More than One Kind of Irony
Irony and its adjective ironic have joined the class of carelessly used words–like literally and awesome–that drive many language lovers wild.
As early as 1926 H.W. Fowler decried the use of irony and ironic to refer to happenings that are merely coincidental or odd. For example, if I run into you in Walmart and an hour later bump into you at OfficeMax, that’s not ironic; it’s a coincidence. If I’m driving to school with barely enough time to make it to class on time and get stuck at a train crossing, that’s annoying or frustrating, but it’s not ironic.
Fowler describes three kinds of irony: Socratic irony, dramatic irony, and the irony of Fate.
Socratic irony takes its name from the philosopher Socrates who would pretend to be ignorant, so as to encourage his students to argue their beliefs. The television detective Columbo is a master at this kind of irony. Just as Socrates used apparently innocent questions to show up his students’ shaky arguments, Columbo uses feigned humility and ignorance to lure his suspects into talking too much and revealing their guilt.
Dramatic irony is the irony of classical Greek drama, written for an audience that knew the details of the drama being presented. This kind of irony produces goose bumps in the audience or reader. When Oedipus swears he’ll bring his father’s murderer to justice, the audience knows that Oedipus is his father’s murderer. When Oedipus innocently marries Jocasta, the audience knows that she’s his mother. Strong stuff, dramatic irony. Novelists set it up by letting the reader know what the characters do not.
Irony of Fate occurs when misfortune is the result of Fate, Chance, or God. In Fowler’s words, “Nature persuades most of us that the course of events is within wide limits foreseeable, that things will follow their usual course…” If you watched the video clips of the floods that ravaged England in early 2014, you may have seen the pictures of the fabulous, recently completed mansion, its four-acre grounds ringed by a protective moat; despite the owner’s efforts, the waters triumphed. This is an example of the irony of Fate or Chance, also called cosmic irony.
Two other types of irony not mentioned by Fowler are “verbal irony” and “situational irony.”
Verbal irony occurs when a person says one thing, but means another, for example, saying “Lucky me!” when you slip on the ice and break your arm.
Situational irony is similar to cosmic irony. You go into a situation expecting one outcome, but experience the opposite result. The O. Henry story “The Gift of the Magi” is built on situational irony: the wife sells her hair to buy her husband a watch fob; the husband sells his watch to buy his wife a decorative comb. The irony is that neither spouse can use the thoughtful gift.
Irony has more than one meaning, but “coincidental” and “odd” are not among them.
Related article: What Is Irony?
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