Irony is a concept that’s referred to quite often, but can be very hard to define. People tend to say something is ironic when it’s coincidental, or simply interesting or unusual in some way.
So what, specifically, is irony? There are a few different varieties, but in the most basic sense, irony always features a complete contrast between something’s surface appearance and its true nature.
The most common form people will encounter is verbal irony, when what someone states is the opposite of what they actually mean. The simplest expression of this is sarcasm. If someone tells me an unfunny joke, I can say WOW, THAT’S SO FUNNY!! in an exaggerated tone of voice that makes it obvious that I don’t think it’s actually funny. Some people don’t like to consider sarcasm to be a form of irony, perhaps because it’s considered an obvious and unpleasant form of humour. Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, as the saying goes. And yet it’s actually one of the best, clearest examples of irony.
The next most common form of irony people refer to is situational irony. This is when an action or event has the opposite outcome to that which was intended or expected.
This post’s feature image is a good example of situational irony, and one I encountered in real life once on a sample FCE exam paper. Before it was written upon, the page was blank. But through the act of writing This page intetionally left blank, the page becomes no longer blank. There’s a completely oppositional relationship between the message (This page intentionally left blank.) and the consequence of the message (the page is not blank at all).
Other examples of situational irony would be if I damaged my car by trying to repair a problem with it (quite possible in my case), or when during an assassination attempt, bullets ricocheted off Ronald Reagan’s bulletproof car and injured him.
Dramatic irony is the final common form of irony, featured often in literature, drama and film. It occurs when we have more information than a character, making some of the things they say ironic from our point of view, but not there’s. For example, ***spoiler alert for the original Star Wars and one of the rubbish sequels*** in, I believe, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, the character Obi-Wan Kenobi says to his young apprentice Anakin Skywalker, You’ll be the death of me! Obviously he means this figuratively, but those of us who’d seen the original Star Wars know that Anakin will grow up to literally kill Obi-Wan.
This device was also commonly used by Greek and Roman dramatists, often for tragic effect, such as in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.
Why do people struggle with defining irony then, and so often misidentify it? I think that my examples above probably show that it’s because it’s something that simply doesn’t occur very often, so we don’t get used to it enough to instantly recognise it.
I think that there may be a cultural element to our use and understanding of irony. Teaching English has led me to think that English speakers tend to use sarcasm, at least, more often than speakers of other languages. Many a teacher has attempted a sarcastic joke in class, only to be met with awkward silence. It’s certainly easier to be ironic in English than in other languages with less tonal variety, as one’s tone of voice is crucial to ensure that it’s clear that one is being sarcastic, and not to be taken literally.
There’s also a common impression that British and Irish people have a stronger sense of irony than Americans. I don’t really buy that though. Irony is certainly more of a feature of British and Irish humour, but in my experience, Americans have no problem recognising irony, and using it from time to time.
I’m aware that you may not have been paying much attention to a lot of what I’ve written, and have instead been humming the song Ironic by Alanis Morissette, and wondering whether the situations in the song are ironic.
As many others have pointed out, none of the things she sings about is even remotely ironic. They’re annoying, frustrating and even tragic, but never ironic.
Ah ha, you might now be saying, isn’t that ironic in itself!!?? Isn’t a song called Ironic, supposedly featuring ironic situations but actually featuring none, an ironic song? It certainly is, and apparently Ms. Morissette has herself said that this was her intention in writing the song. To be honest though, I don’t believe her. It seems like a post hoc explanation made up to cover her embarrassment at not using the term correctly. And she shouldn’t be embarrassed, because irony is tricky to use.
Do feel free to share any experiences of irony you’ve had, and enjoy the fact that you’re now going to see irony in every situation and utterance you come across.