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Literary definition of verbal irony

Literary definition of verbal irony
Literary definition of verbal irony 

Verbal Irony Definition

Stop sign ironically damaged with a call not to slander stop signs Irony, in its broadest sense, is a rhetorical device, a literary que or event in which what on the surface appears to be this or that is radically different from what actually happens. Read on to know literary definition of verbal irony.

What is verbal irony definition in literature?

Irony is one of the types of tropes. Irony is an artistic technique for creating figurative and expressive speech based on the identification of objects by contrast, and not by similarity of features, as in metaphor, or by contiguity, as in metonymy. The Greek word eironeia literally means “pretense.” How is irony created in language and artistic speech? This trope is much less common than metaphor or metonymy. The speaker or the artist of the word, with the help of irony, ridicules some phenomenon or event, while calling it not with the word it deserves, but quite the opposite, a fool is called smart, something small and not worthy of attention will be called big.

Irony, as a trope, is often used in fiction in the form of words and phrases with a positive meaning for a negative characterization of a person, to create a satirical image. It can be argued that irony is a disguised condemnation under the guise of praise. It is most often revealed in the context and is characterized by a bright emotional coloring.

Types of verbal irony

Let’s return to the idea that verbal irony does not have a stable language form and is not “tied” to a specific language level. This circumstance encourages researchers to carry out further classification, highlighting varieties within the actual verbal ways of expressing irony. Attempts to classify the various manifestations of irony have been made since antiquity. The twentieth century offered the largest number of taxonomies of irony, but, despite the variety, none of them can be considered the final solution to the problem – irony still “resists” attempts at classification in every possible way. Note that the imposition of a taxonomic grid on the phenomena of the surrounding world always leads to various kinds of restrictions and the identification of exceptions.

This is exactly the case with irony: attempts to classify all the diversity of its manifestations in discourse not only did not lead to the emergence of a single generally recognized taxonomy, but also forced researchers to focus on differences in the linguistic design of irony.

Difference between verbal irony and sarcasm

Humor is different. If a joke denounces someone, points out the shortcomings of a phenomenon or person, then a friendly conversation can turn into an undesirable conflict. Therefore, it is important to take into account the mood of the interlocutor and communicative circumstances, in which developed emotional intelligence helps. You already know the definition of verbal irony in literature, let’s figure out what sarcasm is and what is the difference between these concepts. 

Sarcasm is a sarcastic joke that says one thing but implies the opposite. As a rule, such a joke denounces the lack of something. By the way, from the Greek word σαρκασμός is translated as “to tear the flesh.” This metaphor can be interpreted as exposing the true essence of another person or phenomenon.

Sarcasm, unlike irony, contains a negative attitude of the speaker to what is happening. This is expressed through mocking hyperbole or intonation. Therefore, it is not easy to recognize sarcasm in written speech and it is easy to mistake it for an insult. If, however, a joke that points out a shortcoming expresses sympathy or sympathy, this is most likely ironic. It is a mild form of ridicule, when the bad is ridiculed with a good message. Sarcasm, unlike irony, expresses the degree of indignation.

Distinctive features of irony and sarcasm: 

  • The meaning of the word irony in literature Ironic statements give an assessment of something more hidden, veiled. In sarcasm, the share of allegory is much less. 
  • Irony has a positive connotation. Sarcasm is characterized by derogatory criticism. 
  • Ironic statements are used to give imagery to speech, while sarcasm’s main function is to sharply ridicule the shortcomings of something. 
  • Sarcasm is part of sharp satire. This technique is used during accusatory speeches or in journalistic articles with socio-political overtones.

Types of verbal irony

Irony is different depending on who is ridiculed and how much:

  • Direct irony is the most common way to belittle and give a negative assessment. For example, wanting to tell a person that he was afraid of something, they often say “Well, you are a brave man!”:
  • Anti-irony – the task is not to ridicule a person, but to show that he is actually underestimated. For example, Zhvanetsky has such lines “The doctors did everything possible, but the patient survived”;
  • Self-irony is irony directed at the person himself. For example, the well-known phrase “Well, how can I, a fool, understand this” means that a person once again confirms his disagreement.

