AskDefine | Define irony

Dictionary Definition



1 witty language used to convey insults or scorn; "he used sarcasm to upset his opponent"; "irony is wasted on the stupid"; "Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own"--Johathan Swift [syn: sarcasm, satire, caustic remark]
2 incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs; "the irony of Ireland's copying the nation she most hated"
3 a trope that involves incongruity between what is expected and what occurs

User Contributed Dictionary


Etymology 1

First attested in 1502. From etyl la ironia (perhaps via etyl frm ironie), from etyl grc εἰρωνεία from εἴρων.


  • a RP /ˈaɪə.rən.i/, /"aI@.r@n.I/
  • a US /ˈaɪ.rə.ni/, /"aI.r@.nI/


  1. A statement that, when taken in context, may actually mean the opposite of what is written literally; the use of words expressing something other than their literal intention.
  2. The quality or state of an event being both coincidental and contradictory in a humorous or poignant and extremely improbable way.
statement that may mean the opposite of what is written literally
  • Bosnian: ironija
  • Croatian: ironija
  • Finnish: ironia
  • German: Ironie
  • Greek: ειρωνεία
  • Hungarian: irónia
  • Norwegian: ironi
  • Polish: ironia
  • Portuguese: ironia
  • Romanian: ironie
  • Russian: ирония
  • Slovene: ironija
  • Spanish: ironía
quality or state of an event being both coincidental and contradictory
  • Bosnian: ironija
  • Croatian: ironija
  • Finnish: ironia
  • German: Ironie
  • Greek: ειρωνεία
  • Norwegian: skjebnens ironi
  • Polish: ironia
  • Romanian: ironie
  • Russian: ирония
  • Slovene: ironija
  • Spanish: ironía

Etymology 2

From iron.


  • a RP /ˈaɪə.ni/, /"aI@.nI/
  • a US /ˈaɪ.ɚ.ni/


  1. Of or pertaining to the metal iron.
    The food had an irony taste to it.
of or pertaining to iron

See also

Extensive Definition

Irony is a literary or rhetorical device, in which there is an incongruity or discordance between what a speaker or writer says and what he or she means, or what is generally understood.
In modern usage it can also refer to particularly striking examples of incongruities observed in everyday life between what was intended or said and what actually happened.
There is some argument about what is or is not ironic, but all the different senses of irony revolve around the perceived notion of an incongruity between what is said and what is meant; or between an understanding of reality, or an expectation of a reality, and what actually happens.
Irony can be funny, but it does not have to be.
The term Socratic irony, which was coined by Aristotle, refers to the Socratic Method. It is not irony in the modern sense of the word.
Definition: irony of a situation is a discrepancy between the expected result and actual results when enlivened by 'perverse appropriateness'. This is a relatively modern use of the term -- see "Usage Controversy", below.
For example:
  • When John Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, all of his shots initially missed the President; however a bullet ricocheted off the bullet-proof windows of the Presidential limousine and struck Reagan in the chest. Thus, the windows made to protect the President from gunfire were partially responsible for his being shot.
  • Monty Python's last comedy album The Hastily Cobbled Together for a Fast Buck Album was continuously delayed from release for various reasons, having yet to see an official release, and has since been made available online for free by the group, thus making the album neither hasty nor earning the group a single buck.
  • If someone were to go on a trip and decide not to take a plane because they are worried about crashing, and take a bus instead, it would be ironic if a plane hit the bus they took, thereby realizing their fears of crashing with a plane, despite measures taken at the outset of the journey to avoid such a fate.

Irony of fate (cosmic irony)

The expression “irony of fate” stems from the notion that the gods (or the Fates) are amusing themselves by toying with the minds of mortals, with deliberate ironic intent. Closely connected with situational irony, it arises from sharp contrasts between reality and human ideals, or between human intentions and actual results.
For example:
  • In 1974 the Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled 80,000 of its own lapel buttons promoting toy safety. The buttons had paint with too much lead, sharp edges, and clips that could be broken off and swallowed.
  • Importing Cane Toads to Australia to protect the environment only to create worse environmental problems for Australia.
  • Jim Fixx, who did much to popularize jogging as a form of healthy exercise in his 1977 book The Complete Book of Running, died at the age of 52 of a heart attack (a death associated with sedentary, unhealthy lifestyles) while out jogging.
  • In the Kalgoorlie (Australia) gold rush of the 1890s, large amounts of the little-known mineral calaverite (gold telluride) were identified as fool's gold, and were discarded. The mineral deposits were used as a building material, and for the filling of potholes and ruts. (Several years later, the nature of the mineral was identified, leading to a minor gold rush to excavate the streets).

