, therefore, a matter of perceived and real attitude or values of the speaker, rather than a difference between the denotative meanings of the words a speaker uses.

The song "Poor Judd" from the musical Oklahoma! provides an especially clear example of this form of irony: Curley's words and tone of voice are perceived by Judd as expressions of camaraderie and empathy, while the onlookers (and the audience) understand that it is mockery.

In the staged propaganda photo of Hitler (illustration, above right) several layers of apparent perceptions offer irony of multiple audiences: the private understanding of the dictator presented in his most engaging and civilian aspect, the naive trust of the little girl, the obedient and passive crowd kept in the distance, the ambivalent collusion of the anonymous photographer of this staged photo opportunity, the perception of the modern viewer, who is additionally conditioned by photos of inmates at Auschwitz.



The Greek etymology of the word irony, είρωνεία (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 na´ve, 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

In short, Socratic irony is feigning ignorance in order to expose the weakness of another's position.

The Greek word eironeia 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. 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 "na´ve" 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.

Socratic irony, as an elegant, ingenious and polite way of communication, is convenient for discussing and debating dogmas without unbalancing nor compromising.

Television journalist Louis Theroux is someone who has demonstated 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.

Irony and sarcasm

Both understatement and mocking overstatement (ironic hyperbole) are vehicles for irony, when both parties are aware of the disparity between what is said and reality.

Heavy-handed irony, in which a speaker emphatically states the flat opposite of the truth – perhaps with accompanying body language to deny the words – exemplifies the form of irony called sarcasm. People may particularly employ sarcasm for the purpose of ridicule, mockery or contempt, frequently uttering a sarcastic phrase. When used in literature, sarcasm is often referred to as verbal irony.

An example of sarcastic speech might be a response such as "Well done" or "Great job", said in an angry tone to a worker who has done something wrong. An ironic "Not bad" would come when a fire-fighter across the street from a burning building sees a child on the window ledge and dashes across through traffic to catch the falling child in his arms. Both the speaker and the fire-fighter understand that "Not bad" doesn't begin to express the half of it. They share a perception of irony.

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

Players and events coming together in improbable situations creating a tension between expected and real results. example:

  • His living arrangements have included a house that is literally falling apart around him and a beautifully furnished apartment that shares a glass wall with a jai alai court. -- description of Lenford "Lenny" Leonard

Irony of fate

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. For example:

  • Ludwig van Beethoven's loss of hearing;
  • The rain that sets in immediately after one finishes watering one's garden, following many days of putting off watering in anticipation of rain;
  • An avalanche awareness class caught in avalanche.

Examples of ironic incidents might involve the eviction of a landlord from his home, or the death of an atheist killed by a falling cross. In the first case, an incongruity exists between what happens (the person is evicted) and what is expected (the person normally evicts others); in the second case, a strong contrast emerges between the person's beliefs and his apparent fate.

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

Tragic irony

In tragedy, what is called "tragic irony " becomes a device for heightening the intensity of a dramatic situation. Tragic irony particularly characterised 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. Sophocles' Oedipus 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 recognised, 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.

The importance of irony

Much postmodernism sees self-aware irony as central to its own operation.

Some sociologists see irony as fundamental to the operation of society.

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. Three 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 "ironically, I encountered a traffic jam when I was already late."

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 prescriptivists for its (arguably) blatant misuse of the word ironic. Morissette's alleged misuses of the word include:

It's like a traffic jam/When you're already late
He won the lottery/And died the next day

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.

This sort of meta-irony was almost certainly the goal of the writers of Saturday Night Live in their "Irony Theatre" 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.

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.

A popular European claim is that Americans do not understand irony and hence fail to appreciate a considerable bulk of European and Commonwealth comedy. This probably isn't a fair observation given the success of many British acts and comedic televison in the United States.

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