Irony

A stop sign ironically defaced with a plea not to deface stop signs

Irony (from Ancient Greek εἰρωνεία eirōneía 'dissimulation, feigned ignorance'[1]), in its broadest sense, is a rhetorical device, literary technique, or event in which what on the surface appears to be the case or to be expected differs radically from what is actually the case.

Irony can be categorized into different types, including verbal irony, dramatic irony, and situational irony. Verbal, dramatic, and situational irony are often used for emphasis in the assertion of a truth. The ironic form of simile, used in sarcasm, and some forms of litotes can emphasize one's meaning by the deliberate use of language which states the opposite of the truth, denies the contrary of the truth, or drastically and obviously understates a factual connection.[2] Other forms, as identified by historian Connop Thirlwall, include dialectic and practical irony.[3]

Definitions

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." Also, Eric Partridge, in Usage and Abusage, writes that "Irony consists in stating the contrary of what is meant."

The use of irony may require the concept of a double audience. Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage says:

Irony is a form of utterance that postulates a double audience, consisting of one party that hearing shall hear & shall not understand, & another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware both of that more & of the outsiders' incomprehension.[4]

The term is sometimes used as a synonym for incongruous and applied to "every trivial oddity" in situations where there is no double audience.[4] An example of such usage is:

Sullivan, whose real interest was, ironically, serious music, which he composed with varying degrees of success, achieved fame for his comic opera scores rather than for his more earnest efforts.[5]

The American Heritage Dictionary's secondary meaning for irony: "incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs".[6] This sense, however, is not synonymous with "incongruous" but merely a definition of dramatic or situational irony. It is often included in definitions of irony not only that incongruity is present but also that the incongruity must reveal some aspect of human vanity or folly. Thus the majority of 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."[7]

On this aspect, The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has also:[8]

A condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was, or might naturally be, expected; a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things. (In French, ironie du sort).

Douglas C. Muecke identifies three basic features of all irony. First, irony depends on a double-layered or two-story phenomenon for success. "At the lower level is the situation either as it appears to the victim of irony (where there is a victim) or as it is deceptively presented by the ironist."[9] The upper level is the situation as it appears to the reader or the ironist. Second, the ironist exploits a contradiction, incongruity, or incompatibility between the two levels. Third, irony plays upon the innocence of a character or victim. "Either a victim is confidently unaware of the very possibility of there being an upper level or point of view that invalidates his own, or an ironist pretends not to be aware of it."[10]