Although the word irony is often used very broadly in common
speech ("He expected to make a whole load of money, but
ironically he lost it all"), it's best to use it precisely in
Even when used precisely, it can have a number of meanings, but
they all share something: there is a gap between what is said
and what is in fact true. But the gap has to be significant: it
can't be merely a factual error, nor even a lie; the irony
depends on the audience's recognition of the gap.
Examples of some of the kinds of irony might make things
See also comedy and satire.
- In verbal irony (sometimes called rhetorical
irony), probably the most straightforward kind of irony, the
speaker says something different from what he or she really
believes. In its crudest form it's called sarcasm, where
the speaker intentionally says the opposite of what he or
she believes, and expects the audience to recognize the
dissembling: for example, "Rutgers's Hill Hall is truly a palace,
suited only to kings and princes." But verbal irony needn't be so
crude: more subtle kinds of verbal irony, including
understatement and hyperbole, abound.
- In dramatic irony, the audience is more aware than
the characters in a work (often, but not necessarily, a drama), and what the characters say takes
on a new significance to the audience. A famous example of tragic dramatic irony is the opening of
Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, when Oedipus, the ruler of
Thebes, promises to punish the man whose sins have brought a
plague upon the city. Oedipus does not know, but the audience
does, that he is himself the evil-doer.
- Cosmic irony comes closest to the common usage: it
seems that God or fate is manipulating events so as to inspire
false hopes, which are inevitably dashed.
From the Guide to Literary Terms by Jack Lynch.
Please send comments to Jack Lynch.
Note: This guide is still in the early stages of development.
Three question marks mean I have to write more on the subject. Bear with me.