I've spent half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Irony is a frequently misunderstood concept; everybody gets it wrong from time to time including certain elderly writers who ought to know better. It can be described as the conflict between what is expected and what is delivered, but it's more complicated than that.
The Flavours of Irony
This is irony 101 and might be thought a bit—what's the word?—boring. If you hated English language classes at school—and who didn't?—you have permission to skip to the funnies further down the page. If you are tasked with writing an essay on irony, you've hit paydirt.
In the 1994 movie, Reality Bites, Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder) is asked to define irony. She replies that “I can't really define irony but I know it when I see it.” That may be true for a character in a film but for most of us, irony is a slippery concept to grasp.
The Oxford English Dictionary is helpful in saying that irony is “a figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used.”
“Use of irony and ironically, to mean an incongruous turn of events, is trite. Not every coincidence, curiosity, oddity, and paradox is an irony, even loosely. And where irony does exist, sophisticated writing counts on the reader to recognize it.”
— New York Times Editorial Guide
Irony comes in several forms.
- Situational irony is when something happens that is different from, or the opposite of, what was expected such as if a fire station burns down.
- Dramatic irony is a theatrical device in which the playwright reveals information to the audience that some of the characters don't know.
- Verbal irony is a form of sarcasm that we know is the lowest form of wit, although Oscar Wilde added it is also the highest form of intelligence. What do we often say when the ice cream falls out of the cone and splats on the sidewalk? “Oh great.” That's verbal irony.
Here endeth the lesson.
Irony in Sport
The very concept of sport is filled with irony. Fans in their thousands cram into stadiums convinced their team is going to thrash the opponents only to come away a few hours later chewing on the bitter taste of defeat. Situational irony writ large.
- It's ironic that the Tampa Bay Lightning play the Florida Panthers at ice hockey in a place that has never seen natural ice form on its ponds and lakes.
- In November 2016, a soccer game between Sunderland and Hull in England came to a halt when a power outage plunged the field into darkness. The game was being played at The Stadium of Light.
- In January 2018, many of Europe's top ski resorts were closed because there was too much snow.
- The Tour de France bicycle race has started in Berlin, Germany (1987), Dublin, Ireland (1998), Rotterdam, Netherlands (2010), and Leeds, England (2014) among other non-French cities.
- American football coach John Gruden (now disgraced over slurs aimed at minorities) coached the Oakland Raiders from 1998-2001, but failed to achieve top ranking and was fired. In the 2002 season, Gruden coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl victory. The team the Buccaneers beat was the Oakland Raiders.
- James Naismith invented basketball and became coach of the University of Kansas team in 1898. He is the only coach in the history of the university's basketball team to have had a losing season.
Irony in Politics
When it comes to politics, there's a rich vein of irony to be mined. Or, is it hypocrisy? It seems to the writer that when it comes to politics, irony and hypocrisy march in locked step. How often have we heard politicians decry an action they strongly favoured earlier? Daily? Hourly?
So, here's Eric Trump, in October 2021, stepping up to the loud hailer that is Fox News. He was complaining that U.S. President Joe Biden was in Delaware not the White House during what he alleged to be an economic crisis. The irony being that while his father was in office he was away from the White House on average every 3.4 days usually playing one of the more than 800 rounds of golf during his presidency.
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Many social media commentators declared that Eric Trump's illogical rant to be the “Death of irony.” Oh no, it's alive and ill everywhere you look.
And, while this file is open, how about the irony of Hilary Clinton getting 2.8 million more votes than her opponent in the 2016 presidential election but ending up loosing?
Every year, the movers and shakers of the world gather in Davos, Switzerland to discuss matters political. Among other subjects on the agenda in 2020 was global heating and how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Of the conference attendees, 309 arrived by private jet.
Republican Representative Robert Inglis (South Carolina) tells a story about something American legislators often have to deal with. At a public town hall a man told Inglis to ”Keep your government hands off my Medicare.” Rep. Inglis reminded the man that “Actually, sir, your health care is being provided by the government. But he wasn't having any of it.” Is this irony or just plain ignorance? Perhaps, we can call it “ignory.”
A Political Ad Filled with Irony
A Miscellany of Ironical Events
- Gary Kremen created the dating platform Match.com and asked everyone he knew to join up. Kremen's girlfriend signed on and left him to be with a man she met on Match.com.
