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Irony (Gr. είρωνεία (eironeia), from είρων (eiron): one who says less than he means, hypocrite, είρειν (eirein): to speak), a form of speech in which the real meaning is concealed or contradicted by the words used. Irony involves the perception that things are not what they are said to be or what they seem. Dramatic irony lies in the audience's deeper perceptions of a coming fate, which contrast with the character's perceptions.

H. W. Fowler, in Modern English Usage, had this to say of irony:

Irony is 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, both of that 'more' and of the outsider's incomprehension.

Irony is, therefore, a matter of perceived and real attitude or values of the speaker, rather than a difference between the denotative meanings of the words a speaker uses.

Table of contents
1 Socratic Irony
2 Irony and sarcasm
3 Use of irony
4 The importance of irony
5 Usage controversy
6 See also
7 External Links

Socratic Irony

The Greek word eironeia applied particularly to understatement in the nature of dissimulation. Such irony occurred especially and notably in the assumed ignorance which Socrates adopted as a method of dialectic, the "Socratic irony." Socratic irony involves a profession of ignorance that disguises a skeptical, non-committed attitude towards some dogma or universal opinion that lacks a basis in reason or in logic. Socrates' "innocent" inquiries expose step by step the vanity or illogicality of the proposition. The irony entertains those onlookers who know that Socrates is wiser than he permits himself to appear and who may perceive slightly in advance the direction the "naive" questioning will take. Fowler describes it:
The two parties in his audience were, first, the dogmatist, moved by pity and contempt to enlighten this ignorance, and, secondly, those who knew their Socrates and set themselves to watch the familiar game in which learning should be turned inside out by simplicity.

Irony and sarcasm

Heavy-handed irony, in which a speaker emphatically states the flat opposite of the truth - perhaps with accompanying
body language to deny the words - exemplifies the form of irony called sarcasm. People may particularly employ sarcasm for the purpose of ridicule, mockery or contempt, frequently uttering a sarcastic phrase.

An example of sarcastic speech might be a response such as "Well done" or "Great job", said in an angry tone to a worker who has done something wrong. An ironic "Well done" would come when a fire-fighter across the street from a burning building sees a child on the window ledge and dashes across through traffic to catch the falling child in his arms. Both the speaker and the fire-fighter understand that "Well done" doesn't begin to express the half of it. They share a perception of irony.

Examples of ironic incidents might involve the eviction of a landlord from his home, or the death of an atheist killed by a falling cross. In the first case, an incongruity exists between what happens (the person is evicted) and what is expected (the person normally rents homes to others); in the second case, a strong contrast emerges between the person's beliefs and his apparent fate.

Use of irony

The word "irony" is frequently used figuratively, especially in such phrases as "the irony of fate," of an issue or result that seems to contradict normal expectations derived from the previous state or condition.

In tragedy, what is called "tragic irony" becomes a device for heightening the intensity of a dramatic situation. Tragic irony particularly characterised the drama of ancient Greece, owing to the familiarity of the spectators with the legends on which so many of the plays were based. In this form of irony the words and actions of the characters belie the real situation, which the spectators fully realize. It may take several forms: the character speaking may realise the irony of his words while the rest of the actors may not; or he or she may be unconscious while the other actors share the knowledge with the spectators; or the spectators may alone realize the irony. Sophocles' Oedipus the King provides a classic example of tragic irony at its fullest and finest.

Irony may come to expression in inappropriate behavior. A witness to a scene involving threats of violence, for example, may perceive continued politeness on the part of the victim as increasingly ironic as it becomes increasingly inappropriate. Sometimes the "second" audience is the private self of the ironist.

When not recognised, irony can lead to misunderstanding. Even if an ironic statement is recognized as such, it often expresses less clearly what the speaker or writer wants to say than would a direct statement.

The importance of irony

Much postmodernism sees self-aware irony as central to its own operation.

Some sociologistss see irony as fundamental to the operation of society.

Usage controversy

The material above deals with the primary dictionary meaning of the word "irony." It is universally agreed that this usage is correct. Whether it is the only correct usage is contentious, and authority can be cited on both sides.

As of 2003, it is quite common to hear the word "ironic" used in situations where there is no "double audience," and no contradiction between the ostensible and true meaning of the words. An example of such a use might be:

Ironically, Sir Arthur Sullivan is remembered for the comic operas he found embarrassing, rather than the serious works he hoped would be his legacy.

The American Heritage Dictionary recognizes a meaning of "incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs." This would allow the example above. (Their usage panel, however, 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," which would still allow the above usage but exclude "ironically, I encountered a traffic jam when I was already late.")

On the other hand, 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." Fowler would thus consider the Sullivan example above as incorrect usage.

See also the article on Ironic, a 1995 song by Alanis Morissette which attracted attention as (apparently) an egregious misuse of the word "ironic."

See also

External Links