Defining Irony

Isn’t It Ironic? Don’t You Think?

Once upon a time, Carmageddon was supposed to be the end of Los Angeles. Construction shut down a heavily-traveled 10-mile stretch of one of our major freeways, I-405 (known as “The 405”).

It didn’t happen. Was it a hoax? No, it wasn’t Y2K. The Year 2000 bug truly seemed to be a sham because it doesn’t stand to reason that all companies fixed all systems just in time to avert disaster. It was illogical. I remember airlines even stating they were only 95% ready. And I never knew if that meant that 95% of flights were going to make it to their destinations or that all flights were going to make it 95% of the way. Neither seemed comforting.

That Carmageddon didn’t happen was due to the very fact that people heeded the warning signs and stayed home. The same thing happened for the 1984 Olympics — everybody thought traffic was going to be a nightmare and it wasn’t — people just didn’t go out.

Isn’t that ironic?

No. It’s just logical.

And because everyone from Alanis Morissette to Ironic T-shirt designers seem to make this mistake, let’s try to uncover what “irony” truly is. I welcome all comments because I am only 95% sure that I have this right.

Isn’t that ironic?

NO.

The weird part was that I was already working on this blog post about “irony” before I dropped the Carmaggedon one.

Isn’t THAT ironic?

NO!

Let’s dive in.


Definition

According to Wikipedia

Irony is a…

  • Rhetorical Device, or a
  • Literary Technique, or a
  • Situation

…in which there is a…

“sharp incongruity beyond the evident intention of words or actions.”

The origin of the word hails from “feigned ignorance.”

Isn’t it ironic that, though the origin of the word implies people using it as a technique while they feign ignorance, most people who use it now actually don’t know what it means?

YES.


Types

There are two types of irony — intentional and unintentional. Here are definitions and examples:

Intentional

Verbal Irony — Ironic statements that typically and intentionally imply a meaning opposite to their literal meaning, i.e., Expression vs. Intention. This can take on two forms. For example, let’s assume it’s storming outside.

  • Overstatement in the form of sarcasm: “What a lovely day.”
  • Understatement in the form of litotes: “Well, it is not dry.”

Socratic Irony — Feigned ignorance on the part of the questioner to lure the interlocutor into a logic trap. A modern-day example was the main character in the 1970s TV show, Columbo, who seemed naïve and bumbling. He is underestimated by his suspects, who let their guards down and are therefore outwitted by Columbo.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure really was excellent.

Unintentional

Situational/Cosmic Irony — The actions that occur are the opposite of what was intended.

Historical Irony — Time passes and exposes two events that juxtaposed look ironic (e.g., gunpowder was discovered by alchemists looking for an elixir of immortality).

Irony of Fate — Irony that stems from the conflict between human intention and reality; it implies that the Gods are laughing at us. Examples:

  • This just happened to me: I was at an intersection, waiting to turn left. But as the oncoming car moved forward, he wasn’t indicating, so I wasn’t sure if he was going straight or turning left. I was getting a little pissed because I couldn’t go until I knew what he was doing. Then it occurred to me that I myself didn’t have my left turn signal on, which was the very thing preventing him from moving, because he didn’t know if I was going turning or going straight. I indicated and turned left; he then turned left.
  • An ambulance runs over the victim.
  • In 1974, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled 80,000 lapel buttons promoting “toy safety” because they had sharp edges, used lead paint, and had small clips that could be swallowed.
  • In 1981, John Hinckley, Jr. fired shots at President Ronald Reagan, which all missed, but the one that got him ricocheted off of the bullet-proof limousine and hit Reagan, which was the very thing that was supposed to protect him.
Bank Shot.

Dramatic Irony — A theatrical technique in which the audience knows something the character doesn’t.

Tragic Irony — A subset of dramatic irony, it usually involves a character doing something contrary to his desires, thereby hurting himself. Examples:

  • The prophecy is that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother. He kills a man but, at this point in the story, only we know that that was his father.
  • Romeo thinks Juliet is dead and so kills himself while we know Julie is merely asleep. Juliet then sees Romeo is dead and kills herself.

Comic (as opposed to “cosmic”) irony simply means that the intent on the part of the speaker/writer using irony as a rhetorical device or literary technique is humorous. Verbal irony, thus, can be comic. Dramatic irony could be comical, also, if something positive happens to the character. “I guess I’ll die a pauper,” says the character, as we in the audience knows he’s about to win the lottery.

