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Irony (from the Ancient Greek εἰρωνεία eirōneía, meaning dissimulation or feigned ignorance), in its broadest sense, is a rhetorical device, literary technique, or event characterized by an incongruity, or contrast, between reality (what is) and appearance (what seems to be). The term may be further defined into several categories, among which are: verbal, dramatic, and situational.
Verbal, dramatic, and situational irony are often used for emphasis in the assertion of a truth. The ironic form of simile, used in sarcasm, and some forms of litotes emphasize one's meaning by the deliberate use of language which states the opposite of the truth — or drastically and obviously understates a factual connection.
Other forms include dialectic and practical, as identified by Thirlwall.
No written method for indicating irony exists, though an irony punctuation mark has been proposed. In the 1580s, Henry Denham introduced a rhetorical question mark or percontation point which resembles a reversed question mark. This mark was also proposed by the French poet Marcel Bernhardt at the end of the 19th century to indicate irony or sarcasm.
Henry Watson Fowler, in The King's English, says "any definition of irony—though hundreds might be given, and very few of them would be accepted—must include this, that the surface meaning and the underlying meaning of what is said are not the same." Also, Eric Partridge, in Usage and Abusage, writes that "Irony consists in stating the contrary of what is meant."
The use of irony may require the concept of a double audience. Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage says:
Irony is a form of utterance that postulates a double audience, consisting of one party that hearing shall hear & shall not understand, & another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware both of that more & of the outsiders' incomprehension.
The term is sometimes used as a synonym for incongruous and applied to "every trivial oddity" in situations where there is no double audience. An example of such usage is:
The American Heritage Dictionary's secondary meaning for irony: "incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs". This sense, however, is not synonymous with "incongruous" but merely a definition of dramatic or situational irony. It is often included in definitions of irony not only that incongruity is present but also that the incongruity must reveal some aspect of human vanity or folly. Thus the majority of American Heritage Dictionary's usage panel found it unacceptable to use the word ironic to describe mere unfortunate coincidences or surprising disappointments that "suggest no particular lessons about human vanity or folly."
On this aspect, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has also:
A condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was, or might naturally be, expected; a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things. (In French ironie du sort.)
Origin of the term
According to the Encyclopædia Britannica,
The term irony has its roots in the Greek comic character Eiron, a clever underdog who by his wit repeatedly triumphs over the boastful character Alazon. The Socratic irony of the Platonic dialogues derives from this comic origin.
According to Richard Whately:
Aristotle mentions Eironeia, which in his time was commonly employed to signify, not according to the modern use of 'Irony, saying the contrary to what is meant', but, what later writers usually express by Litotes, i.e. 'saying less than is meant'.
The word came into English as a figure of speech in the 16th century as similar to the French ironie. It derives from the Latin ironia and ultimately from the Greek εἰρωνεία eirōneía, meaning dissimulation, ignorance purposely affected.
Types of irony
The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics distinguishes between the following types of irony:
- Classical irony: referring to the origins of irony in Ancient Greek comedy, and the way classical and medieval rhetoricians delineated the term.
- Romantic irony: The Encyclopedia states that "The most significant change in meaning took place in 1797, when Schlegel observed in his Fragments: 'there are ancient and modern poems which breathe throughout, in their entirety and in every detail, the divine breath of [irony].'" It is seen as "a consistent alternation of affirmation and negation, of exuberant emergence from oneself and self-critical retreat into oneself, of enthusiasm and skepticism."
- Tragic irony: The Encyclopedia says this term: "was introduced by Connop Thirlwall in 1833, who based it on a distinction among three basic types of [irony]: verbal, dialectic, and practical."
- Cosmic irony: "[Irony] took on a new and more comprehensive dimension with Hegel, who strongly opposed romantic [irony] because of its "annihilating" tendency, seeing in it nothing but poetic caprice."
In The History of Philosophy, Hegel sensed in the "crowding of world historical affairs," in the trampling down of the "happiness of peoples, wisdom of states, and virtue of individuals," in short, in his comprehensive view of history, an ironic contrast between the absolute and the relative, the general and the individual, which he expressed by the phrase, "general [irony] of the world."
