Critical Concepts

Verbal Irony


Verbal irony is a figure of speech.  The speaker intends to be understood as meaning something that contrasts with the literal or usual meaning of what he says.  The different sorts of discrepancy between the meaning of what is said and what is in fact on the particular occasion meant with it give rise to different kinds of verbal irony:

In sarcasm, the two stand in opposition. 

Example:  Mother comes into the TV room and discovers her 11-year-old watching South Park instead of doing his homework, as he was set to a dozen minutes ago.  Pointing to the screen she says, "Don't let me tempt you from your duties, kiddo, but when you're finished with your serious studies there, maybe we could take some time out for recreation and do a little math."

Example:  Dad is finally out of patience with picking up after his son, who can't seem to be trained to put his dirty clothes in the hamper instead of letting them drop wherever he happens to be when he takes them off.  "Would Milord please let me know when it pleases him to have his humble servant pick up after him?"

The term comes directly into English from the Greek sarkasmos, which in turn derives from the ugly verb sarkazsein, "to tear the flesh" (used of dogs).  (You may have seen the root sark-, "flesh," in sarcophagos, a coffin ["flesh-eater" -- delightful idea!]).  It's difficult to know whether this originated in the metaphorical idea that someone who uses sarcasm is "cutting up" the person or thing that's the target of his remark, or whether it refers to the more nearly literal idea of his being so angry that he's gnashing his teeth so passionately that he ends up biting his own lips!  Either way, the idea that he is in a savage mood.  But note that the term sarcasm in the technical rhetorical sense we've constructed (meaning the opposite of what you say) does not necessarily carry the implication that the speaker is being critical or feels hostility, as in the original Greek sense of the term, which carries over into our contemporary everday sense of the word.  Bitter or hostile sarcasmis only a special case of "sarcasm" as we are defining the term here, which is broad enough to cover cases in which the speaker is paying a compliment or being gentle.

Example:  "My, you've certainly made a mess of things!" could be said in congratulations to someone who's just graduated summa cum laude, or to a hostess who presents a spectacular dish prepared with obvious care and skill.

Examples:  Chances are you actually read the first two above (the parental remonstrances) as not altogether nasty.  They could be delivered this way, but there's quite a range of tones in which they might be couched.  Many are the modes of nagging!  Try delivering each remark as furiously hot ("savagely flaying," "flesh-tearing"); then as resigned grumbling; then as exasperated, out-of-patience; then as wheedling and whining; then as earnest pleading; finally as gently ribbing.  The latter actually amounts to an ironic use of verbal irony:  I pretend to be mean (by pretending to be respectful), but I'm really not.  All this reminds us that detecting irony is only a first step (though essential) in registering what's going on.  When reading, we've got to be attending to every available clue to voice.

In overstatement, the meaning that ordinarily attaches to what is said is an exaggeration of what the speaker uses it to mean. 

Example:  Someone tells us of an occasion on which he told an off-color joke about a grandmother and then realized to his surprise that his own grandmother, a prim and proper lady, happened to be standing right behind him.  "I literally died," he says.

Well, if he literally died, we should be pretty spooked, because we're face to face with a corpse!  The word "literally" here is itself being used figuratively, to mean something like "really" -- itself in the diminished sense of "not really but almost," or "intensely".  And the phrase as a whole means something like "I almost fainted."  Fainting is (often) a symptom of shock (which in some forms can kill), and is like death in involving loss of consciousness.  Fainting falls considerably short of death, but the truth here is that the teller didn't even actually faint, either, but almost fainted -- felt as if he were going to faint.  He didn't lose consciousness altogether, but experienced some disorientation and dizziness that was something on the verge of what one might feel just before fainting.

Note that this example of overstatement also incorporates metaphor and simile.  It is the comparisons of wincing to fainting and of fainting to death that constitute the continuum along which the terminological displacement through exaggeration takes place.

Overstatement is still referred so sometimes today by the name given it by the ancient Greek students of rhetoric:  hyperbole ("hy-PER-bo-lee"), from hyperballein (to exceed, hit beyond the mark, from hyper over + ballein to throw, cast).  The adjective form is "hyperbolic." 

Examples: 

In understatement,

Example:  We visit our friend in the hospital.  We know from his wife that the prognosis is bad, and also that our friend has been informed of his condition.  When we enter, we ask him how he's feeling.  "Well," he says, "I have been better."

Litotes ("lie-TOW-teez," from Greek litos, simple, plain) is a special form of understatement in which we affirm something by negating its contrary.

