Using the word ‘irony’

I use the word ‘irony’ on occasion. It is a problematic word in that it is often used in a wide variety of ways, some of which do not match its definition in the Oxford English Dictionary that describes it as “cruelly, humorously, or strangely at odds with assumptions or expectations.” Roger Kreuz reports on the work of psychologist Joan Lucariello who classified 28 different usages of the word and grouped them under seven general headings.

Imbalances: inconsistencies or opposition in behavior or in a situation.
Example: an impoverished banker.

Losses: self-inflicted or externally imposed negative outcomes.
Example: the coworker who mocks a colleague for being clumsy, but then trips and falls.

Wins: unanticipated positive outcomes.
Example: a person who inadvertently wins a contest.

Double outcomes: someone experiences two related losses, or a win and a loss.
Example: a famous marathon runner who dies while jogging.

Dramatic: an observer is aware of what a victim does not yet know.
Example: an examiner who fails a student and then overhears the student expressing confidence about passing.

Catch-22: unavoidable loss despite taking all possible measures.
Example: a well-prepared student who is unable to remember material during an exam, and the harder she tries, the worse she performs.

Coincidence: co-occurring actions or events that have no causal basis.
Example: a person who thinks about a childhood friend she hasn’t seen in years, then runs into her the next day.

Of course, as with any issues concerning the use of language, getting universal acceptance is impossible. Not everyone will agree as to whether all these categories constitute irony and to what extent. Going by the examples given, I for one would not use the word in the senses of ‘wins’ and ‘coincidence’ and am doubtful about ‘dramatic’.


  1. cartomancer says

    Dramatic irony is a specific and well-defined piece of literary terminology. It refers to a situation where a reader or audience is aware of something that a character in the work is not, which puts the actions of the character in a very different light to what the character thinks is going on.

    Indeed, this literary usage seems to be the original one from which the term “irony” arose (Ancient Greek εἰρωνεία -- lit. the activity of deceivers or to do with deceptive appearances). Ancient Greek drama often used plots drawn from well-known myths, which the audience would know in detail, so playwrights frequently took advantage of this knowledge to create situations in which tension or comedy arose from the audience’s awareness of what was going to happen and the characters’ ignorance of it. Perhaps the best example is from Sophocles’ Oedipus tyrannos, where the main character constantly refers to himself as clear-sighted and keen to uncover the pollution visited on his adopted city of Thebes when the audience knows full well that he will eventually end up blinding himself after realising that he is the polluted one all along.

    The main thing most people get wrong when trying to define irony is to assume it must involve a statement saying the opposite of what is intended. This is not true -- it simply has to say something other than what is intended. It is a very broad term.

  2. machintelligence says

    I would think that cases of Dunning -- Kruger syndrome should be viewed as ironic. The more ignorant someone is, the more sure they are of their opinions. Possibly covered in Imbalances.

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