What Is Irony?

Definitions and Interpretations of Rhetorical Irony

Bust Of Swift
Jonathan Swift’s "A Modest Proposal" is a classic text in the history of irony. Epics / Contributor

"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.

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)

A Survey of Irony

  • Socrates, That Old Fox
    The most influential model in the history of irony has been the Platonic Socrates. Neither Socrates nor his contemporaries, however, would have associated the word eironeia with modern conceptions of Socratic irony. As Cicero put it, Socrates was always "pretending to need information and professing admiration for the wisdom of his companion"; when Socrates' interlocutors were annoyed with him for behaving in this way they called him eiron, a vulgar term of reproach referring generally to any kind of sly deception with overtones of mockery. The fox was the symbol of the eiron.

    All serious discussions of eironeia followed upon the association of the word with Socrates.
    (Norman D. Knox, "Irony," The Dictionary of the History of Ideas, 2003)
  • The Western Sensibility
    Some go so far as to say that Socrates' ironic personality inaugurated a peculiarly Western sensibility. His irony, or his capacity not to accept everyday values and concepts but live in a state of perpetual question, is the birth of philosophy, ethics, and consciousness.
    (Claire Colebrook, Irony: The New Critical Idiom, Routledge, 2004)
  • Skeptics and Academics
    It is not without cause that so many excellent philosophers became Skeptics and Academics, and denied any certainty of knowledge or comprehension, and held opinions that the knowledge of man extended only to appearances and probabilities. It is true that in Socrates it was supposed to be but a form of irony, Scientiam dissimulando simulavit, for he used to dissemble his knowledge, to the end to enhance his knowledge.
    (Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, 1605)
  • From Socrates to Cicero
    "Socratic irony," as it is constructed in Plato's dialogues, is therefore a method of mocking and unmasking the presumed knowledge of his interlocutors, consequently leading them to truth (Socratic maieutics). Cicero establishes irony as a rhetoric figure which blames by praise and praises by blame. Apart from this, there is the sense of "tragic" (or "dramatic") irony, which focuses on the contrast between the protagonist's ignorance and the spectators, who are aware of his fatal destiny (as for example in Oedipus Rex).
    ("Irony," in Imagology: The Cultural Construction and Literary Representation of National Characters, edited by Manfred Beller and Joep Leerssen, Rodopi, 2007)
  • Quintilian Onwards
    Some of the rhetoricians recognize, though almost as if in passing, that irony was much more than an ordinary rhetorical figure. Quintilian says [in Institutio Oratoria, translated by H.E. Butler] that "in the figurative form of irony the speaker disguises his entire meaning, the disguise being apparent rather than confessed. . . ."

    But having touched on this borderline where irony ceases to be instrumental and is sought as an end in itself, Quintilian draws back, quite properly for his purposes, to his functional view, and in effect carries nearly two millennia worth of rhetoricians along with him. It was not until well into the eighteenth century that theorists were forced, by explosive developments in the use of irony itself, to begin thinking about ironic effects as somehow self-sufficient literary ends. And then of course irony burst its bounds so effectively that men finally dismissed merely functional ironies as not even ironic, or as self-evidently less artistic.
    (Wayne C. Booth, A Rhetoric of Irony, University of Chicago Press, 1974)
  • Cosmic Irony Revisited
    In The Concept of Irony (1841), Kierkegaard elaborated the idea that irony is a mode of seeing things, a way of viewing existence. Later, Amiel in his Journal Intime (1883-87) expressed the view that irony springs from a perception of the absurdity of life. . . .