Examples: 


Verbal irony is not the same as dramatic irony.  To see why, let's contrast it with one of the starkest kinds of verbal irony:  sarcasm.

In sarcasm, the meaning of what I say and what I mean with it stand in opposition.  "Terrible weather!" my colleague exclaims as we pass between buildings on a beautiful spring day.

Of course the situation is important as a cue to what she means.  As with metaphor ("") and metonymy ("All hands on deck!"), there is a discrepancy at work that tells us that what is said can't be taken literally. With metaphor and metonymy the discrepancy is ordinarily internal to the discourse -- there is a logical-grammatical disjunction in the phrasing that makes nonsense of the whole if we take the parts in their usual sense.  But with the various forms of verbal irony the tip-off is not a category violation but some inconsistency between the overall sense of what is said and the properties of the situation it is understood to refer to.  This is probably why it may at first be hard to see exactly what the difference is between verbal irony and dramatic irony:  in both there is a contradiction between what the speaker says and the situation we (as the audience) see what is spoken to be uttered in.  But there is a difference, and a crucial one. 

Let's recall the scenario we began with.  It's a sparkling day, the forsythia is in full bloom, the redbuds are starting to show pale purple, and even a few hyacinths are still out.  The breeze is crisp but not too cool.  My colleague is beaming, obviously in good cheer.  She sees me approaching, draws her brows into a frown, and says with a grin, "Terrible weather!"  Now suppose it just so happens that, unbeknownst to her, I'm afflicted with an allergy triggered by a pollen released by some shrub in this season.  I've been up all night wheezing and sneezing, and I'm jittery as the dickens with the antihistamines I've been dosing myself with in a vain attempt to get relief.  I know what she means:  it's great to be outdoors in these wonderful days.  I'm in a rush to class, though, so I grin and say, "I couldn't agree more!" but without pausing to bewail my troubles.

Here we have, in separate instances, verbal irony (her pronouncing the weather vile as a way of celebrating how wonderful it is) and dramatic irony (for me, but not for her, the weather is vile, but she doesn't know that).  We can now bring the difference into focus:

In the example above, this audience was the person spoken to, but in a story or play it could be the reader or theater audience, even if all of the characters are in the dark about what the full extent of the relevant situation happens to be.


And what about my reply ("I couldn't agree more!")?  Actually I don't agree at all -- I'm just saying this, to be polite, and to get on my way.  Perhaps I'll let my friend in on the irony later on, but not now, since I'm almost late for class.  Is this an instance of of "verbal irony"?  It's certainly verbal, and I understand what I say ironically, but it's not something that falls under the concept of verbal irony as that term is conventionally used (Note).  Rather it's an instance of a species of hypocrisy that we call "conscious hypocrisy."

Note that if we are going to talk this way we are using the term "hypocrisy" in a broader sense than it typically is in today's everyday discourse.  There, to call something "hypocritical" is generally to subject it to fairly severe moral censure, whereas the deception here is unlikely to strike us as anything invidious.  It's simply not to the point, in the circumstances of the transaction (my friend's elated greeting) to call a halt to our other business and instruct her in her error.  The deception was out of consideration to our mutual convenience.  Later on, if occasion arises, I can cut her in on the dramatic irony she was involved in, which will probably be as humorous to her as it was to me.  For now, my pretense of agreement is in the spirit of "Let it pass" -- a silent pardon of a humorous faux pas.  So when we call this "hypocrisy," we are constructing a more general sense of the term than the one we may be used to in everyday discourse.

We can certainly imagine situations in which morally censurable forms of hypocrisy are at work.  They will exhibit the same general form, distinct from that of verbal irony:  the speaker knows something about the situation that he obscures from the hearer by putting forth an utterance with a meaning that he doesn't sincerely mean.  Whether a speech act of this form (we could call it "hypocrisy in the rhetorical sense") counts as hypocrisy in the morally censurable sense (what the term typically means in everyday discourse) depends on our assessment of the motives of the speaker under the circumstances.

To drive home the idea that verbal irony is not the same thing as hypocrisy, consider these situations.


Notes

It's certainly verbal, and I understand what I say ironically, but it's not something that falls under the concept of verbal irony as that term is conventionally used.  The phrases a community adopts to indicate the notions it finds use for do not always turn out to be suitable for all the situations reality contrives to confront us with.  Here we find ourselves involved in still a different kind of irony, for which the conventional term is situational ironyWe would expect that the phrase "verbal irony" would cover such situations, but it turns out that it doesn't.  This kind of thwarting of expectation by outcome is a common plot element in literature (as in real life).  <Return.>


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  This page last updated 30 November 2000.