I do a joke in my act: “I’m not a chauvinist, but when I go to strip clubs, I don’t give the girls dollar bills. I toss ’em Susan B. Anthony coins for the irony.” You see, the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin signifies women’s liberation. Yet, they are still subjugated to roles such as stripping. So, it’s insulting to throw their very symbol of freedom at them when they’re demonstrating how little progress they’ve actually made.

Whether one finds a situation funny depends upon the point-of-view of the listener/reader. A mean-spirited person might find Reagan’s being harmed by his own bullet-proof limo humorous. When most people say, “That’s funny,” they simply mean something is incongruous. It can either be “funny-ha-ha” or “funny-weird.” In Reagan’s case, I’d purport that’s funny-weird. This does not qualify as comic irony.


Related Concepts

To clarify the difference between irony and a litany of other terms:

Satire — The use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc. Not all satire is irony. This is the broadest term in this post. Having stated that, not all irony falls under satire. All intentional irony is satire.

Sarcasm — Mocking, contemptuous, or ironic language intended to insult. There’s a large overlap but not all satire is irony and not all irony is sarcasm. Some linguists do consider sarcasm a subset of irony but sarcasm generally simply involves intentional, biting wit.

Coincidence — Two or more occurrences merely happening at the same time. This is not irony.

  • A positive one is serendipity.
  • A negative one is misfortune or accident. (For clarity, “accident” denotes neither something positive nor negative but connotes something negative, i.e., Counting Crows sang about being “Accidentally in Love,” which is different from getting in a car accident.
I Love This Song — on Purpose.

Paradox — A statement or group of statements that leads to a contradiction or a situation that seems to defy logic or intuition, e.g., “this statement is false.” Not all paradoxes are ironic. Not all ironies are paradoxes.

Oxymoron — A figure of speech combining contradictory terms. George Carlin joked about “military intelligence” and “freedom fighters,” but that, like comic irony, depends upon one’s point-of-view. Literary oxymora can be constructed to illustrate a paradox: “old news,” “open secret,” “irregular pattern,” “deafening silence,” “serious joke,” and “virtual reality.” Other oxymora are simply puns, like “jumbo shrimp” or “pretty ugly.” If one were to steal jewelry in the hood, that could be called “hot ice.” Not all paradoxes are verbal irony. Not all verbal ironies are paradoxes. Not all oxymora are paradoxes. Not all paradoxes are oxymora.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy — A prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true due to positive feedback between belief and behavior. These are ironic. Examples:

  • A psychic prognosticates that you’re going to get into a car accident. Because you’re so worried about getting into a car accident and become overly careful and tentative, you actually do.
  • In Hinduism, in the tale of Lord Krishna, the evil king Kamsa is told in a prophecy that the eighth son of his sister, Devaki, will kill him. Kamsa, not wanting to kill his sister, imprisons Devaki and her husband, allowing them to live if they hand over their children as they’re born. They do and, not wanting to take any chances, he kills all of them. But the 7th and 8th children, Balarama and Krishna, escape. So that Good may triumph over Evil, Krishna kills Kamsa. The prophecy is fulfilled, whereas this may never have happened had Kamsa not killed all of Krisna’s siblings in the first place. That is an example of situational/cosmic irony. All self-fulfilling prophecies are situational/cosmic ironies whereas not all situational/cosmic ironies are self-fulfilling prophecies.

Hypothetical Examples
Here’s an illustration of some satirical responses. Some terms are not defined as they’re obvious, such as “understatement.”

A woman tells her friend that, instead of going to a doctor to cure her cancer, she’s going to a spiritual healer instead. Her friend’s response can fall into several categories:

  • Sarcasm: “What a brilliant idea — I’m sure that’ll cure you.”
  • Hyperbole: “That’s the best idea I’ve heard in years!”
  • Understatement: “What the hell… it’s only cancer.”
  • Rhetorical Question: “Does your spirit have cancer?”
  • Jocularity: “Get them to fix your back while you’re at it!”
  • Double Entendre: “I bet that if you do that, you’ll be communicating with spirits in no time” (one meaning being that she’ll talk to spirits through her healer and the other one being that she herself will be dead and can talk to spirits as a spirit).

