A Brief Guide to Irony

The term is first recorded in Plato's 'Republic' (4th century BC) and means 'dissimulation'. It refers to a glib and underhand way of taking people in. Saying, in other words, something misleading in order to play a trick on the listener.

The eiron was regarded by Theophrastus, for example, as a man who was 'slippery in his speech'.

In Greek comedy, the eiron character was an underdog who was quick witted and crafty and who got the better of the braggart character (Alazon) by using subtle ways of saying things which sounded like one thing, but meant another.

In Roman times, irony was extensively used in rhetoric, where it was a figure of speech, used in discourse (speaking) and where the meaning was contrary to the words used.

In English, we find irony mentioned in 1502 as 'yronye - of grammare, by the whiche a man sayth one & gyveth to understande the contrarye.' We also find the word 'sarcasmus' used, which would seem to suggest that ironical use was quite widespread, but was called 'sarcasm'! That is still in use, of course.

The term was in general use by the 17th century along with others like:

So there we have an idea of language used as invective; to abuse or to hurt. Irony is much more subtle, though. More polished and deliberate, more literary, in fact. A definition from 1589 called irony 'Drie Mock'. (Mockery, but cleverly and without too much damage)

As a concept, then, we have a technique of writing or speaking where it is possible to say something subtly, without actually articulating it, by saying the opposite. By making a joke, or by suggesting absurdity.


A man took his wife on holiday to sunny Tenerife where, unfortunately, she died suddenly.

At the funeral a mourner views the body, with the husband. Noticing the tanned skin and not wishing to dwell on the tragedy, the mourner says:

"My goodness, she looks well, doesn't she?"

The husband's reply:

"Well we've just been on holiday, you know."

A tasteless example, but you see the point?


Unfortunately, there is more.

Theorists have classified several types of irony, which I will try to outline here.

  1. Cosmic Irony (also called World Irony or Philosophical Irony) A German concept, that true irony begins with contemplation of the fate of the world and the absurdity of life. (We're all going to DIE. I tell you, so it's all POINTLESS!)
  2. Tragic Irony - the fate of, for example, King Lear, who rejects the daughter who loves him most. Shakespeare's tragic plays all work on the notion of people doing things which are ironic 'mistakes'. What they think will happen doesn't happen - they do what they don't mean.
  3. Romantic Irony - the author who employs this shows an awareness that he does not expect his work to be taken seriously and does not wish it to be. (A modern reader might find the phrase 'tongue-in-cheek' helpful here). Note the use of this in Bill Bryson's books, not that Bryson could be remotely regarded as a Romantic author!
  4. Dramatic Irony - an easy one, where the audience of a play are 'let in' on the secret of what is going to happen to a character, but the character does NOT know. Used as a device to increase tension in serious plays and to get laughs in comedy, especially farce.


The main forms of irony that we will meet in A Level language, though, involve the awareness of 'discrepancy' (difference) or 'incongruity' (something that doesn't 'fit' with something else) between words and their meaning. What you read or see or hear may not be what is meant or intended. There may be a deliberate contradiction intended and you have to be sharp enough or informed enough to spot it.

There are two basic kinds of this common form of ironic language use, as follows:

  1. Verbal Irony
  2. Situational Irony (or Irony of Situation) Just to make it complicated this one is sometimes known as Behavioural Irony, because you behave in situations or situations make you behave in a particular way. EASY isn't it? (That's a little example of verbal irony, to keep you on your toes.)

Verbal irony is easy.

You meet someone every day and say to him "I haven't seen you for ages!" next time you meet.

A teacher says "Brilliant!" to a student who has just scored three out of twenty in a test.

You see something beautiful and remark "That's not bad at all."

Situational (or behavioural) irony is also quite easy to spot, especially if the context is humorous. All Charlie Chaplin films use it. A man laughs at another man slipping on a banana skin and a piano falls out of a top floor window onto the first man's head. (Not in a Charlie Chaplin movie - I made that one up!)

The Ironic Attitude

Have you noticed yet that almost all incongruities depend on irony? That is underpins so much of satirical writing? That all the alternative comics use it? That Blackadder is so funny because of it? This is because it is really an ATTITUDE as well as a literary technique. Writers can display an ironic attitude when they write, but they don't always make it clear to the reader. Sometimes, in fact, they show off and make it very difficult for the reader to spot the irony unless the reader is as clever as the writer. TS Eliot was fond of doing that. His irony was so obscure that only super-brains like him were able to understand it - a kind of literary snobbery.

You can say that writing has an ironic TONE, if you think that the writer is showing an ironic attitude, a way of looking at things which is contradictory. Also if a writer seems to convey a feeling about things, which you are sure is not straightforward. If there is a 'tongue in cheek' attitude to the subject, or a heavily sarcastic style, it is easy to spot, but often an author will 'hint' at the contradiction and assume that you are informed enough to 'catch on' to his real intention. (I think you may find that Defoe's work in 'Moll Flanders' has a 'tone' or 'attitude which could be said to be ironic, because it is never obvious that he is openly using irony through Moll's character.)

Sometimes the writer is trying to make a serious political, moral or social point and does not wish to do so openly. Irony is used to 'camouflage' the intention. At other times the writer will want to poke fun at something, or explode it and irony is then used as satire. There is not much difference between satire and sarcasm - perhaps we could say satire is a slightly less crude form of sarcasm that uses a more elegant stlye of language.


A useful way to check for ironic intent is to ask yourself if the writer is trying to get at a truth of some kind, by doing all or some of the following:

Irony only 'works', though, when the reader can appreciate it. At its crudest, it is easily recognisable, but when employed subtly, it can be difficult to recognise and equally difficult to explain. As a general rule, you should be able to spot ironic situations, but if you are not sure about ironic tone or attitude in a piece of literature, then you can quite legitimately say so. It is quite acceptable to speculate, in Moll Flanders, for example, about whether or not Defoe is being ironic. You don't know for sure, but you do know he wrote ironic material as a journalist, (read 'The Shortest Way with Dissenters') so it is probable that there are elements of it in the novel. You are allowed to say "Defoe seems to adopt an ironic tone when he writes about Moll's repentance" without having to go into heavy detail as to exactly how the irony works.


Copyright V Pope 2000