According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:
The term irony has its roots in the Greek comic character Eiron, a clever underdog who by his wit repeatedly triumphs over the boastful character Alazon. The Socratic irony of the Platonic dialoguesderives from this comic origin.
According to Richard Whately:
Aristotle mentions..Eironeia, which in his time was commonly employed to signify, not according to the modern use of ‘Irony, saying the contrary to what is meant’, but, what later writers usually express by Litotes, i.e. ‘saying less than is meant’.
The word came into English as a figure of speech in the 16th century as similar to the French ironie. It derives from the Latin ironia and ultimately from the Greek εἰρωνεία eirōneía, meaning dissimulation, ignorance purposely affected.
Irony is a much-misunderstood form of humour. It is somewhat culture-specific, being more prevalent where wordplay is common (notably in the UK, where the pun has been raised to an art form), so many people fail to ‘get’ irony, while others apply the term incorrectly. It is a technique beloved of satirists, and one which is hard to master (there is always the danger of slipping into overt sarcasm which is, as has been observed, the lowest form of wit).
WHAT IS IRONY?
Irony is defined as…
- The humorous (or mildly sarcastic) use of words to imply something different from, and often opposite to, their literal meaning.
- An expression marked by a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning, usually to draw attention to some incongruity1 or irrationality.
- A literary style employing such contrasts for humorous or rhetorical effect.
- Incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs, or an occurrence or circumstance notable for such incongruity.
Dramatic irony is a special case where the irony is understood by the audience but not by the characters in the book or play. Socratic irony2 is the process whereby a questioner feigns ignorance in order to lead another to expose their own ignorance.
These types of irony give the clue to the true definition of an ironic statement. An ironic statement must appear as if you are sincere, there must be no hint of sarcasm, and you must not be self-consciously droll. The line must be delivered straight, so that the recipient misses the hidden message but onlookers get it loud and clear. The saying ‘Irony is wasted on the stupid’ works well as long as the person addressed believes themself to be a sage despite making an absolute ass of themself, and nods wisely in assent.
Thus Fowler’s Modern English Usage defines irony as…
… 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 of that more and of the outsider’s incomprehension.
VERBAL IRONY VS SARCASM
A fair amount of confusion has surrounded the issue regarding the relationship between verbal irony and sarcasm.
Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage states:
Sarcasm does not necessarily involve irony and irony has often no touch of sarcasm.
This suggests that the two concepts are linked but may be considered separately. The OED entry for sarcasm does not mention irony, but the irony entry reads:
A figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used; usually taking the form of sarcasm or ridicule in which laudatory expressions are used to imply condemnation or contempt.
The Encyclopædia Britannica has “Non-literary irony is often called sarcasm”; while the Webster’s Dictionary entry is:
Sarcasm: 1 : a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain. 2 a : a mode of satirical wit depending for its effect on bitter, caustic, and often ironic language that is usually directed against an individual.
Partridge in Usage and Abusage would separate the two forms of speech completely:
Irony must not be confused with sarcasm, which is direct: sarcasm means precisely what it says, but in a sharp, caustic, … manner.
The psychologist Martin, in The psychology of humour, is quite clear that irony is where “the literal meaning is opposite to the intended”; and sarcasm is “aggressive humor that pokes fun”. He has the following examples: For irony he uses the statement “What a nice day” when it is raining. For sarcasm, he cites Winston Churchill who, when told by a lady that he was drunk, said “my dear, you are ugly … but tomorrow I shall be sober”, as being sarcastic, while not saying the opposite of what is intended.
Psychology researchers Lee and Katz (1998) have addressed the issue directly. They found that ridicule is an important aspect of sarcasm, but not of 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 woman reports to her friend that rather than going to a medical doctor to treat her cancer, she has decided to see a spiritual healer instead. In response her friend says sarcastically, “Oh, brilliant, what an ingenious idea, that’s really going to cure you.” 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). Some psycholinguistic theorists (e.g., Gibbs, 2000) 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. 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 (Leggitt & Gibbs, 2000).
IRONIC HUMOUR EPITOMIZED
–NOT SURPRISING THAT THE NATIONAL POST ( CANADA’S RIGHT-OF-CENTRE SLANTED NATIONAL PERIODICAL) DID NOT UNDERSTAND HUMOUR WHEN IT REPUBLISHED ‘NEWS’ FROM IT I USE MY HUMOUR AS A FILTER FOR WAVELENGTH ANYWAYS, HEHE– rudhro
If you enjoy absolutely deadpan, straightforward humour without obvious hints of irony, you have hopefully heard of the summer series from CBC Radio One, appropriately titled This Is That. It’s a hilarious send up of the daily news. This Is That, produced by CBC Radio 3’s Chris Kelly, is already infamous for its straightforward, deadpan antics.
The show tells ridiculous news stories, but executed 100% seriously without a drop of parody upon first glance, besides the ludicrous subject matter. In fact, the show’s headlines and stories have been taken seriously numerous times including the National Post picking up a fake story as if it were real.
Each “news” story drips with comedic flare, but unlike The Onion, the stories sound at least remotely plausible. There’s not the same kind of one-liner jokes and sarcastic tone. With the multitude of ridiculous stories in today’s 24-hour news cycle, it makes each story sounds all the more possible.
This Is That often addresses their absurd premises and go to great lengths to feature “interviews” with their subjects. This makes it all the harder to tell it’s not real. The fact that the show airs on Canadian public radio in between real news, is all the more deceptive.
STAND UP COMEDIAN DANIEL TOSH – STYLE: IRONY
(HE’LL EXPLAIN IT TO YOU AS HE GOES–I…TRY TO AS WELL, IF I WISH NOT TO OFFEND, ALTHOUGH, AS SARAH SILVERMAN MENTIONED…ONCE YOU EXPLAIN IT, IT’S NOT A JOKE ANYMORE)