26 Irony

Irony
S Attardo, Youngstown State University, Youngstown, OH, USA
ß 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

The term ‘irony’ is commonly used to describe both a linguistic phenomenon (verbal irony) and other phenomena including ‘situational’ irony (i.e., irony of facts and things dissociated from their linguistic expression; Shelley, 2001) such as a fire-station burning to the ground, various more-or-less philosophical ideas (Socratic irony, Romantic irony, Postmodern irony), and even a type of religious experience (Kierkegaard, 1966). While there may be connections between situational and verbal irony, it does not appear that literary and religious uses can be fruitfully explained in terms of linguistic irony. This treatment will be limited to verbal irony. Other definitional problems include the purported distinction between irony and sarcasm. While some have argued that the two can be distinguished (for example, irony can be involuntary, while sarcasm cannot be so), others maintain that no clear boundary exists. A further problem is presented by the fact that in some varieties of English, the term irony is undergoing semantic change and is assuming the meaning of an unpleasant surprise, while the semantic space previously occupied by irony is taken up by the term sarcasm. The word irony goes back to the Greek eironeia (pretense, dissimulation) as does the history of its definition and analysis. Irony is seen as a trope (i.e., a figure of speech) in ancient rhetorics and this analysis has remained essentially unchallenged until recently. In the traditional definition irony is seen as saying something to mean the opposite of what is said. This definition is demonstrably incorrect, as a speaker may be ironical but not mean the opposite of what he/she says; cf. It seems to be a little windy (uttered in the middle of a violent storm), in which the speaker is saying less than what is meant. Similarly, overstatements and hyperbole may be ironical (Kreuz and Roberts, 1995). A recent and fruitful restatement of the irony-astrope theory has been presented by Paul Grice who sees irony as an implicature, i.e., as a deliberate flouting of one of the maxims of the principle of cooperation. Relatedly, speech-act approaches to irony see it as an insincere speech act. Initially, Grice’s approach saw irony as a violation of the maxim of quality (i.e., the statement of an untruth) but this claim has been refuted, as seen above. Broadening the definition to, for example, ‘saying something while meaning

something else,’ runs the risk of obliterating the difference between irony and other forms of figurative or indirect speech. However, this loss of distinction may be a positive aspect of the definition, as has been recently argued (Kreuz, 2000, Attardo, 2002). While the idea of ‘oppositeness’ in irony is problematic, approaches to irony as negation have been presented (Giora, 1995), who sees irony as ‘indirect’ (i.e., inexplicit; cf. Utsumi, 2000) negation; related ideas are that of contrast (Colston, 2002) and inappropriateness (Attardo, 2000). A very influential approach to irony is the mention theory (Sperber and Wilson, 1981), which claims that an utterance is ironical if it is recognized as the echoic mention of another utterance by a more or less clearly identified other speaker. Furthermore, the ironical statement must be critical of the echoed utterance (cf. Grice, 1989: 53–54). Similar theories based on the ideas of ‘pretense’ and ‘reminder’ have been presented as well. Criticism of the mention theory notes that not all irony seems to be interpretable as the echo of someone’s words, or that if the definition of mention is allowed to encompass any possible mention it becomes vacuous (since any sentence is potentially the mention of another sentence). Furthermore, there exists an admittedly rarer, non-negative, praising irony, called asteism (Fontanier, 1968: 150). An example of asteism might be a colleague describing Chomsky’s Aspects of the theory of syntax as a ‘moderately influential’ book in linguistics. Other approaches to irony include the ‘tinge’ theory, which sees irony as blending the two meanings (the stated and the implied ones) with the effect of attenuating the ironical one (Colston, 1997). All the theories of irony mentioned so far share the idea that the processing of irony is a two-step process in which one sense (usually assumed to be the literal meaning) of the utterance is accessed and then a second sense of the utterance is discovered (usually under contextual pressure). Thus, for example, in a Gricean account of irony as implicature, the hearer of an utterance such as That was smart (uttered as a description of clumsy behavior, such as spilling one’s wine upon someone’s clothing) will first process the utterance as meaning literally roughly ‘This behavior was consonant with how smart people behave’ and then will discard this interpretation in favor of the implicature that the speaker means that the behavior was not consonant with how smart people behave. This account has been challenged recently by ‘direct access’ theories. The direct access theories claim that the hearer does not process the literal meaning of an ironical