Pop Cultural Examples

Images

Please Stop.
How?
Probably my favorite example ever.

Seinfeld

Seinfeld covered “irony” at length.

Here’s one:

The Subway (1992)

Read the script below if you don’t wanna watch…

INT. SUBWAY — DAY.

ELAINE stands, carrying a wedding present. An older WOMAN approaches her.

WOMAN: I started riding these trains in the ’40s. Those days a man would give up his seat for a woman. Now we’re liberated, we have to stand.

ELAINE: It’s ironic.

WOMAN: What’s ironic?

ELAINE: This. That we’ve come all this way, we’ve made all this progress, but you know, we’ve lost the little things, the niceties.

WOMAN: No, what does “ironic” mean?

Here’s another:

The Cheever Letters (1992)

INT. JERRY’S APARTMENT— DAY.

JERRY: Well, you’ll make quite an impression on him when you tell him how you burned his cabin down.

GEORGE: I didn’t burn it down — Kramer did!

JERRY: I mean, the whole thing is ironic. Think of it: Here the guy is nice enough to give you a box of very fine Cuban cigars…

GEORGE: Yeah, I know what happened.

JERRY: No, but wait, wait. And then you dump them off onto Kramer…

GEORGE: I know!

JERRY: …Who, who proceeds to burn the man’s cabin down with one of those very same cigars! It’s very comical.

And finally, here’s another (coincidentally, also from the same year):

The Virgin (1992)

INT. MONK’S COFFEE SHOP — DAY.

JERRY: You know, it’s a very interesting situation. Here you have a job that can help you get girls. But you also have a relationship. But if you try to get rid of the relationship so you can get girls, you lose the job. You see the irony?

GEORGE: Yeah, yeah, I see the irony.

Ironic Ts

According to Urban Dictionary, an “ironic tee shirt” is a “trendy tee-shirt with humorous, ironic, or clever slogan or image.”

The sad, if not tragic, part is that an ironic T-shirt doesn’t have to be ironic, by definition. Note the “or” in the definition above.

Just because a dude in his 20s or 30s sports a Pac-Man T-shirt doesn’t make it ironic. A grown man loving a children’s game is just funny, as in “different.” But there’s nothing that prevents adults from liking kid stuff. When Jerry ate cereal or talked about Superman on Seinfeld, that wasn’t ironic. It was just funny. They’re probably better named “Sarcastic Ts.” But only if an adult is wearing them. If a kid wears a Pac-Man T-shirt, there’s no irony or sarcasm implied. To some extent, when an adult dons the T, he is “laughing at” vs. “laughing with” Pac-Man. Again, it’s the intention (state of awareness) that makes it verbal irony. If there’s no awareness, it’s situational irony.

Some of the thirteen mug shots in the Huffington Post article T-shirts are ironic and some are not. I’ve included the captions verbatim as the Huff Post had ‘em:

The Domestic Violence Charge Would Say Otherwise.

Yes. He’s stating that he loves his marriage but he’s arrested for beating his wife.

Get Ready America.

Yes. She’s wearing a shirt meant for models but she’s “pretty ugly.”

Done and Done.

Yes. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Grandpa’s Free Shirt From ‘Judge Dredd.’

I don’t know what this caption even means. But, as far as his shirt goes, yes, it’s ironic that “the law” would be under arrest.

Ahem. Perhaps It is.

It might be ironic but we don’t know have enough information to make the call because we don’t know what he did to go to jail. Stupidity is NOT a crime. If he did something very stupid and then went to jail wearing this shirt, then it would be ironic.

Charles Barkley No. This Guy Yes.

Yes. He’s obviously not a role model if he’s under arrest.

Finally, An Authority.

It’s ironic only if he committed some kind of sex crime against females.

Sure, As Long As You Wear The Shirt

No. He got caught but we don’t know enough about the situation.

But Don’t Let Him Change This Shirt

It’s hard to tell because I can’t read it all.

Yet Back in Jail.

Yes because he’s clearly not out on bail.

Yes. Yes It Was.

Yes, if he did it.

She Also Hearts Irony.

No, it’s not ironic even if she got busted for possession because she’s stating she loves weed. Just funny.

But This Shirt Is.

No. He’s implying he’s not perfect and he’s not because he has an arrest record. Coincidence.

Maybe, since ironic Ts rarely are ironic but are close to it, they should be renamed “ironic tease.”

