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.

Keith Houston, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #385

Shady CharactersThe word “irony” is used a lot. Hipsters dress ironically. The Daily Show puts an ironic twist on the day’s news. The sinking, on its maiden voyage, of the “unsinkable” Titanic was deeply ironic. But what exactly is irony? Most simply, it is the presence of a second, contradictory meaning within a situation or expression. The devil is in the detail, though, and irony is notoriously difficult to communicate. Today we’ll take a look how to recognize the different kinds of irony, and how to do irony justice in your writing.

Dramatic Irony

The concept of irony comes from the plays of ancient Greece. Stock characters could be identified by their costumes or props, so audiences knew how a particular character was likely to behave even though the other characters did not. One such character was the self-deprecating eirôn, or buffoon, who audiences knew to be craftier than his boastful opponent, the alazon. This is dramatic irony: the audience knows more about the situation unfolding before them than the characters acting it out. Romeo’s despairing suicide in response to Juliet’s apparent death — which the audience has seen her fake — is often quoted as an example of dramatic irony.

Socratic Irony

Socratic irony, named after the philosopher Socrates, also comes from ancient Greece. And though it sounds terribly intellectual, Socratic irony is nothing more than feigned ignorance. Just as Socrates pretended ignorance in debates with his students, leading them to tease out the answers themselves, elementary school teachers might ask “Why did Martin Luther King make a speech?” Teachers already know the answer, but want their students to think about the question. Socratic irony is not just for philosophers or school teachers: when Sasha Baron Cohen assumes the mantle of Ali G, Borat, or Brüno, he’s using the very same technique to expose the ignorance or prejudices of the people he meets.