On Irony (Part 1)

February was a rough reading month. Work, an online Coursera course for the hell of it, and a health dose of music took up a chunk of the time, but I have high hopes for March.

I was listening to the radio on the way home from work the other day, and 101.1 started talking about a thief who had stolen well over a thousand dollars worth of Rogaine products from area pharmacies. Laughing hysterically, the on-air personality says, “And the most ironic thing?! Surveillance tapes showed he was bald! How ironic!”  She went on to state, several times over, how ironic the entire situation was. All I could think was “how is that ironic?”

Irony…what is irony? Are “#1 Dad” shirts on a 20-year-old ironic? Not really so much these days with Teen Mom and every major network in on the craze. Why is listening to Taylor Swift ironic?  Her music is popular and catchy. Just because someone is a pretentious, cynical coxcomb, it doesn’t make listening to pop music ironic.

Let’s take a look.

The fact is that irony as a concept in 2016 is confusing, misdefined, and has lost a lot of its ironyedge. The most common example is Alanis Morissete’s song “Ironic,” which lists a number of situations that are not ironic. For example, having a thousand forks when you need a spoon is not ironic. It’s simply that you forgot to do your dishes, and you should probably get to washing those thousand spoons. It’s frustrating, to say the least, and, in 2016, it’s a bit confusing as, since the 90s, irony as a word has come to mean a kind of detachment from life. Let’s try to get to the bottom of this.

A good place to start is with the general definitions. In my opinion, these are the two main ones.

  1. the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.
  2. a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result.

Now, as you can see, a thousand forks is not ironic. Rain on your wedding day is not ironic. You might expect nice weather, but you know that it’s not a given.  A free ride when you have already paid? Not irony. You paid already…it’s not free anyway. A bald guy stealing Rogaine? Well, if anyone was going to steal Rogaine, I would expect it to be a bald guy. Humorous? Most definitely, but not ironic.

That said, there are multiple types of irony.

Dramatic irony occurs when the reader knows something that the characters do not. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is convinced that Juliet is dead via poison and makes a long speech about how alive she looks, but the reader knows that she has only taken a sleeping potion designed to knock her out.

Verbal irony is probably the most recognizable form of irony in its very close friend, sarcasm. “Nice job!” when someone does a poor one is very much both sarcasm and irony, but there is a clear distinction between the two. If I drop a birthday cake to the ground, I would not expect someone to say “nice job” (irony!), but, of course, it’s being used to also mock the person (sarcasm!). Thus, sarcasm has the characteristic of being used to mock. “Nice weather” isn’t sarcastic, but it’s most definitely verbally ironic. The key to sarcasm is the little arrow to the knee of your feelings.

Irony2Situational irony is, simply, an event in which the result is not what is expected. This is
probably the one that we see a lot. A character finally splurging on an expensive gift only to arrive home to be presented with the same gift is an example of situational irony. Getting pumped up for a hockey game and turning on the TV to find golf (sorry, golf!) and learning that the hockey game is, in fact, tomorrow is situational irony.

In literature, it is not uncommon to find all three forms of irony. In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, for example, the fact that the animal-run farm ultimately fails is a form of irony because the characters had fully expected they would do well without human beings. The fact that the humans and pigs become indistinguishable is situational irony. The more important function in Animal Farm is that irony is used to show the shortcomings of communism.  


When Boxer is finally allowed to “retire,” the characters cheer for his leaving, yet they cannot read that he is actually going to the glue factory. Here, we have dramatic irony. Verbal irony occurs in how quickly the laws that are supposedly set in stone are changed. We have a strict ban on alcohol and beds, yet both are ultimately allowed. Again, we have a laugh at the expense of communism and tyranny.


With that said, there are a few sub-types of irony, but perhaps the most important  is Socratic irony.

Socratic Irony was illustrated by Socrates in Plato’s many dialogues. Often, it begins by Socrates getting his interlocutor to say something about a topic based on a general understanding. Socrates pretends to be ignorant and claims to need instruction to get the person to say something. Then, Socrates helps the other person come to the realization that he knows, ultimately, nothing.  Ultimately, Socrates points out the ignorance of his interlocutor, but he does through careful questions. Socrates does not know nothing. In fact, he claims to know nothing, but he clearly knows something since he is so successful in stumping everyone he speaks to.

With irony, Socrates tries to  get his interlocutor to make the idea concrete and not abstract. There is a bit more to this w/r/t (thanks DFW!) Socrates’ ultimate goals and views, but that’s something for a later date.

For me, personally, irony has been a bit of a confusing concept since the entire thing has changed so much. I hope it’s been a bit helpful, and, at some point, we’ll look at how irony functions.  Let me know if you disagree with anything that I’ve written in the comments.


2 thoughts on “On Irony (Part 1)

  1. “For example, having a thousand forks when you need a spoon is not ironic. It’s simply that you forgot to do your dishes, and you should probably get to washing those thousand spoons.” I evil laughed so hard at that.

    I find myself quite ignorant of what is actually ironic – I blame Alanis. You’ve helped me kind of “get it”.


    1. Don’t blame Alanis…it’s not fair to her. Blame, well, everybody! Don’t worry–even I have days where I don’t really “get it.” It’s become a very convoluted idea.

      Still, the ultimate lesson here? Do your dishes.

      Liked by 1 person

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