Not surprisingly, a lot of people who wear ironic Ts are alternative or “alt” standup comics. I’m friends with a lot of these guys and I love ’em. But sometimes, a technique they use onstage irritates me. A guy will tell a joke ironically (sarcastically). It’ll be a pun or some kind of device he feels is below him. The audience will laugh. Then the comic will make some kind of condescending sound to distance himself from the joke, as if it’s only a joke some club comic would use, as if he’s too cool to use such a device. But to me, the joke is on him. The irony is that, without the joke, the audience wouldn’t have laughed. They laughed at your joke, dude! If you act as if you’re above the joke, well, then you’re also condescending to the crowd members, because they just laughed. In my opinion, if you’re going to use the device, then own it. If you were really too good to use the device, you wouldn’t have used it in the first place. And that’s the irony.

At the same time, what these comedians are doing is playing things “ironically,” which has come to mean the opposite of “sincerely.” (This concept is covered remarkably well by a Brit and decently in a Stuff White People Like post.) Think of single-camera vs. multi-camera comedies. Multi-camera refers to the traditional sitcom, complete with a studio audience (and sometimes punched-up laugh track). These almost always contained a lesson and some kind of realism. In the 2000s, though there are exceptions, that sort of thing went out of vogue. (Seinfeld bridged this gap as it was filmed in front of a studio audience but deliberately evinced no moral growth on the part of the characters.) Enter in the single-camera style, which looks more like film and follows people around, like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm. They follow the concept of postmodernism, which asserts that everything has been done and therefore all art is self-referential. In this way, comedy is now primarily ironic. I think back to my Upright Citizens Brigade improv days. The opposite of playing a scene committed is playing it ironically detached. So, it’s a way of not becoming emotionally vested but rather staying above the fray. If done well, it’s brilliant. But if it’s a way to simply avoid finding the real joke and meaning, it’s kind of a cop-out. Commitment is laughing with; irony is laughing at. Commitment is constructionist — it builds something; irony is deconstructionist — it tears something down.

Back to Alanis

Ah, Alanis. The one whose song brought “irony” into the zeitgeist for so long.

It was made fun of a number of times.

The ironic thing is that this parody itself contains many examples of things that are not ironic:

The standup comic Ed Byrne did a masterful job of lampooning Alanis:


Solutions

So, how do you avoid the trap? It’s best to first determine whether the irony is intentional or unintentional. If somebody is merely being sarcastic, yes, this is verbal irony, and you really cannot go wrong saying the person is “being ironic.”

But when events happen, ask yourself what the contradiction is. If there isn’t one, it’s not ironic and is most likely “coincidental“ or just “weird”/“funny.”

One way to think about irony is to examine its elements.

  • Incongruity: Look for things that appear to be different, discordant, out-of-sync, funny, or weird.
  • Opposites: Check to see if there’s an “opposite” quality involved. Irony doesn’t usually imply simply the existence of two weird things; that’s often just a “coincidence.” When you try to explain something you think is ironic, generally the words “very” or “actually” or “really” or “and yet” should come out. Note my Susan B. Anthony example below.
  • Tension: Irony has an uneasy quality. There’s something “off” about it. It’s generally negative, whereas coincidences are generally positive.
  • Loops: This is perhaps the true key to uncovering irony. Make sure there’s a twist and that the loop is closed. Most of the occurrences in Alanis Morissette’s song, “Ironic,” are merely unfortunate because there’s nothing to imply any sort of intention to begin with. A great example is O. Henry’s story, The Gift of The Magi, in which a couple is too poor to buy Christmas gifts. So, the wife sells her hair to buy her husband a chain for his watch. At the same time, he pawns his watch to buy her a set of combs for her hair. You see how the loop is closed?

And so is this topic.

Well, till someone corrects me. I’ll bet by writing that the topic is closed, this may inflame people to the point that they must write comments and therefore make me amend the post, thereby ensuring the topic is not closed.

That’d be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And situational irony. Or maybe it’s verbal irony because I’m aware of it.

Geez, after all that, I still don’t know anything.

I’m just being sarcastic.

I think.

Don’t you?

Rajiv Satyal is a standup comedian. He completed his Materials Engineering degree from the University of Cincinnati, studying metallurgy — including Iron.


Originally published at www.rajivsatyal.com on July 18, 2011.