- Verbal irony: The Encyclopedia states that, in this:
one meaning is stated and a different, usually antithetical, meaning is intended. The [irony] of a statement often depends on context. If one looks out of his window at a rain storm and remarks to a friend, "Wonderful day, isn't it?" the contradiction between the facts and the implied description of them establishes the [irony].
- Dramatic irony:
a plot device according to which (a) the spectators know more than the protagonist; (b) the character reacts in a way contrary to that which is appropriate or wise; (c) characters or situations are compared or contrasted for ironic effects, such as parody; or (d) there is a marked contrast between what the character understands about his acts and what the play demonstrates about them.
- Poetic irony. The Encyclopedia says that: "during the modern period [especially], beginning with romanticism, [irony] has become inseparable from literary and poetic expression itself."
Lars Elleström would add:
- Situational irony: The disparity of intention and result; when the result of an action is contrary to the desired or expected effect.
According to A glossary of literary terms by Abrams and Hartman,
Verbal irony is a statement in which the meaning that a speaker employs is sharply different from the meaning that is ostensibly expressed. The ironic statement usually involves the explicit expression of one attitude or evaluation, but with indications in the overall speech-situation that the speaker intends a very different, and often opposite, attitude or evaluation.
Verbal irony is distinguished from situational irony and dramatic irony in that it is produced intentionally by speakers. For instance, if a man exclaims, "I'm not upset!" but reveals an upset emotional state through his voice while truly trying to claim he's not upset, it would not be verbal irony by virtue of its verbal manifestation (it would, however, be situational irony). But if the same speaker said the same words and intended to communicate that he was upset by claiming he was not, the utterance would be verbal irony. This distinction illustrates an important aspect of verbal irony - speakers communicate implied propositions that are intentionally contradictory to the propositions contained in the words themselves. There are, however, examples of verbal irony that do not rely on saying the opposite of what one means, and there are cases where all the traditional criteria of irony exist and the utterance is not ironic.
Ironic similes are a form of verbal irony where a speaker intends to communicate the opposite of what they mean. For instance, the following explicit similes begin with the deceptive formation of a statement that means A but that eventually conveys the meaning not A:
- as soft as concrete
- as clear as mud
- as pleasant as a root canal
- "as pleasant and relaxed as a coiled rattlesnake" (Kurt Vonnegut from Breakfast of Champions)
The irony is recognizable in each case only by using knowledge of the source concepts (e.g., that mud is opaque, that root canal surgery is painful) to detect an incongruity.
In The Unauthorized Autobiography of Lemony Snicket, this formulation is broken down by the construction of an ironic simile followed by a reversion of the meaning so the statement once again means A.
- "Today was a very cold and bitter day, as cold and bitter as a cup of hot chocolate, if the cup of hot chocolate had vinegar added to it and were placed in a refrigerator for several hours."
- "The day was as normal as a group of seals with wings riding around on unicycles, assuming that you lived someplace where that was very normal."
Verbal irony and sarcasm
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.
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.
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, when told by a lady that he was drunk, said "my dear, you are ugly ... but tomorrow I shall be sober", 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).
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.
- 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 other characters in the cast think Juliet is dead, but the audience knows she only took a sleeping potion.
- In Forrest Gump, the audience knows the historical significance of the characters and scenarios Forrest Gump finds himself in, but he often does not.
- In The Lion King, Simba goes throughout the film until near its end believing that he was responsible for his father, Mufasa's, death. However, the audience knows that it was actually Simba's uncle Scar who killed Mufasa.
Tragic irony is a special category of dramatic irony. In tragic irony, the words and actions of the characters contradict the real situation, which the spectators fully realize. The Oxford English Dictionary 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.
