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Irony--The Difinitive Guide to Irony: Etymology, History & Lore

The Origin of Irony & Difficulties with Definitions

The Oxford Dictionary defines irony as, "the expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect," but the term first entered the English language as a figure of speech in the 16th Century.--similar to the French term ironie. The word is derived from the Latin ironia, which was, of course, derived from the Greek eir?neia, meaning feigned ignorance, pretense and/or dissimulation. Irony is not limited strictly to these definitions, however, and can also be used a literary technique or a rhetorical device.

Unfortunately, while the definition afforded by the Oxford Dictionary is not strictly incorrect, it fails to cover all of the most important aspects of irony has a term or an idea. For example, if one were to go outside during a hurricane, hold out their hand and say "It looks like it's sprinkling a little today" the sentence is an ironic one, despite the phrase being an understatement instead of an opposing meaning. Overstatements and hyperbole can also be used in various forms of irony. There even exists a form of non-negative, praising irony called asterism.

The concept of irony is not an easy one to define. The term can be broken even further down into more complex literary terms with their own unique, qualifying rules (like verbal irony, situational irony and dramatic irony). Of course, defining and identifying different types of irony overlooks yet another key aspect of the concept: reception. Irony can have both positive and negative connotations and depending on an individual situation, the same words could be taken in positive, negative, complimentary or insulting light. Irony requires that the audience infer the meaning of an ironic exchange to determine the meaning of the statement or situation. Inference is subject to an individual's perception and experiences, and increases the likelihood that the meaning of the statement or idea will be missed or interpreted incorrectly.

Some researchers have argued that contextual clues can often aid individuals in identifying irony and determining its meaning in a dialogue or conversation. These signifiers can be as small as a simple gesture or as obvious as a tone of voice, and make much simpler to identify contradictory meanings, overstatements and understatements as ironical observations.

Attempts to fully define irony as a literary or rhetorical device are constantly challenged, and there are so many schools of thought regarding the concept that there is an entire section of this post dedicated entirely to detailing separate theories and definitions of irony. It is likely that the term "irony" is too conceptually broad to be given a single, simplified definition while covering every idea and maintaining its multi-layered meanings. As such, this article was created to serve as a resource, not to boil the term irony down to its simplest components but to detail the existence of irony in many ways, so that a reader may have a better idea of irony as a complete concept.

Theories of Irony

Since the word irony was introduced to the English language the world has changed, and so has the semantic meaning of the term irony. When someone exclaims "that's so ironic!" even if it is a coincidence instead of irony, it has started to become a legitimate semantic definition of the word (even if it does sound a little bit ridiculous).

Because of this semantic change, linguists and literary scholars have begun to shift the focus of their research from the "traditional" definition of irony by expanding or altering the definition of irony. Expanding the definition of irony to include too many things would inevitably make the concept virtually indistinguishable from other literary terms, so rather than defining irony too widely, scholars have begun to define irony by a host of different theories.

One school of thought defines Irony as an act of negation. (Giora, 1005) The Theory of negation ascribes to the idea that irony itself is an act of inexplicit or indirect negation. Another theory defines irony as the, "recognized as the echoic mention of another utterance by a more or less clearly identified other speaker." (Sperber & Wilson) An additional stipulation to the rule requires that the response must also be critical of the echoed utterance.

Philosopher of Language, Paul Grice saw irony as a trope or an implicature, a subfield of linguistics that deals with what is suggested by a statement or phrase. In relation to irony, the implicature supposedly refers to the speaker's deliberate choice to overlook simple principles of cooperation; effectively, ironic utterances could be defined as an insincere speech act.

The Tinge Theory upholds irony as the blending of meanings, specifically the meanings of a stated utterance and an implied idea or feeling. (Colston, 1997)

The Mention Theory stipulates that a statement or phrase can only be considered ironic provided it is the echo of a statement made by a clearly-identified other speaker. Moreover, the utterance must be critical of the initial statement in order to be truly ironical. (Sperber & Wilson, 1981) Critics and students are often quick to point out that not all irony can be interpreted as an echo of another individual's words, however.

Older theories maintain that the comprehension of irony and ironical statements into two separate steps. When an individual hears or reads an ironic statement or idea, they must first process and understand the utterance's literal meaning. After a person comprehends the literal meaning of the words, then they can evaluate the non-literal meaning or intention. E.g. If, during a blizzard, your friend turned to you and said, "Gee, it sure is warm outside", you would first have to process that your friend said it was warm (though it was not), and then you would be able to determine that the statement was ironic.

The Direct Access Theory is a take on an older theory. Like the previous idea, the Direct Access Theory can break down the comprehension of irony and ironical statements into two steps, though the school of thought states it is generally not necessary to consciously process that much information. Instead, they claim that seriously contemplating the literal meaning of an utterance is either accessed only later, or not at all: interpreting the meaning of the statement is done in order of saliency.

