Irony (from Ancient Greek εἰρωνεία (eirōneía), meaning "dissimulation, feigned ignorance"), in its broadest sense, is a rhetorical device, literary technique, or event in which what appears, on the surface, to be the case, differs radically from what is actually the case. Irony may be divided into categories such as verbal, dramatic, and situational.
Verbal, dramatic, and situational irony are often used for emphasis in the assertion of a truth. The ironic form of simile, used in sarcasm, and some forms of litotes can emphasize one's meaning by the deliberate use of language which states the opposite of the truth, denies the contrary of the truth, or drastically and obviously understates a factual connection.
Other forms, as identified by historian Connop Thirlwall, include dialectic and practical 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." Also, Eric Partridge, in Usage and Abusage, writes that "Irony consists in stating the contrary of what is meant."
The use of irony may require the concept of a double audience. Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage says:
Irony is a form of utterance that postulates a double audience, consisting of one party that hearing shall hear & shall not understand, & another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware both of that more & of the outsiders' incomprehension.
The term is sometimes used as a synonym for incongruous and applied to "every trivial oddity" in situations where there is no double audience. An example of such usage is:
Classical irony: Referring to the origins of irony in Ancient Greek comedy, and the way classical and medieval rhetoricians delineated the term.
Romantic irony: A self-aware and self-critical form of fiction.
Cosmic irony: A contrast between the absolute and the relative, the general and the individual, which Hegel expressed by the phrase, "general [irony] of the world."
Verbal irony: A contradiction between a statement's stated and intended meaning
Situational irony: The disparity of intention and result; when the result of an action is contrary to the desired or expected effect.
Dramatic irony and tragic irony: A disparity of awareness between actor and observer: when words and actions possess significance that the listener or audience understands, but the speaker or character does not; for example when a character says to another "I'll see you tomorrow!" when the audience (but not the character) knows that the character will die before morning. It is most often used when the author causes a character to speak or act erroneously, out of ignorance of some portion of the truth of which the audience is aware. In tragic irony, the audience knows the character is making a mistake, even as the character is making it.
- Person 1: I wasn't going to eat the cake, you know.
- Person 2: Interesting, that's what it looked like you were doing, but I just must have been mistaken.
- In City Lights the audience knows that Charlie Chaplin's character is not a millionaire, but the blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) believes him to be rich.
- In North by Northwest, the audience knows that Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is not Kaplan; Vandamm (James Mason) and his accomplices do not. The audience also knows that Kaplan is a fictitious agent invented by the CIA; Roger (initially) and Vandamm (throughout) do not.
- In Oedipus the King, the audience knows that Oedipus himself is the murderer that he is seeking; Oedipus, Creon and Jocasta do not.
- In Othello, the audience knows that Desdemona has been faithful to Othello, but Othello does not. The audience also knows that Iago is scheming to bring about Othello's downfall, a fact hidden from Othello, Desdemona, Cassio and Roderigo.
- In The Cask of Amontillado, the reader knows that Montresor is planning on murdering Fortunato, while Fortunato believes they are friends.
- In The Truman Show, the viewer is aware that Truman is on a television show, but Truman himself only gradually learns this.
- In Romeo and Juliet, the audience knows that Juliet is already married to Romeo, but her family does not. Also, in the crypt, most of the other characters in the cast think Juliet is dead, but the audience knows she only took a sleeping potion. Romeo is also under the same misapprehension when he kills himself.
- When John Hinckley attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan, all of his shots initially missed the President; however, a bullet ricocheted off the bullet-proof Presidential limousine and struck Reagan in the chest. Thus, a vehicle made to protect the President from gunfire instead directed gunfire to the president.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a story whose plot revolves around situational irony. Dorothy travels to a wizard and fulfills his challenging demands in order to go home, before discovering she'd had the ability to go back home all along. The Scarecrow longs for intelligence, only to discover he is already a genius, and the Tin Woodsman longs to be capable of love, only to discover he already has a heart. The Lion, who at first appears to be a whimpering coward, turns out to be bold and fearless. The people in Emerald City believed the Wizard to be a powerful deity, only to discover that he is a bumbling, eccentric old man with no special powers at all.