- In 2013, the McDonald's fast food chain disabled a website that gave life and work advice to its employees. One of its recommendations was to avoid eating deep fried foods and those loaded with salt, sugar, fat, and calories.
- Dr. Mark Hulett in Australia discovered a chemical that is effective in destroying cancer cells. The chemical, NaD1, is found in tobacco plants.
- In 1998, the Berkeley Laboratory of the University of California tested a variety of materials use to seal air ducts. The only one to fail was duct tape.
- There's a medical condition in which the sufferer pronounces “Rs” as “Ws.” The ailment is called rhotacism. (And, what cruel person thought it a good idea to put an "S" in the word lisp?)
- In March 2017, the government of India passed a law banning strikes by lawyers. More than 6,000 lawyers went on strike as a protest.
- The warning on a product's box says “Do not insert inside the ear canal.” The product is Q-tips. Doctors advise you not put anything sharper than your elbow into your ear.
- British entrepreneur Jim Heselden bought the Segway company from its founder in 2009. In 2010, while riding the two-wheeled personal transporter, he plunged over a cliff. Jim Heselden was 62.
Predictably, most writers would end an article such as this with a pithy ironic statement. The irony here is that this writer can't think of a witty comment that is appropriate to the text.
- Satirist Jonathan Swift used irony in his 1729 pamphlet, A Modest Proposal, when he suggested a way of dealing with poverty and malnutrition among children in Ireland. His plan was to sell the children to rich landowners who could then eat them. In this way, Swift argued, the overpopulation and unemployment problems would be solved and poor families could get a little extra income with which to buy more nutritional food.
- Named after the Greek philosopher, Socratic irony is when a person pretends to be stupid in order to elicit information from someone else. The technique was used by the television detective Columbo (Peter Falk) who always played dumb so his suspect was thrown off guard and trapped into an admission.
- “Definition of Situational Irony.” literarydevices.net, undated.
- “Verbal Irony - Definition and Examples.” Richard Nordquist, ThoughtCo, July 25, 2018.
- “ ‘Irony is dead’: Eric Trump Mocked over Criticism of Biden Being in Delaware.” Gino Spocchia, The Independent, October 19, 2021.
- “119 Billionaires, 53 Heads of State, and an $8.3 Million Security Bill: A Look at Davos by the Numbers.” Taylor Nicole Rogers, Business Insider, January 21, 2020.
- “Keep Your Goddamn Government Hands off My Medicare!” Bob Cesca, Huffpost, December 6, 2017.
- “30 Funny Examples of Irony in Real Life.” Brandon Specktor, Reader's Digest, July 27, 2021.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on October 25, 2021:
Military intelligence, airline food, and rap music . . . mmm. Yes contradictions in terms come close to irony.
Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on October 25, 2021:
I really enjoyed this article, especially the video about voting republican. One ironic saying that I really enjoy is "hoisted on his on petard." Also, I think oxymorons are examples of irony, do you?
Joanne Hayle from Wiltshire, U.K. on October 25, 2021:
Another great humorous and informative write. Thanks:-)
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on October 21, 2021:
Rupert, great write and great read. But English still a second language even to a Brit.
Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on October 21, 2021:
"The team the Buccaneers beat was the Oakland Raiders." - I know next to nothing about American football but if he coached the Raiders for so long, maybe he knew their weaknesses and strengths and that gave him an edge with the new team. Just a possibility maybe.
"detective Columbo" - Well, that was a blast from the past! Haha! I do feel like he over-did it at times (playing stupid that is) but that's just me.
Good song choice! Thanks and thanks for the article too. 'twas an informative and fun read. Cheers!
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on October 21, 2021:
I'm glad you found it informative Misbah.
Misbah Sheikh on October 21, 2021:
What a great and informative read. I really enjoyed reading your hub and, of course, learned a lot from it. Verbal irony is the worst kind of irony, I believe. I say that because I dislike sarcasm and rarely understand it. LOL! It always happens to me that I realize sarcasm quite late. And then, I am like, oh! Yeah, so that's what that person was saying to me. I appreciate it when people say exactly what they mean. I'm not sure if this is a good or bad quality, but I am that type of person. By the way, I felt very bad for Gary Kremen. LOL! I, also, enjoyed reading the facts.
Thank you so much for sharing.
Sending Blessings your way today!