As theories of irony began to turn more and more towards a 2-step process of assessing the literal meaning and then interpreting the ironic meaning, several neurobiologists became interested in testing the idea. In a series of experiments, they studied the actual effects that irony had on the human brain, and the ways in which it was interpreted. The study found that assessing ironic utterances was done primarily by making note of optional markers of irony.

The optional markers included, but were not limited to: phonological markers (intonation and tone of voice), graphic markers (italicized words), morphological markers (quotation marks), kinesic markers (winking or nodding) and contextual clues or changes.

Types of Irony

Verbal Irony

Verbal irony is generally defined as, "the use of speech to mean the opposite of the literal meaning of a phrase or idea". As is true with many forms of irony, however, verbal irony is not limited only to oppositeness. It can also be used to over-emphasize, embellish or make light of an idea or circumstance. Open-ended definitions of the term can make it seem unclear what verbal irony actually means, but chances are you already have a fair grasp of verbal irony.

In fact, the average person experiences and likely uses verbal irony on a regular (or possibly even daily) basis. Have you ever accidently dropped something on the floor and then simply said, "Oh that's great"? It probably was not genuinely great to have dropped something on the floor, so by saying that it was actually makes for a form of simple, verbal irony.

Say you were collecting change to go wash your clothes at a local Laundromat and after scrounging through couch cushions for a half an hour, you were finally able to get exactly the correct amount of change to do just that. If you arrived at the Laundromat, put your clothes in the washer and then put your coins in, only to have the machine take your change and not start it would be very unfortunate. If you were to say to yourself, "Wow, today must be my lucky day", that would be verbal irony as well.

Verbal Irony

Dramatic & Tragic Irony

Despite being one of the oldest types of irony, dramatic irony can be defined fairly easily, and is distinguishable from other types of irony. The comparative simplicity of the term hinges primarily upon the fact the fact that dramatic irony requires the interpretation of a third party. Rather, dramatic irony may only take place when an observer or audience is provided knowledge or understanding of a situation that exceeds that of the characters within the narrative of a story. The additional knowledge that the viewing party has been granted then cultivates an anticipation of the future of the characters, the narrative, or both, called ironic tension. Ironic tension can be further broken down into two parts: the "scene of revelation" and "recognition". The scene of revelation refers to when the observing party is given additional information and recognition is the moment in which the character(s) discover that same information.

Alfred Hitchcock gave an excellent example of dramatic irony and ironic tension in his 1985 narrative on suspense in narratives:

"Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, 'Boom!' There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the audience knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: 'You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There's a bomb beneath you and it's about to explode!'" --Alfred Hitchcock, 1985

Tragic irony is very similar to dramatic iron, it follows many of the same principles, and is also primarily linked to performance arts, like theatre and television. Tragic irony also requires a third or observing party that is granted more information about an encounter or event than many of the characters in a given narrative. That variance in knowledge creates ironic tension though scenes of revelation and recognition.

The key difference between dramatic irony and tragic irony lies in narrative tone. In the case of tragic irony, the audience is made aware that the circumstances under which a situation has unfolded will likely end in, you guessed it, tragedy. The accumulation of these similarities has caused many to view tragic irony as a subset of dramatic irony rather than an entirely different term.

Dramatic & Tragic Irony

Situational Irony

Instances of situational irony generally arise out of the disparity between intention and results. In lay terms, situational irony is the direct result of an action that is contrary to the desired or the expected outcome.

These unexpected outcomes can range from comedic to tragic, or from something wildly unexpected to an outcome that can feel more like an oddity or coincidence than legitimate irony. For instance, a Repo man whose unpaid bills led to having his furniture or hope repossessed, it would be situational irony. In that same vein of logic, if a child sidestepped to avoid a water balloon that his friend threw at him, only to fall into a pool that would be situational irony.

Situational Irony

Socratic Irony

Socratic irony is the practice of an individual feigning ignorance of a subject or person, usually done to prompt an explanation of a subject or to expose a flaw in the idea(s) of another individual. This form of irony is, compared to other forms, primarily deliberate.

Socratic irony is often use in classroom and debate settings, and is a key element of the school of teaching called the "Socratic Method". Professors utilize Socratic irony in their classes by posing questions to their students, rather than stating facts to be repeated. By framing lessons in questions, a professor is able to prompt students to think critically about their answers and learn to avoid logical fallacies and pitfalls in their explanations, and ultimately gives a student a more well-rounded understanding of the subject matter.

Socractic Irony

No, That's Not Ironic!

Once in a while (actually, it happens quite often) one runs across a coworker, acquaintance, or total stranger who uses words without knowing what they actually mean. For example, one time I had a supervisor who laughed at a coworker who was not familiar with the frescos of the Sistine Chapel. In breaking the news to this coworker, he said, "How can you not know what the Sixteenth Chapel is?". At first I couldn't believe my ears, but I composed myself, and tried to confirm what my ears had heard. So I asked him to repeat the name of the fresco. This time he deliberately pronounced each syllable slowly so that I could really learn; "It's the Sixteenth Chapel", he said.

Now what does the above story have to do with irony, you ask? Well, read the How to Recognize Irony tutorial to understand.

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