More than One Kind of Irony

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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.

Reedsy defines it from the point of view of writers:

Irony is a storytelling tool used to create contrast between how things seem and how they really are beneath the surface. The term “ironic” comes from the Latin word ironia, which means “feigned ignorance.”

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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7 thoughts on “More than One Kind of Irony”

  1. Perhaps we have a different idea about what is irony, but I don’t think
    the floods that ravaged England may somehow be called as the irony of Fate or Chance. It’s simply a drammatic event.

  2. Whenever I think of irony I remember a line from a short story by Spider Robinson:

    “If a person who indulges in gluttony is a glutton, and a person who commits a felony is a felon, then God is an iron.”

    It’s a little wordy for a bon mot, and I think that’s why it has never really caught on. But the wordplay has stuck in my memory since I first read it in 1977.

  3. The Irony of Fate lies in the hundred-year flood overwhelming all that work on the British estate just as the project had reached completion and despite reasonable efforts to resist such damage. That such a flood would eventually occur would be expected, and the results were certainly dramatic. However, that it would happen at that time and despite efforts to control it was both ironic and fateful.


    I’d appreciate a discussion of “poetic.” The term seems to encompass both situational irony and a sense of justice. For example, a person contracts for the killing of a family member, yet dies as a result.

  4. In my mind, irony requires the unexpected opposite of what is expected and a connection between the effort and the surprising result. E.g. “My safe was stolen” would be ironic. I put it in my deepest pocket for safekeeping, but the pocket had a hole in it. I got a gun for self-protection and shot myself with it. He had a heart attack jogging to the health food store. Maybe the ten dollars in a fifty-dollar money clip would be ironic.

    None of the examples given in the article are what I think of as irony (though I’m not arguing that they aren’t so considered by authorities). The example of verbal irony, “Lucky me”, I would just call sarcasm. I know the connection between irony and sarcasm is a hot subject, but I don’t think of sarcasm as ironic at all. If you trip over a mat you put on the ice to keep from slipping and break your arm– ironic.

    Likewise, I don’t see anything ironic about the mansion getting flooded just as it was finished. It’s just unfortunate. The fact that it was protected by a moat, of all things, and was destroyed by flood could be ironic.

  5. Things are ONLY ironic if the EXPECTATION is the opposite of what ACTUALLY happened.

    In the Irony of Fate example. It is NOT ironic to the reader because the reader has NO expectation of any kind. it is simple a statement of some facts.

    The example is NOT ironic to anybody, not even to the owner of “the fabulous, recently completed mansion, its four-acre grounds ringed by a protective moat”.

    No one expected the mansion to be completely dry in heavy rain. It will only be ironic if someone went inside the mansion to escape the water, expecting the mansion to be safe from water. Then the mansion is NOT safe.

    Then it is ironic. The reality is opposite from someone’s expectation.

    Somethings are ironic only to some people, because everyone have different expectations!!

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