- In O. Henry's story "The Gift of the Magi", a young couple are too poor to buy each other Christmas gifts. The wife cuts off her treasured hair to sell it to a wig-maker for money to buy her husband a chain for his heirloom pocket watch. She's shocked when she learns he had pawned his watch to buy her a set of combs for her long, beautiful, prized hair. "The double irony lies in the particular way their expectations were foiled."
- In the ancient Indian story of Krishna, King Kamsa is told in a prophecy that a child of his sister Devaki would kill him. To prevent this, he imprisons both Devaki and her husband Vasudeva, allowing them to live only if they hand over their children as soon as they are born. He murders nearly all of them, one by one, but the seventh and eighth children, Balarama and Krishna, are saved and raised by a royal couple, Nanda and Yashoda. After the boys grow up, Krishna eventually kills Kamsa as the prophecy foretold. Kamsa's attempt to prevent the prophecy led to it becoming a reality.
- This story is similar to those in Greek mythology. Cronus prevents his wife from raising any children, but the one who ends up defeating him is Zeus, the later King of the Gods. Other similar tales in Greek Mythology include Perseus (who killed his grandfather, Acrisius by accident with a discus despite Acrisius' attempt to avert his fate), and, more famously, Oedipus who killed his father and married his mother not knowing their relationship, due to being left to die by his father to prevent that very prophecy from occurring.
- In the Dred Scott v. Sandford ruling in 1856, the United States Supreme Court held that the Fifth Amendment barred any law that would deprive a slaveholder of his property, such as his slaves, upon the incidence of migration into free territory. So, in a sense, the Supreme Court used the Bill of Rights to deny rights to slaves. Also, chief justice Taney hoped that the decision would resolve the slavery issue, but instead it helped cause the American Civil War.
- In the Kalgoorlie (Australia) gold rush of the 1890s, large amounts of the little-known mineral calaverite (gold telluride) were ironically identified as fool's gold. These mineral deposits were used as a cheap building material, and for the filling of potholes and ruts. When several years later the mineral was identified, there was a minor gold rush to excavate the streets.
John F. Kennedy's last conversation was ironic in light of events which followed seconds later. During the motorcade in Dallas, in response to Mrs. Connolly's comment, "Mr. President, you can't say that Dallas doesn't love you," Kennedy replied, "That's very obvious." Immediately after, he was mortally wounded.
- In 1974, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission had to recall 80,000 of its own lapel buttons promoting "toy safety", because the buttons had sharp edges, used lead paint, and had small clips that could be broken off and subsequently swallowed.
- Introducing cane toads to Australia to control the cane beetle not only failed to control the pest, but introduced, in the toads themselves, a very much worse pest.
- By a tragic coincidence
- By an exceptional coincidence
- By a coincidence of no importance
- You and I know, of course, though other less intelligent mortals walk benighted under the midday sun
- Oddly enough, or it's a rum thing that
- Oh hell! I've run out of words to start a sentence with."
- "The final irony"—a Guardian article about irony, use and misuse of the term
- Article on the etymology of Irony
"Irony", by Norman D. Knox, in Dictionary of the History of Ideas (1973)
- "Sardonicus"—a web-resource that provides access to similes, ironic and otherwise, harvested from the web.
Excerpt on dramatic irony from Yves Lavandier's Writing Drama Writing Drama has a 52-page chapter on dramatic irony (with insights on the three phases (installation-exploitation-resolution), surprise, mystery, suspense, diffuse dramatic irony, etc.)
"American Irony" compared with British irony, quoting Stephen Fry
American and British irony compared by Simon Pegg
- Modern example of ironic writing
- Irony definition by Baldrick (BlackAdder)