The Use of verbal irony literary example

In the “Nicomachean Ethics” Aristotle places in the next row the concepts of “bragging – truth – irony”. Pretense towards exaggeration is boasting, and its bearer is a braggart. Pretense towards understatement is irony, and its bearer is an ironist. “” Those who tell a lie about themselves, in a light that is unfavorable to him, but not without knowledge (about this), that ironist; if he embellishes, he is a braggart. “But he who adheres to the middle, being himself as a man of truth both in life and in glory, recognizes in relation to himself only what is characteristic of him, does not exaggerate it and does not diminish it.”

After Plato and Aristotle, a second, rather negative, shade appears in the understanding of irony. This second understanding was not alien to Aristotle, who saw in irony a certain dismissive attitude towards people. But in general, Aristotle put irony very highly and believed that the possession of it is a property of the greatness of the soul.

Theophrastus most fully expressed the negative aspects of irony in his “Characters”: irony is “hiding one’s own hostility, ignoring the enemy’s hostile intentions, calming the offended, removing importunity (or bringing his own importunity to his consciousness), concealing one’s own actions.” Freud could also subscribe to such a description of the function of irony.

Ariston of Keos (III century BC) believed that a penchant for irony is a sign of hidden arrogance. Ariston ranked among the “arrogant” philosophers and Socrates. In his dialogues, Socrates seems to exalt his interlocutors, calls them “kind”, “sweet”, “noble”, “courageous” and humiliates himself. This conversational tactic leads to the opposite: Socrates, exalting others and humiliating himself in words, in reality exalts himself. Of course, there is a difference from others: others exalt themselves, belittling and humiliating others.

But what is the analysis of ancient irony, conducted by A.F. Losev, to us? And the fact that the content of irony, the techniques of its expression and function in general and in the main coincide with the modern understanding of the dual nature of irony:

  1. Irony is an expressive technique opposite to the expressed idea. I say the opposite of what I mean. In form I praise, in fact I condemn. And vice versa: in form I humiliate, in fact I exalt, praise, “stroke”. Ironically, my “yes” always means “no”, and behind the expression “no” looms “yes”.
  2. Whatever the noble goal of irony, for example, to give rise to a high idea, to open one’s eyes to something, including oneself, this idea is nevertheless affirmed in irony by negative means.
  3. Despite the generosity of the ideas of irony, or even despite its disinterestedness, irony gives self-satisfaction. And really, this is not only aesthetic self-satisfaction.
  4. A person who uses irony is credited with the features of a subtle mind, observation, “slowness”, “sage inactivity” (not instant reactivity). Aristotle even pointed to the “greatness of the soul” of the ironist.

Linguistic and cultural research by A.F. Losev finally convinced us that irony, although smart (as a sign of a “subtle mind”), noble (as a sign of the “greatness of the soul”), graceful (as a the smartest, the noblest, the most graceful – it’s still a defense mechanism. We will try to show what is the psychoprotectiveness of this mechanism and find out what needs to be hidden in irony, to speak, why it is necessary to hide the meaning under the shell of the negative expression of this meaning.

Irony spread widely in the Middle Ages thanks to the folk culture of laughter, which is characterized by parody and ridicule of typical images and events. For example of verbal irony in literature, it was popular to be ironic about the ministers of the church. In the famous “Roman of the Fox”, its main character, the cunning fox Renard, soldering his old enemy, the narrow-minded wolf Primo, incites him to play a real bishop. The fox even shaves the monastic tonsure for the wolf and dresses it up in appropriate vestments, saying:

When you suddenly become

By the bishop himself, my friend.

You are naturally endowed

Everything he has:

You are honest, disinterested, you


At the same time, there is irony in the lines of the novel both over the character, whom Renard, of course, does not consider worthy of the holy dignity, and over the clergy, which is clearly evidenced by the image of a wolf in a “monastic skin”. By now you already know what is verbal irony in literature!

By the way, psychologists say that a person who often uses irony in his oral speech is the owner of an outstanding intellect. So don’t be afraid to scoff at some nonsense around you. Just learn to do it subtly and tactfully. After all, none of us are perfect. And your opponent may well answer your irony with his well-aimed phrase. 

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