Ancient Greek drama was especially characterized by tragic irony because the audiences were so familiar with the legends that most of the plays dramatized. Sophocles' Oedipus the King provides a classic example of tragic irony at its fullest. Colebrook writes:
Tragic irony is exemplified in ancient drama ... The audience watched a drama unfold, already knowing its destined outcome. ... In Sophocles' Oedipus the King, for example, 'we' (the audience) can see what Oedipus is blind to. The man he murders is his father, but he does not know it.
Further, Oedipus vows to find the murderer and curses him for the plague that he has caused, not knowing that the murderer he has cursed and vowed to find is himself.
Irony has some of its foundation in the onlooker's perception of paradox that arises from insoluble problems. For example, in the William Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo finds Juliet in a drugged deathlike sleep, he assumes her to be dead and kills himself. Upon awakening to find her dead lover beside her, Juliet stabs herself with a dagger thus killing herself.
This is a relatively modern use of the term, and describes a discrepancy between the expected result and actual results in a certain situation.
Lars Elleström writes:
Situational irony, ... is most broadly defined as a situation where the outcome is incongruous with what was expected, but it is also more generally understood as a situation that includes contradictions or sharp contrasts,
- When John Hinckley attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan, all of his shots initially missed the President; however, a bullet ricocheted off the bullet-proof Presidential limousine and struck Reagan in the chest. Thus, a vehicle made to protect the President from gunfire instead directed gunfire to the president.
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a story whose plot revolves around situational irony[when defined as?]. Dorothy travels to a wizard and fulfills his challenging demands to go home, before discovering she had the ability to go back home all the time. The Scarecrow longs for intelligence, only to discover he is already a genius, and the Tin Woodsman longs to be capable of love, only to discover he already has a heart. The Lion, who at first appears to be a whimpering coward, turns out to be bold and fearless. The people in Emerald City believed the Wizard to be a powerful deity, only to discover that he is a bumbling, eccentric old man with no special powers at all.
Cosmic irony (Irony of fate)
The expression "irony of fate" stems from the notion that the gods (or the Fates) are amusing themselves by toying with the minds of mortals with deliberate ironic intent. Closely connected with situational irony, it arises from sharp contrasts between reality and human ideals, or between human intentions and actual results. The resulting situation is poignantly contrary to what was expected or intended.
The words ironic, irony, and ironically are sometimes used of events and circumstances that might better be described as simply "coincidental" or "improbable".
When history is seen through modern eyes, there often appear sharp contrasts between the way historical figures see their world's future and what actually transpires. For example, during the 1920s The New York Times repeatedly scorned crossword puzzles. In 1924, it lamented "the sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern." In 1925 it said "the question of whether the puzzles are beneficial or harmful is in no urgent need of an answer. The craze evidently is dying out fast." Today, no U.S. newspaper is more closely identified with the crossword than The New York Times.
In a more tragic example of historical irony, what people now refer to as "The First World War" was called by H.G. Wells "The war that will end war", which soon became "The war to end war" and "The War to End All Wars", and this became a widespread truism, almost a cliche. Historical irony is therefore a subset of cosmic irony, but one in which the element of time is bound to play a role. Another example could be that of the Vietnam war, where in the 1960s the U.S.A. attempted to stop the Viet Cong (Viet Minh) taking over South Vietnam. However it is an often ignored fact that, in 1941, the U.S. originally supported the Viet Minh in its fight against Japanese occupation.
Historical irony also includes inventors killed by their own creations, such as William Bullock — unless, due to the nature of the invention, the risk of death was always known and accepted, as in the case of Otto Lilienthal, who was killed by flying a glider of his own devising.
In certain kinds of situational or historical irony, a factual truth is highlighted by some person's complete ignorance of it or his belief in the opposite of it. However, this state of affairs does not occur by human design. In some religious contexts, such situations have been seen as the deliberate work of Divine Providence to emphasize truths and to taunt humans for not being aware of them when they could easily have been enlightened (this is similar to human use of irony). Such ironies are often more evident, or more striking, when viewed retrospectively in the light of later developments which make the truth of past situations obvious to all.
