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"Irony is a form of utterance that postulates a double audience, consisting of one party that hearing shall hear and shall not understand, and another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware, both of that “more” and of the outsider’s incomprehension." --Modern English Usage H. W. Fowler

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

A fair amount of confusion has surrounded the issue regarding the relationship between verbal irony and sarcasm.

Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage states:
"Sarcasm does not necessarily involve irony and irony has often no touch of sarcasm."
This suggests that the two concepts are linked but may be considered separately. The OED entry for sarcasm does not mention irony, but the irony entry reads:
A figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used; usually taking the form of sarcasm or ridicule in which laudatory expressions are used to imply condemnation or contempt.
The Encyclopædia Britannica has "Non-literary irony is often called sarcasm"; while the Webster's Dictionary entry is:
Sarcasm: 1 : a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain. 2 a : a mode of satirical wit depending for its effect on bitter, caustic, and often ironic language that is usually directed against an individual.
Partridge in Usage and Abusage would separate the two forms of speech completely:
Irony must not be confused with sarcasm, which is direct: sarcasm means precisely what it says, but in a sharp, caustic, ... manner.

The psychologist Martin, in The psychology of humour, is quite clear that irony is where "the literal meaning is opposite to the intended"; and sarcasm is "aggressive humor that pokes fun". He has the following examples: For irony he uses the statement "What a nice day" when it is raining. For sarcasm, he cites Winston Churchill, who is supposed to have said, when told by Bessie Braddock that he was drunk, "But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly", as being sarcastic, while not saying the opposite of what is intended.

Psychology researchers Lee and Katz (1998) have addressed the issue directly. They found that ridicule is an important aspect of sarcasm, but not of verbal irony in general. By this account, sarcasm is a particular kind of personal criticism leveled against a person or group of persons that incorporates verbal irony. For example, a woman reports to her friend that rather than going to a medical doctor to treat her cancer, she has decided to see a spiritual healer instead. In response her friend says sarcastically, "Oh, brilliant, what an ingenious idea, that's really going to cure you." The friend could have also replied with any number of ironic expressions that should not be labeled as sarcasm exactly, but still have many shared elements with sarcasm.

Most instances of verbal irony are labeled by research subjects as sarcastic, suggesting that the term sarcasm is more widely used than its technical definition suggests it should be (Bryant & Fox Tree, 2002; Gibbs, 2000). Some psycholinguistic theorists (e.g., Gibbs, 2000) suggest that sarcasm ("Great idea!", "I hear they do fine work."), hyperbole ("That's the best idea I have heard in years!"), understatement ("Sure, what the hell, it's only cancer..."), rhetorical questions ("What, does your spirit have cancer?"), double entendre ("I'll bet if you do that, you'll be communing with spirits in no time...") and jocularity ("Get them to fix your bad back while you're at it.") should all be considered forms of verbal irony. The differences between these rhetorical devices (tropes) can be quite subtle and relate to typical emotional reactions of listeners, and the rhetorical goals of the speakers. Regardless of the various ways theorists categorize figurative language types, people in conversation who are attempting to interpret speaker intentions and discourse goals do not generally identify, by name, the kinds of tropes used (Leggitt & Gibbs, 2000).

Dramatic irony

This type of irony is the device of giving the spectator an item of information that at least one of the characters in the narrative is unaware of (at least consciously), thus placing the spectator a step ahead of at least one of the characters. The OED has:
the incongruity created when the (tragic) significance of a character's speech or actions is revealed to the audience but unknown to the character concerned; the literary device so used, orig. in Greek tragedy.

According to Stanton, dramatic irony has three stages—installation, exploitation, and resolution (often also called preparation, suspension, and resolution) —producing dramatic conflict in what one character relies or appears to rely upon, the contrary of which is known by observers (especially the audience; sometimes to other characters within the drama) to be true. In summary, it means that the reader/watcher/listener knows something that one or more of the characters in the piece is not aware of.

For example:

  • In City Lights the audience knows that Charlie Chaplin's character is not a millionaire, but the blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) believes him to be rich.
  • In North by Northwest, the audience knows that Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is not Kaplan; Vandamm (James Mason) and his accomplices do not. The audience also knows that Kaplan is a fictitious agent invented by the CIA; Roger (initially) and Vandamm (throughout) do not.
  • In Oedipus the King, the audience knows that Oedipus himself is the murderer that he is seeking; Oedipus, Creon and Jocasta do not.
  • In Othello, the audience knows that Desdemona has been faithful to Othello, but Othello does not. The audience also knows that Iago is scheming to bring about Othello's downfall, a fact hidden from Othello, Desdemona, Cassio and Roderigo.
  • In The Cask of Amontillado, the reader knows that Montresor is planning on murdering Fortunato, while Fortunato believes they are friends.
  • In The Truman Show, the viewer is aware that Truman is on a television show, but Truman himself only gradually learns this.
  • In Romeo and Juliet, the audience knows that Juliet is already married to Romeo, but her family do not. Also, in the crypt, most of the other characters in the cast think Juliet is dead, but the audience knows she only took a sleeping potion. Romeo is also under the same misapprehension when he kills himself.


See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Irony" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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