We talk about more than five different types of irony. No wonder irony is confusing!
Keith Houston is the author of the new book, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks.
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When people mutter the immortal words “Well, that was ironic,” they are almost certain to be talking about situational irony. This is when something turns out in a way that is opposite to but perversely appropriate to its expected outcome – when a mad scientist is turned upon by his own monstrous creation, or a racing driver gets a speeding ticket on a public road.
Cosmic irony, or irony of Fate, is a type of situational irony where it seems as if a higher power has intervened to make things worse. When you’re a thousand dollars up at the casino and you lose it all on one last spin of the roulette wheel, you’ve just suffered a cosmic irony. (Not to mention a failure of judgment.)
Lastly, we come to verbal irony. This is the simple act of saying or writing one thing while meaning the opposite. Saying “Nice weather today, isn’t it?” to your officemate while it’s raining cats and dogs outside is a simple example of verbal irony. Perhaps counter intuitively, not all verbal irony is written or spoken. A hipster dressed in a lumberjack shirt, for instance, is using a form of verbal irony — you and he both know that he isn’t going logging any time soon.
Verbal irony can be broken down into a number of specific forms. Paradox is making a statement that is obviously false — our ironic comment about the weather, for example. Overstatement, or hyperbole, is to exaggerate for effect, while understatement is the opposite. Saying “I liked your homemade cookies” can be either an overstatement or an understatement, depending on just how good or bad those cookies were. Sarcasm is the use of any kind of verbal irony in a cruel or mocking fashion.
All of these types of verbal irony work best when they are spoken. Body language tells a listener a lot about a speaker’s true intentions, and a raised eyebrow or a quizzical look goes a long way to making it clear that you’re being ironic. The problem with written verbal irony is that those same cues are missing: it’s easy to confuse a reader, or for a joke to fall flat, when they don’t realize that you’re being ironic.