Historical irony (cosmic irony through time)

When history is seen through modern eyes, it sometimes happens that there is an especially sharp contrast between the way historical figures see their world and the probable future of their world, and what actually transpired. What we now refer to as "World War I" was originally called "The War to End All Wars"; this is an example of historical irony. Historical irony is therefore a subset of cosmic irony, but one in which the element of time is bound up.
For example:
  • Contrasting statements were made at the dawn of computers, which were initially thought to be devices never capable of use outside a government or academic setting, with Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, saying, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." Today computers are ubiquitous.
  • "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." Nearly the last words of American Civil War General John Sedgwick before being shot through the eye by a Confederate sniper.
  • In Dallas, in response to Mrs. Connally's comment, "Mr. President, you can't say that Dallas doesn't love you," John F. Kennedy said, "That's very obvious." He was assassinated immediately afterwards.
Examples of irony in history:

Irony in use

Ironic art

One point of view has it that all modern art is ironic because the viewer cannot help but compare it to previous works. For example, any portrait of a standing, non-smiling woman will naturally be compared with the Mona Lisa; the tension of meaning exists, whether the artist meant it or not.
While this does not appear to exactly conform to any of the three types of irony above, there is some evidence that the term "ironic art" is being used in this context . This definition could extend to any sort of modern artistic endeavour: graphic design; or music (sampling, for example).

Comic irony

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice begins with the proposition “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” In fact, it soon becomes clear that Austen means the opposite: women (or their mothers) are always in search of, and desperately on the lookout for, a rich single man to make a husband. The irony deepens as the story promotes his romance and ends in a double wedding.
Comic irony from television sketch-comedy has the distinction over literary comic irony in that it often incorporates elements of absurdity. A classic example is where a shark trying to impress his shark friends by learning to surf. He then surfs so well that his friends mistake him for an actual surfer and eat him.
Comic irony has long been a staple of comic strips, in which the action is free to be unrealistic. An example is a notable Far Side cartoon in which a hapless cat is trapped against an inside house window, having to watch the once-in-a-lifetime consequences of a collision outside between a truck labeled "Al's Rodents" and another labeled "Ernie's Small Flightless Birds".


Metafictions are kinds of fiction which self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction. It usually involves irony and is self-reflective. Metafiction (or “romantic irony” in the sense of roman the prose fiction) refers to the effect when a story is interrupted to remind the audience or reader that it is really only a story. Examples include Henry Fielding’s interruptions of the storyline to comment on what has happened, or J.M. Barrie’s similar interjections in his book, Peter Pan. Daniel Handler’s (known as Lemony Snicket) A Series of Unfortunate Events could also be considered a form of romantic irony, in which the action is frequently halted for a warning that the events to follow could be potentially distressing. Kurt Vonnegut wrote in metafiction in such critically acclaimed books as Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions and Cat's Cradle. The concept is also explored in a philosophical context in Sophie's World, by Jostein Gaarder. A similar example occurs in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy novel where the narrator reveals in advance “in the interest of reducing stress” that nobody will get hurt by a pair of incoming nuclear warheads, but that he will leave some suspense by stating that he would not reveal whose upper arm would get bruised in the process. A notable attempt to sustain metafiction throughout a whole novel is Christie Malry's Own Double Entry by B.S. Johnson, none of the characters are real and exist only within the author's imagination.