1999. Attardo S (2000). Originally published as two volumes in 1821 and 1827.). aggression.’ In Anolli. 2002. ‘On irony and negation. the social and situational context of irony as well as its pragmatic ends have begun being investigated in sociolinguistics and discourse/conversation analysis as well as in psycholinguistics. ‘Irony as relevant inappropriateness. 523–553. 239–264. ‘Obligatory processing of literal and non-literal meanings in verbal irony. 793–826. such as indirectness. Gibbs R W (1994). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.. Gibbs R W & Colston H L (2002). Anolli L. 1998).. evaluation...g.’ Journal of Pragmatics 34(2). Fontanier P (1968). verbal play. 1999) have presented contrasting views which support the two-step approach. Work on the social functions of irony has found a broad range of functions. this can be summed up as the ‘theory of mind’ that the speakers have.e. it is worth noting that dialogic approaches to language (e. alienation. morphological (e.. 2000).) (2002). Booth W (1974). emphasizing the role of the right hemisphere alongside the left one (in which most language processing takes place). and many others (e. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press. Ducrot O (1984). A rhetoric of irony. 25–45. 2002. Negation. It is likely that this list may be open-ended. ‘Humor and irony in interaction: from mode adoption to failure of detection. .g. Ciceri & Riva (eds. progressively lowering the age at which children understand irony to under ten years old.’ Journal of Pragmatics 32(6). Talk is cheap: sarcasm. and on the order of activation of the various meanings in the ironical text. Curco C (2000). Dews and Winner. Recently. 2003) seems to indicate that it too can be interpreted as a two-step process. Some results in psycholinguistics have been seen as supporting this view (Gibbs. Bibliography Anolli L.’ In Anolli. punctuation). 110. quotatives). Curco. 1984) see irony as a prime example of the co-presence of different ‘voices’ in the text (see Literary Pragmatics). Ciceri & Riva (eds. Haiman J (1998). On our mind.’ Discourse Processes 19.Irony 27 utterance first and only later accesses the figurative (ironical) meaning. Anolli et al. Le dire et le dit. Finally. 257–280. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press. 1997. Rather. Attardo S (2002). 1994). Dews S & Winner E (1999). Paris: Editions de Minuit. Colston H L (1997). winking). on the neurobiology of the processing of irony (McDonald. ‘The risks and rewards of ironic communication.. in ways that avoid the technical problems highlighted in the mention theories. and contextual clues (Haiman. Psycholinguistic studies of irony have focused on children’s acquisition of irony (Winner. Giora R (1995). including in. Giora R (2003). Speech Acts. despite their obvious connections. and the evolution of language. Oxford: Oxford University Press. and understanding. The relationship between irony and humor remains underexplored. Clift. language.).g. Paris: Flammarion. graphic (e. In particular. although some studies are beginning to address the interplay of irony and other forms of implicature. they claim that the literal meaning is either not accessed at all or only later. 2003).g.and out-group definition. 181–194.g.g. Maurizio T & Zettin M (1997). kinesic (e. Amsterdam: IOS Press.’ Lingua. ‘Irony: negation.. 1988). Ciceri R & Riva G (eds.. and metaphoricity. Infantino M G & Ciceri R (2002).’ Brain and Language 59.’ Journal of Pragmatics 31(12). 111–142. Clift R (1999). 1579–1599. ‘Salting a wound or sugaring a pill: the pragmatic function of ironic criticism’ Discourse Processes 23. i. but recent work (Yus. ‘Irony in conversation. Kotthoff. ‘Neuropragmatics: neuropsychological constraints on formal theories of dialogue. Les figures du discours. although not always the claim that the literal meaning is processed first: claims that interpretations are accessed in order of saliency (Giora. 135–157.’ Language in Society 28. ‘‘‘You’re a real genius!’’: irony as a miscommunication design. Pragmatics: Overview. 2000). ‘Contrast and assimilation in verbal irony. Relevance Theory. Other researchers (e. politeness. While several phonological and other features have been considered ‘markers’ of irony. it appears that none of these features is exclusively a marker of irony. intonation). echo and metarepresen´ tation.’ In Anolli. primarily intonational and kinesic indications of the speaker’s ironical intent. Gibbs and Colston. The poetics of mind: figurative thought. Reviews of markers include phonological (e.g. A significant issue is the degree and nature of the assumptions that the hearer and speaker must share for irony to be understood. Ducrot. Ciceri & Riva (eds. Direct access interpretations of irony are squarely at odds with the traditional interpretation of irony as an implicature. italics. Say not to Say: New Perspectives on miscommunication. 7–49. Colston H L (2002). irony involves metarepresentations (Bara et al. See also: Figures of Speech... The mention theory of irony was commonly interpreted as a direct access theory. Implicature. Bara B. 2003) or in parallel have been put forth. ´ Considerable attention has been paid to the optional markers of irony.).