Some examples of situations poignantly contrary to expectation:
- In O. Henry's story "The Gift of the Magi", a young couple are too poor to buy each other Christmas gifts. The wife cuts off her treasured hair to sell it to a wig-maker for money to buy her husband a chain for his heirloom pocket watch. She's shocked when she learns he had pawned his watch to buy her a set of combs for her long, beautiful, prized hair.
- In the ancient Indian story of Krishna, King Kamsa is told in a prophecy that a child of his sister Devaki would kill him. To prevent this, he imprisons both Devaki and her husband Vasudeva, allowing them to live only if they hand over their children as soon as they are born. He murders nearly all of them, one by one, but the seventh and eighth children, Balarama and Krishna, are saved and raised by a royal couple, Nanda and Yashoda. After the boys grow up, Krishna eventually kills Kamsa as the prophecy foretold. Kamsa's attempt to prevent the prophecy led to it becoming a reality. Self-fulfilling prophecies are common motifs in Greek mythology as well. This story is similar to the story of Cronus preventing his wife from raising any children, the one who ends up defeating him being Zeus, the later King of the Gods. Other similar tales in Greek Mythology include Perseus (who killed his grandfather, Acrisius by accident with a discus despite Acrisius' attempt to avert his fate) and more famously Oedipus who killed his father and married his mother not knowing their relationship due to being left to die by his father to prevent that very prophecy from occurring.
- In The Twilight Zone, the device of the Zone itself often fills the role of the gods or fates. In the episode Time Enough At Last, a bookish, bespectacled little man who loves nothing more than reading finds himself the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust. Wandering despairingly through the wreckage of civilization, he eventually stumbles upon the ruins of the public library, where somehow numerous tomes have survived the bomb. Enraptured, he realizes he now will finally have time to do all the reading he's always wanted to do. After organizing all the volumes, he sits down to begin his glorious reading. Noticing one book amiss, he reaches for it... only to have his thick glasses fall and break, leaving him too blurry-visioned to read anything.
- In the Dred Scott v. Sandford ruling in 1856, the United States Supreme Court held that the Fifth Amendment barred any law that would deprive a slaveholder of his property, such as his slaves, upon the incidence of migration into free territory. So, in a sense, the Supreme Court used the Bill of Rights to deny rights to slaves. Also, chief justice Taney hoped that the decision would resolve the slavery issue, but instead it helped cause the American Civil War.
- In the Kalgoorlie (Australia) gold rush of the 1890s, large amounts of the little-known mineral calaverite (gold telluride) were ironically identified as fool's gold. These mineral deposits were used as a cheap building material, and for the filling of potholes and ruts. When several years later the mineral was identified, there was a minor gold rush to excavate the streets.
- John F. Kennedy's last conversation was ironic in light of events which followed seconds later. During the motorcade in Dallas, in response to Mrs. Connolly's comment, "Mr. President, you can't say that Dallas doesn't love you," Kennedy replied, "That's very obvious." Immediately after, he was mortally wounded.
- In 1974, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission had to recall 80,000 of its own lapel buttons promoting "toy safety", because the buttons had sharp edges, used lead paint, and had small clips that could be broken off and subsequently swallowed.
- Introducing cane toads to Australia to control the cane beetle not only failed to control the pest, but introduced, in the toads themselves, a very much worse pest. This irony is exemplified by the song There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, in which the lady swallows a fly, and then swallows a spider to catch the fly, and so on with larger and larger animals, until she dies.
- Kudzu - a vine imported to the United States in the 1930s and planted all over the South at the direction of the US Government to prevent soil erosion. Instead of preventing erosion, it climbs and chokes native trees and plants, thus causing even more erosion.
Irony in use
Irony is often used in literature to produce a comic effect. This may also be combined with satire. For instance, an author may facetiously state something as a well-known fact and then demonstrate through the narrative that the fact is untrue.
Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice begins with the proposition "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." In fact, it soon becomes clear that Austen means the opposite: women (or their mothers) are always in search of, and desperately on the lookout for, a rich single man to make a husband. The irony deepens as the story promotes this romance and ends in a double marriage proposal.
