Defining Irony

My French girlfriend is trying to understand irony. She keeps reading examples that I maintain are NOT ironic. So she found this site…

I maintain these definitions are as bad as all the others. The first example of verbal irony is awful.

“Verbal irony is the use of words to convey something other than, and especially the opposite of the literal meaning of the words, to emphasize, aggrandize, or make light or a circumstance or subject. A common example of this use of verbal irony is the scenario of a man staring out a window looking at a miserably muddy rainy day and remarking, “lovely day for a stroll.” This remark is ironic because it expresses the opposite of the circumstances.”

Sorry but that’s just sarcasm.

Am I wrong here? I’m beginning to suspect that in the US, the definition of irony is completely different to that in the UK. Remember the Alanis Morrisette song “Ironic”? Not a SINGLE one other examples of irony in the song are ironic in my opinion.

Can someone give me a really good definition and examples of irony to give to my girlfriend? Is irony defined differently in the US or do Americans just not get it?

I’ve put this in Great Debates as I think there should be some sort of answer, if not strictly factual, to this rather than opinion. Although opinions welcome. Mods, feel free to move if necessary.

To me, as a German, there are two different kinds of irony - the one in your example (which I would definitely call ironic, if not irony - does that make sense?) and the kind where an anti-smoking activist dies from lung cancer. Not sure if either of those are the dictionary definitions, but that’s how I see it.

The example given (“what a nice day”) is verbal irony. What is said is not what is meant.

The anti-smoking activist dying of lung cancer would be situational irony.

Dramatic irony is when the reader/viewer knows something which changes the meaning of what is being presented or said in a work.

The standard English definitions can be found here: Irony Definition & Meaning - Merriam-Webster

So is all sarcasm irony? If that example is irony then give me an example of verbal sarcasm that is NOT ironic.

It’s like rain on your wedding day.
It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid.
It’s a traffic jam when you’re already late.

For the most part, yes. All sarcasm is verbal irony. The difference, at least connotatively, is that sarcasm is generally derisive or antagonistic. If I say “what a nice day” when it’s raining I am being ironic. If I say “what a nice haircut” when I think it looks terrible I am being sarcastic (and ironic).

Many of the statements in the Morissette song are not ironic because they are simple literal statements. “It’s like rain on your wedding day” is a statement that means exactly what it says. There is no dramatic or situational irony. At most you could say that there what is sometimes called “cosmic irony” - where the idea is that the cosmos as a whole knows something (that it will rain) that the actor (you, planning your wedding) don’t.

Searching on ‘sarcasm definition’ provides this:

So that would indicate all sarcasm is ironic.


Oh good, it’s my wedding day, we were hoping for some rain.
I’m sure glad that I paid for this free ride!
I’m so late, this traffic jam is just what I need.

Yup, you got it tdn!

Ironically, the worst thing Alanis Morrisette did to the definition of irony wasn’t the stretched beyond all recognition use of the term in her song, but the resulting fad to declare every use of the word as ‘not ironic’.

Alanis Morrisette is surely clever enough to title the song that way because doing so would be ironic given the content. It seems more like an intelligent jab at misconstructions of irony in everyday dialogue.

Listen to the drunken robot.


There was an Irish comedian (can’t remember who) who tried to turn a couple of those into proper irony.

“Rain on your wedding day”: Imagine you are a meteorologist and you specifically chose a particular day for your wedding because you worked out it would almost certainly be good weather. Then the rain might be seen as ironic.

“A traffic jam when you’re already late”: You’re a town planner on your way to give a speech about how the policies you’ve implemented have fixed the town’s traffic problems.

True. All sarcasm is irony, but it is a subset of irony because sarcasm, (literally “ripping flesh”) is always intended to wound while irony may be a simple expression of an idea rendered is an inverted way.

Ok, here’s my shot at it:

Irony: O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi.”

Sarcasm: “I like your new [hideous] dress; it complements your face so well.”

But only if the perception of a person mocking is less worthy than a person or a thing being mocked. I.e. failed attempt at sarcasm defaults to irony.

No. A failed attempt at sarcasm might result in irony if the person attempting the sarcasm said something that rebounded on him in an ironic manner, but failed sarcasm does not default to irony, it defaults to failure.

You find out Ron has been shtupping your woman, so you angrily grab your pistol and go over to his place to do him in. He does not answer the door, but it is unlocked, so you storm in to find his body twisting slowly on the end of a rope. Still pissed, you go up to him, kicking a box out of your way, and look into his lifeless eyes. Dumbfounded, you sit down in a nearby chair and stare vacantly at him, perhaps reading the riot act or asking meaningless questions, or both. Then the cops show up (you left the front door standing open, a neighbor called them) and take you in for questioning. The crime scene indicates Ron could not have offed himself, and they found your muddy footprint on the crate that had been kicked out from under him. With no other leads, you get convicted of the murder that you originally intended to commit, while your woman leaves town with some guy from the gym.

That is irony.

(Ron is actually still alive, I think)