they point to the complexity of the phenomenon rather than enlighten the reader. ‘Humor and the search for relevance. Winner E (1988). Kierkegaard S (1966). The second is a rhetorical device. Some linguists argue that examples like the one above constitute an instance of criticism coupled with a complaint.’ Journal of Pragmatics 32(10). Although dictionaries offer definitions and exemplifications. ‘The bicoherence theory of situational irony. ‘On the uses of sarcastic irony. The word eironeia to describe the Greek philosopher Socrates’s treatment of his conversational opponents is first recorded in Plato’s Republic. Kreuz R J & Roberts R M (1995). 1995).) Radical Pragmatics. consider Myers’s (1981: 411) example ‘‘I always wanted to spend the summer in Detroit. ‘The Uses and Processing of Irony and Sarcasm. New York/London: Academic Press. Here we have an example of negation at the propositional level. such as ‘‘that’s a likely story!’’ (Barbe. 1295–1331. where the intended meaning is fairly clear. 775–818.’ Metaphor and Symbolic Activity 10(1). a distinction is often made between situational irony and verbal irony. 295–318. Shelley C (2001). When considering verbal irony. ‘The point of words: children’s understanding of metaphor and irony’. 1985) where he discussed oppositeness in terms of local antonymy. 21–31. One often-debated issue is that of intentionality and sincerity of the . as in ‘‘What a lovely day!’’ uttered on a day when the weather is anything but pleasant. two opposite meanings arising from a particular discourse.’ Metaphor and Symbol 15(1/2). Oppositeness is at the heart of Raskin’s semantic theory of humor (STH) (Raskin. An oppositional model of verbal irony holds that the speaker says the opposite of what he or she means. Yus F (2003). a number of assumptions need clarification. In this account. 1970) and that it takes many forms. UK ß 2006 Elsevier Ltd.).’ Special issue of Metaphor and Symbol 15(1/2).28 Irony Katz A N (ed. We have an ironist who produces a linguistic message whose meaning is other than the literal meaning.’ Journal of Pragmatics 35(9). This is also called traditional irony in most writings and is often attributed to Aristotle (Barbe. In the first we have an observer who notices a state of affairs or event which is in some way incongruous.’ Journal of Pragmatics 35(9). Irony: Stylistic Approaches J Boutonnet.g. 1467–1488.) (2000). Cambridge.. ‘Neuropsychological studies of sarcasm. 1995: 18–22). an opposition between the surface and the underlying meaning. irony is unveiled by a process of substitution of lexical items or propositions. Common irony refers to expressions which have become stock phrases in a language. London: Collins. meaning may be retrieved by word substitution (e. ‘Verbal irony as implicit display of ironic environment: distinguishing ironic utterances from nonirony. The word has both positive and negative connotations today. McDonald S (2000). Conveniently. There is a discrepancy between the words and what the speaker means by these words. The concept of irony. Toplak M & Katz A N (2000). ‘Two cues for verbal irony: hyperbole and the ironic tone of voice. All rights reserved. At the propositional level.’ In Cole P (ed. even prior to the Greek word from which the English word derives.’’ uttered by a speaker who does not want to spend the summer in Detroit. in many cases understood to be the opposite of the literal meaning conveyed. In the case of stable irony (Booth. University of Wolverhampton. Clearly the phenomenon existed before it was named. Kotthoff H (2003). Most books or articles on the topic start with a warning that the concept of irony is elusive (Muecke. Wolverhampton. ‘lovely’ for ‘awful’). Sperber D & Wilson D (1981). 1387–1411. 1974). 1777–1806. Myers (1981: 410) said that ‘‘in irony we inherit both a device and a concept. MA: Harvard University Press. with constant reference to Socrates. Capel L M (trans. an example of lexicalantonymy. 85–98.’ Journal of Pragmatics 32(12). ‘Irony and the use mention distinction.’ Cognitive Science 25. ‘Responding to irony in different contexts: on cognition in conversation. 2000). The word does not appear in the English language until the 16th century and is only commonly used by speakers from the early 18th century onwards.’’ Nash (1985) alerted us to the lack of consistency in usage even among literary critics. Utsumi A (2000). Socratic irony today refers to a discourse strategy whereby the speaker pretends he or she is learning from an interlocutor whilst trying all the while to uncover the flaws in that person’s argument (Nilsen and Nilsen. a mark of its complex history and range of functions in discourse. also known as nonce irony.

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