Metafiction, also known as Romantic Irony in the context of Romantic works of literature, is a type of fiction that self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, exposing the fictional illusion. It usually involves irony and is self-reflective. Metafiction (or "romantic irony" in the sense of roman the prose fiction) refers to the effect when a story is interrupted to remind the audience or reader that it is really only a story. Examples include Henry Fielding's interruptions of the storyline to comment on what has happened, or J.M. Barrie's similar interjections in his book, Peter Pan. The concept is also explored in a philosophical context in Sophie's World, by Jostein Gaarder. A notable children's book that uses this is the series "Captain Underpants" by Dav Pilkey. The characters continue to allude to the fact that "This sort of thing only happens in poorly-written children's books!".
Notable attempts to sustain metafiction throughout a whole novel are Christie Malry's Own Double Entry by B.S. Johnson, in which none of the characters are real and exist only within the author's imagination, and In The Night Room by Peter Straub, in which the narrator is an author, whose fictional character comes to life and accompanies him through the book.
This is "The dissimulation of ignorance practised by Socrates as a means of confuting an adversary". Socrates would pretend to be ignorant of the topic under discussion, to draw out the inherent nonsense in the arguments of his interlocutors. The Chambers Dictionary defines it as "a means by which a questioner pretends to know less than a respondent, when actually he knows more".
Zoe Williams of The Guardian wrote: "The technique [of Socratic irony], demonstrated in the Platonic dialogues, was to pretend ignorance and, more sneakily, to feign credence in your opponent's power of thought, in order to tie him in knots."
A more modern example of Socratic irony can be seen on the American crime fiction television film series, Columbo. The character Lt. Columbo is seemingly naïve and incompetent. His untidy appearance adds to this fumbling illusion. As a result, he is underestimated by the suspects in murder cases he is investigating. With their guard down and their false sense of confidence, Lt. Columbo is able to solve the cases leaving the murderers feeling duped and outwitted.
Irony as infinite, absolute negativity
Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, and others, see irony, such as that used by Socrates, as a disruptive force with the power to undo texts and readers alike. The phrase itself is taken from Hegel's Lectures on Aesthetics, and is applied by Kierkegaard to the irony of Socrates. This tradition includes 19th century German critic and novelist Friedrich Schlegel ("On Incomprehensibility"), Charles Baudelaire, Stendhal, and the 20th century deconstructionist Paul de Man ("The Concept of Irony"). In Kierkegaard's words, from On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates:
[Socratic] irony [is] the infinite absolute negativity. It is negativity, because it only negates; it is infinite, because it does not negate this or that phenomenon; it is absolute, because that by virtue of which it negates is a higher something that still is not. The irony established nothing, because that which is to be established lies behind it...
Where much of philosophy attempts to reconcile opposites into a larger positive project, Kierkegaard and others insist that irony—whether expressed in complex games of authorship or simple litotes—must, in Kierkegaard's words, "swallow its own stomach". Irony entails endless reflection and violent reversals, and ensures incomprehensibility at the moment it compels speech. Similarly, among other literary critics, writer David Foster Wallace viewed the pervasiveness of ironic and other postmodern tropes as the cause of "great despair and stasis in U.S. culture, and that for aspiring fictionists [ironies] pose terrifically vexing problems."
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- "The final irony"—a Guardian article about irony, use and misuse of the term
- Article on the etymology of Irony
- "Irony", by Norman D. Knox, in Dictionary of the History of Ideas (1973)
- "Sardonicus"—a web-resource that provides access to similes, ironic and otherwise, harvested from the web.
- Excerpt on dramatic irony from Yves Lavandier's Writing Drama Writing Drama has a 52-page chapter on dramatic irony (with insights on the three phases (installation-exploitation-resolution), surprise, mystery, suspense, diffuse dramatic irony, etc.)
- "American Irony" compared with British irony, quoting Stephen Fry
- American and British irony compared by Simon Pegg
- Modern example of ironic writing
- Irony definition by Baldrick (BlackAdder)