    Many writers have distanced themselves to a vantage point, a quasi-godlike eminence, the better to be able to view things. The artist becomes a kind of god viewing creation (and viewing his own creation) with a smile. From this it is a short step to the idea that God himself is the supreme ironist, watching the antics of human beings (Flaubert referred to a "blague supérieure") with a detached, ironical smile. The spectator in the theatre is in a similar position. Thus the everlasting human condition is regarded as potentially absurd.
    (J.A. Cuddon, "Irony," A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, Basil Blackwell, 1979)
  • Irony in Our Time
    I am saying that there seems to be one dominating form of modern understanding; that it is essentially ironic; and that it originates largely in the application of mind and memory to the events of the Great War [World War I].
    (Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford University Press, 1975)
  • Supreme Irony
    With supreme irony, the war to "make the world safe for democracy" [World War I] ended by leaving democracy more unsafe in the world than at any time since the collapse of the revolutions of 1848."
    (James Harvey Robinson, The Human Comedy, 1937)

Contemporary Observations on Irony

  • The New Irony
    The one truth the new irony has to tell us is that the man who uses it has no place to stand except in momentary community with those who seek to express a comparable alienation from other groups. The one conviction it expresses is that there are really no sides left: No virtue to oppose to corruption, no wisdom to oppose to cant. The one standard it accepts is that on which the simple man--the untutored non-ironist who fancies (in his dolt-hood) that he knows what good and bad should mean--is registered as the zero of our world, a cipher worth nothing but uninterrupted contempt.
    (Benjamin DeMott, "The New Irony: Sidesnicks and Others," The American Scholar, 31, 1961-1962)
  • Swift, Simpson, Seinfeld . . . and Quotation Marks
    [T]echnically, irony is a rhetorical device used to convey a meaning sharply different from or even opposite of the literal text. It’s not just saying one thing while meaning another--that’s what Bill Clinton does. No, it’s more like a wink or running joke among people in the know.

    Jonathan Swift’s "A Modest Proposal" is a classic text in the history of irony. Swift argued that English lords should eat the children of the poor to alleviate hunger. There is nothing in the text which says, "hey, this is sarcasm." Swift lays out a pretty good argument and it’s up to the reader to figure it out that he’s not really serious. When Homer Simpson says to Marge, "Now who’s being naïve?" the writers are winking at all those people who love The Godfather (these people are commonly referred to as "men"). When George Costanza and Jerry Seinfeld keep saying "Not that there’s anything wrong with that!" every time they mention homosexuality, they are making an ironic joke about the culture’s insistence that we affirm our non-judgmentalism.

    Anyway, irony is one of those words that most people understand intuitively but have a hard time defining. One good test is if you like to put "quotation marks" around words that shouldn’t have them. The "quotation marks" are "necessary" because the words have lost most of their literal "meaning" to the new politicized interpretations.
    (Jonah Goldberg, "The Irony of Irony." National Review Online, April 28, 1999)
  • Irony and Ethos
    Specifically rhetorical irony presents few problems. Puttenham's "drie mock" pretty well describes the phenomenon. One kind of rhetorical irony, however, may need further attention. There can be relatively few rhetorical situations where the target of persuasion is utterly ignorant of the designs someone has on him--the relationship of persuader and persuaded is almost always self-conscious to some degree. If the persuader wants to overcome any implicit sales resistance (especially from a sophisticated audience), one of the ways he will do it is to acknowledge that he is trying to talk his audience into something. By this, he hopes to gain their trust for as long as the soft sell takes. When he does this, he really acknowledges that his rhetorical maneuvering is ironical, that it says one thing while it tries to do another. At the same time, a second irony is present, since the pitchman is still far from laying all his cards on the table. The point to be made is that every rhetorical posture except the most naive involves an ironical coloration, of some kind or another, of the speaker's ethos.
    (Richard Lanham, A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, 2nd edition, University of California Press, 1991)
  • The End of the Age of Irony?
    One good thing could come from this horror: it could spell the end of the age of irony. For some 30 years--roughly as long as the Twin Towers were upright--the good folks in charge of America's intellectual life have insisted that nothing was to be believed in or taken seriously. Nothing was real. With a giggle and a smirk, our chattering classes--our columnists and pop culture makers--declared that detachment and personal whimsy were the necessary tools for an oh-so-cool life. Who but a slobbering bumpkin would think, "I feel your pain"? The ironists, seeing through everything, made it difficult for anyone to see anything. The consequence of thinking that nothing is real--apart from prancing around in an air of vain stupidity--is that one will not know the difference between a joke and a menace.