Usage controversy

There is considerable argument on the usage of the word "irony". Authority, in the form of dictionaries and usage guides, can be cited on both sides.
Descriptivists generally discount such self-proclaimed language authorities in favor of studying how individuals currently use the word.
The word ironic is sometimes used incorrectly as a synonym for incongruous or coincidental in situations where there is no “double audience,” and no contradiction between the ostensible and true meaning of the words. An example of such usage:
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’s usage panel 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.” This definition still allows the above usage but excludes examples like Alanis Morissette’s “It's a traffic jam when you're already late” for a meeting, unless perhaps the topic of the meeting were traffic congestion, not something implied by the lyrics of “Ironic”. It is commonly stated that the song "Ironic" contains no actual examples of irony. It is sometimes suggested that Morissette intentionally misuses the term ironic in every example in the song "Ironic" for ironic effect.
The American Heritage Dictionary recognizes a secondary meaning for irony: “incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.” This sense, however, is not synonymous with "incongruous" but merely a definition of dramatic or situational irony. The word incongruity is not in the active vocabulary for most speakers of the English language, irony being much more widespread among those wanting to be precise in their language.
Other historical prescriptivists have even stricter definitions for the word irony. Henry Watson 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.
This controversy is parodied in the Futurama episode "The Devil's Hands Are Idle Playthings", in which Bender repeatedly corrects people who use the term ironic incorrectly.

Cultural variation

Irony often requires a cultural backdrop to be understood or noticed, and as with any culture-specific idiom, irony often cannot be perfectly transplanted. An expression with a secondary meaning clear to an east-coast American may be obscure to a Canadian, Briton, Australian, or even a west-coast American, though they all speak the same language. Attempting a literal translation of an ironic idiom to another language often renders the concept muddled or incoherent. Further, the use of verbal irony may also rely on non-literal cues such as tone of voice or posture. Every culture incorporates its own form of linguistic metaphor, idiom and subtlety. In such cases, translation requires extra care of irony, and perhaps explanation.



  • Star, William T. "Irony and Satire: A Bibliography." Irony and Satire in French Literature. Ed. University of South Carolina Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina College of Humanities and Social Sciences, 1987. 183-209.
  • Bogel, Fredric V. "Irony, Inference, and Critical Understanding." Yale Review ): 503-19.
  • Hutcheon, Linda. Irony’s Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony. London: Routledge, 1994.
  • for review of Socratic irony see Kieran Egan The educated mind : how cognitive tools shape our understanding. (1997) University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN p. 137-144
  • Lavandier, Yves. Writing Drama, pages 263-315.
irony in Bavarian: Ironie
irony in Bosnian: Ironija
irony in Breton: Flemmerezh
irony in Bulgarian: Ирония
irony in Catalan: Ironia
irony in Czech: Ironie
irony in Danish: Ironi
irony in German: Ironie
irony in Spanish: Ironía
irony in Esperanto: Ironio
irony in French: Ironie
irony in Galician: Ironía
irony in Croatian: Ironija
irony in Indonesian: Ironi
irony in Icelandic: Íronía
irony in Italian: Ironia
irony in Hebrew: אירוניה
irony in Georgian: ირონია
irony in Latvian: Ironija
irony in Luxembourgish: Ironie
irony in Lithuanian: Ironija
irony in Hungarian: Irónia
irony in Dutch: Ironie
irony in Japanese: イロニー
irony in Norwegian: Ironi
irony in Occitan (post 1500): Ironia
irony in Polish: Ironia
irony in Portuguese: Ironia
irony in Russian: Ирония
irony in Simple English: Irony
irony in Slovak: Irónia
irony in Slovenian: Ironija
irony in Serbian: Иронија
irony in Serbo-Croatian: Ironija
irony in Finnish: Ironia
irony in Swedish: Ironi
irony in Turkish: İroni
irony in Ukrainian: Іронія
irony in Chinese: 反諷

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Atticism, Janus, agile wit, ambiguity, ambiguousness, ambivalence, amphibology, antinomy, biformity, bifurcation, black humor, burlesque, caricature, causticity, comedy, complexity of meaning, conjugation, cynicism, dichotomy, double entendre, double meaning, double reference, doubleness, doublethink, doubling, dry wit, dualism, duality, duplexity, duplication, duplicity, equivocacy, equivocality, equivocalness, equivocation, esprit, farce, halving, humor, innuendo, invective, lampoon, levels of meaning, multivocality, nimble wit, oxymoron, pairing, paradox, parody, paronomasia, pleasantry, polarity, polysemousness, polysemy, pretty wit, punning, quick wit, ready wit, richness of meaning, salt, sarcasm, satire, satiric wit, savor of wit, self-contradiction, slapstick, slapstick humor, squib, subtle wit, travesty, twinning, two-facedness, twoness, uncertainty, visual humor, wit
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