Origins Of Irony

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.
Oedipus-Rex-SophoclesSophocles’ Oedipus the King contains perhaps more tragic irony than any other Greek tragedy. For example, in the First Episode, after Oedipus refers to his personal motives, as distinguished from his “official” ones, for tracking down the killer of Laius, he says: “Such ties swear me to his (Laius’) side as if he were my father” (Roche, p. 223). Of course Laius is in fact his father, as the audience knows. What is “as if” to Oedipus is reality to the audience.

Oedipus the King contains so many examples of tragic irony for the obvious reason that the protagonist does not know his true identity until late in the play and therefore does not know that he himself is the one whom he is looking for. His authority and security are illusory and soon to crumble. A split opens up, in the audience’s perspective, between reality, on the one hand, and Oedipus’ statements and actions, on the other. This protracted illusion is a larger irony that can be called “dramatic irony.”


The phenomenon of unintentional irony, as in “as if he were my father,” is in Greek tragedy the product of a situation of which the protagonist is both unaware and also innocent, in the sense that he or she is not (at least not entirely) responsible for it. Tragic irony therefore leads back to dramatic irony, which leads back to the causes, usually complex, that create the situations of tragedy.

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: A self-aware and self-critical form of fiction.
  • Cosmic irony: A contrast between the absolute and the relative, the general and the individual, which Hegel expressed by the phrase, “general [irony] of the world.”
  • Verbal irony: A contradiction between a statement’s stated and intended meaning
  • Situational irony: The disparity of intention and result; when the result of an action is contrary to the desired or expected effect.
  • Dramatic irony and tragic irony: A disparity of awareness between actor and observer: when words and actions possess significance that the listener or audience understands, but the speaker or character does not; for example when a character says to another “I’ll see you tomorrow!” when the audience (but not the character) knows that the character will die before morning. It is most often used when the author causes a character to speak or act erroneously, out of ignorance of some portion of the truth of which the audience is aware. In tragic irony, the audience knows the character is making a mistake, even as the character is making it.

Book reference: Sophocles, Grene D., 2010. Oedipus the King. University Of Chicago Press

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