Irony: Its History and Many Types

By Emmett B-A

Irony is everywhere in the world today. Look anywhere on the internet, and you will find people talking about how ironic they are, how much they make ironic jokes, and how deep in irony they are. However, irony is not just some internet joke. It is a genuine literary device and it has deep roots in literary history. So where does it come from? What is the history of irony?

The name “irony” and its definitions comes straight from ancient greek history. In an ancient greek comedy, there were three stock character types, known as the eiron, the alazon, and the bomolochus. The alazon was the overly confident braggart who talked a big game, the bomolochus was the fool who used crude language and addressed the audience, and the eiron was the character who took down the alazon by understating his own ability. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics describes the eiron with  “in the form of understatement, self-deprecation, and its possessor the self-deprecator.” The eiron is where our modern word irony comes from, and partly its definition. While modern irony introduced in the 1500s centers around saying the opposite of what is meant, the greek irony is focused on saying less than what is meant. It transformed from understating to stating the complete opposite.

The modern definition of irony is very hard to pin down, but it is very broadly said to include “the surface meaning and the underlying meaning of what is said are not the same.” Because this is so different from just an understatement, modern irony is split up into six types. In my experience, only three of these are taught in school, so it is interesting to see what the other ones are. There are the main three: situational irony, dramatic irony, and verbal irony. But then there are the other ones- cosmic irony, romantic irony, classical irony, and to a lesser extent, socratic irony. 

Situational irony is the classic. The thing that happens is the exact opposite of what was expected to happen. The firefighters in Fahrenheit 451 lighting fires is a classic example of this. It is often confused for coincidence, so don’t fall into that trap. Verbal irony is when what is said is the opposite of what is meant. It doesn’t necessarily have to be sarcasm, but it can include sarcasm. Sarcasm can also exist without using any verbal irony, but it is often used by stating the opposite of something in a sarcastic tone  to emphasize the original thing. The last of the ironies that everyone knows is Dramatic irony. It is when the audience knows something that the character does not, such as in The Importance of Being Earnest, when everyone thinks Earnest is real but we know he isn’t..

To start out the ironies that people don’t know as well we have Cosmic irony. This is one people have generally heard of, but don’t really have a well defined definition of. Well, turns out that it is not very well defined anyway. Cosmic irony is based around the idea that the fates like to toy with people in an ironic way, so the end result is basically just situational irony on a cosmic level. The next one is romantic irony. Romantic irony is defined as “an attitude of detached scepticism adopted by an author towards his or her work, typically manifesting in literary self-consciousness and self-reflection.” It is when the lines of a text between characters and real life is blurred, which can make the whole thing more confusing. It is designed by the writer to create a self referential work that calls out devices in fiction and in itself. It is by far the most confusing and obscure form of irony, in my opinion. Last on the list is Classical irony and its subset, socratic irony. Classical irony is irony as the Greeks first described it, as a form of understatement where one says less than one means. Socratic irony is a type of rhetoric that Socrates used where he pretended to be dumb to draw out the other arguments flaws. It is a subset of Classical irony because he understated his ability to expose the lesser argument’s flaws, just like the eiron that would later be described by Aristotle.

On the whole, irony is a complex topic that is split up into different parts for a reason. Only the broadest descriptions of it apply to all the categories, and its many nuances among the different types make it hard to understand even once you understand it. So the next time you go on twitter, look at all the times someone calls something ironic. See if it makes sense. (Spoiler: it usually doesn’t).