Ironic and Ironical

I know this topic has come up before, but I’d like to reignite it.

From what I gather, American dictionaries say that the two are interchangeable, and that ironical is an archaic form of ironic.

Until I actually looked it up, I felt there was a difference between the two. They don’t teach grammar in school anymore, so I don’t know the different verb forms. As such, I can’t really make a systematic case for the difference between ironic and ironical. BUT, I tend to say something like:

  • “That is ironic”, not “That is ironical”

  • “I was being ironical”, not “I was being ironic” (the latter sounds awkward)

Actually, on writing that I kind of think my distinction is based more on the rhythm of the sentence, and has nothing to do with syntax.

I first heard the word ironical in Good Will Hunting, when I watched it a while back. Given that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck wrote the script, the word choice could be a function of their pretentiousness (mostly Matt Damon’s).

Thoughts? (Not on the Matt Damon issue… He’s a douche, and there’s no convincing me otherwise)

Webster’s unabridged 1913 yields ironical:
2. Addicted to the use of irony; given to irony.

Back in 1828, it was just "Expressing one thing and meaning another. "

So at one point it seems ironical moved in the direction of being “something people do that is annoying and gets on your nerves.”

The -(i)al suffix normally suggests the sense of “of the kind of, pertaining to, given to”. It’s normally added to nouns to make adjectives (marginal, national, proportional), but it can be added to an adjective to make a different adjective with a slightly more “distant” tone. Thus from prudent we get prudential, from provident we get providential, and so forth.

If you want to make a distinction in terms of usage, I suggest that if your statement is ironic, then you are being ironical in making it. But I suspect in real life the two words largely overlap, and ironical is just a slightly pretentious variant of ironic.

The formation “I was being ironic” is perfectly standard and accepted. I know you said it sounds wrong to your ear, but “I was being ironical” sounds wrong to mine. I’ve never used the word “ironical”, and until I read this post I thought it was an overgeneralization error when someone was used to the word “ironically” and shortened it for the noun form. Language is funny.

Me too. If someone had used the word ironical in front of me five minutes ago I would have claimed it wasn’t a word. Learn something new here every day.

Google Labs - Books Ngram Viewer:

Plot of usage of 'ironic" and ‘ironical’ in books from 1920 tro 2000

Looks like the two were on an equal footing til about '56, when ironic became the dominant word form.

My wife uses ‘ironical’ all the time, because she thinks it’s a funnier word than ‘ironic.’ She also says ‘orientate’ instead of ‘orient.’

I see “ironical” a lot in novels from the first half of the 20th century. I read a lot of “old” books, and now “ironic” seems wrong. :slight_smile:

Another word that’s changed in usage is “fantastical”, but according to the graph, it was never very popular. I guess I read obscure books.

Yeah, I put ironical in the same category as “trickeration” and “strategery.”

Don’t misunderestimate neologisms; they are the recruiterments of language.

I think the joke might have been lost here. The two characters are both genius level smart and clearly very literate, so would both know that the correct form is ironic in all cases.

Saying ‘I was being ironical’ is in itself; an expression of irony because he knows that the genius opposite him will know that the correct form of the word is ironic.

Ironic/al considering it’s not a verb…

There is no technical difference between ironic and ironical, and their usage is based on style rather than any formal rules. The -al ending is all over the place in English.

For example, metaphorical is preferred over metaphoric, academic and seismic are preferred over academical and seismical, and economic and economical are both legitimate words with different meanings. Because there are no simple, consistent rules for these suffixes, and because spell check approves of ironical, the word will remain part of the language, and perhaps someday it will find a meaning of its own.

That page on Grammarist has an accessible ngrams chart showing that ironic used to be vastly preferred over ironic. The words might flip again some day for similarly inexplicable reasons.