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A Great Definition of Irony

I once read this in the Economist, in the year 2000, I believe, but cannot find the reference.

Sir- Your article on irony (A quiet joke at your expense”, December 18) was amusing, but offers a definition of irony – “saying the opposite of what you mean” – different from that in Fowler’s Modern English Usage: “a form of utterance that postulates a double audience, consisting of one party that hearing shall hear & not understand, & another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware both of that more & of the outsiders’ incomprehension.” What economists would call asymmetric information.     

Irony need not entail saying the opposite of what you mean. Dramatic irony involves an audience seeing meanings not known to the characters in the play. Sarcasm may involve saying the opposite of what you mean, but need not be aimed at two audiences. There is no necessary overlap.

When the widow of Sir Edward Coke allegedly said: “We shall never see the like of him again”, that was irony.

When Stalin said: “How many divisions does the Pope have?”, that was sarcasm.

When the wife of King Ludwig of Bavaria said: “”My husband is too fond of boys to beget one””, that was irony and sarcasm.


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