    No more. The planes that plowed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were real. The flames, smoke, sirens--real. The chalky landscape, the silence of the streets--all real. I feel your pain--really.
    (Roger Rosenblatt, "The Age Of Irony Comes To An End," Time magazine, September 16, 2001)
  • Eight Misconceptions About Irony
    We have a grave problem with this word (well, in fact, it's not really grave--but I'm not being ironic when I call it that, I'm being hyperbolic. Though often the two amount to the same thing. But not always). Just looking at the definitions, the confusion is understandable--in the first instance, rhetorical irony expands to cover any disjunction at all between language and meaning, with a couple of key exceptions (allegory also entails a disconnection between sign and meaning, but obviously isn't synonymous with irony; and lying, clearly, leaves that gap, but relies for its efficacy on an ignorant audience, where irony relies on a knowing one). Still, even with the riders, it's quite an umbrella, no?

    In the second instance, situational irony (also known as cosmic irony) occurs when it seems that "God or fate is manipulating events so as to inspire false hopes, which are inevitably dashed" (1). While this looks like the more straightforward usage, it opens the door to confusion between irony, bad luck and inconvenience.

    Most pressingly, though, there are a number of misconceptions about irony that are peculiar to recent times. The first is that September 11 spelled the end of irony. The second is that the end of irony would be the one good thing to come out of September 11. The third is that irony characterizes our age to a greater degree than it has done any other. The fourth is that Americans can't do irony, and we [the British] can. The fifth is that the Germans can't do irony, either (and we still can). The sixth is that irony and cynicism are interchangeable. The seventh is that it's a mistake to attempt irony in emails and text messages, even while irony characterizes our age, and so do emails. And the eighth is that "post-ironic" is an acceptable term--it is very modish to use this, as if to suggest one of three things: i) that irony has ended; ii) that postmodernism and irony are interchangeable, and can be conflated into one handy word; or iii) that we are more ironic than we used to be, and therefore need to add a prefix suggesting even greater ironic distance than irony on its own can supply. None of these things is true.
    1. Jack Lynch, Literary Terms. I would strongly urge you not to read any more footnotes, they are only here to make sure I don't get in trouble for plagiarizing.
    (Zoe Williams, "The Final Irony," The Guardian, June 28, 2003)
  • Postmodern Irony
    Postmodern irony is allusive, multilayered, preemptive, cynical, and above all, nihilistic. It assumes that everything is subjective and nothing means what it says. It's a sneering, world-weary, bad irony, a mentality that condemns before it can be condemned, preferring cleverness to sincerity and quotation to originality. Postmodern irony rejects tradition, but offers nothing in its place.
    (Jon Winokur, The Big Book of Irony, St. Martin's Press, 2007)
  • We're All in This Together--by Ourselves
    Importantly, the Romantic of today finds a real connection, a sense of groundedness, with others through irony. with those who understand what is meant without having to say it, with those who also question the saccharine quality of contemporary American culture, who are certain that all diatribes of virtue-lament will turn out to have been made by some gambling, lying, hypocritical talk-show host/senator overly fond of interns/pages. This they see as doing an injustice to the depth of human possibility and the complexity and goodness of human feeling, to the power of the imagination over all forms of potential constraint, to a basic ethics that they themselves are proud to uphold. But ironists, above all else, are certain that we must live in this world as best we can, "whether or not it suits our own moral outlook," writes Charles Taylor [The Ethics of Authenticity, Harvard University Press, 1991]. "The only alternative seems to be a kind of inner exile." Ironic detachment is exactly this sort of inner exile--an inner emigration--maintained with humor, chic bitterness, and a sometimes embarrassing but abidingly persistent hope.
    (R. Jay Magill Jr., Chic Ironic Bitterness, The University of Michigan Press, 2007)
  • What's Ironic?
    Woman: I started riding these trains in the forties. Those days a man would give up their seat for a woman. Now we're liberated and we have to stand.
    Elaine: It's ironic.
    Woman: What's ironic?
    Elaine: This, that we've come all this way, we have made all this progress, but you know, we've lost the little things, the niceties.
    Woman: No, I mean what does "ironic" mean?