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This seems to be one the long-standing arguments between people on the internet. When is something "irony" and when is it "sarcasm"? And can a quip be both at the same time?

Dictionary definitions don't seem to help much:

irony — the expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect

sarcasm — the use of irony to mock or convey contempt

In most of the arguments I hear about the words, neither of these definitions seem to match the definitions proposed by anyone.


Per Rhodri's request, I typically see definitions such as these offered instead of the ones I found in my dictionary:

sarcasm — using a sentence to convey its exact opposite meaning

irony — a circumstance that involves one's intent or actions backfiring and bringing about the opposite of what was intended, usually through humorous or coincidental means

Note that this just my construction. People have offered all sorts of other working definitions but the big difference is that "irony" involves a circumstance instead of an expression.

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Could you give examples of the definitions other people propose? What you've said matches what I understand the terms to be; the element of reversal being the primary feature of irony, and mockery likewise for sarcasm. –  user1579 May 23 '11 at 13:35
    
@Rhodri; I added two examples. Hope that helps. –  MrHen May 23 '11 at 14:36
    
In other news, I have now received links to Oatmeal and Cracked.com in answers. Anyone mind referencing something a little more authoritative? –  MrHen May 23 '11 at 14:43
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8 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Defining the word "sarcasm" is fairly straightforward. It usually means the expression of a sentiment whose opposite is meant. For example:

Hooray! I have a headcold.

Irony, however, eludes a simple explanation, and there tend to be disagreements about its meaning between UK and US speakers. Irony is found in the contrast between expected, or ordinary, outcomes and what actually happens. The greater the distance, the greater the irony.

For example: In this video, the police officer is giving a lecture on firearms safety, and shoots himself in the leg: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=am-Qdx6vky0

That's an example of situational irony. And note that irony need not be funny, although it often is.

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If pressed for a specific choice, would you suggest that irony refers to a situation or an expression? –  MrHen May 24 '11 at 18:01
    
More situational, I'd say. Ironic remarks are usually comments on ironic turns of events. As we know from the various senses of the word, it does have a purely linguistic application, which is somewhat akin to sarcasm. –  The Raven May 24 '11 at 20:45
    
The example you give is irony, not sarcasm. –  LaC May 25 '11 at 17:05
    
I accepted this answer and upvoted both this and Unreason's answer. They seem to be the two major viewpoints on this subject; this answer more closely matches the usage I encounter on a day-to-day basis and was also the most highly voted. –  MrHen Jun 7 '11 at 22:33
    
@LaC: No. That's sarcasm. Irony would be: "Yesterday I threw out all my Kleenex and today I have a headcold." –  The Raven Jun 8 '11 at 0:37
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For the cultured

Irony is given by the simultaneous presence of two meanings, a deceiving one on the surface and a true one in depth, which may or may not be accessible to all.

A very common example of irony is that of saying something to convey the opposite of its face value: for instance, when something bad happens, one might say:

Oh, that's just great!

However, it is not necessary that the meanings be exact opposites. Here is a more sophisticated example of irony:

There are only 10 types of people in the world: those who understand binary, and those who don't.

In Socratic irony, Socrates feigned ignorance and asked questions to guide his disciples to a deeper understanding. Here the surface meaning is that of an apparent genuine inquiry, while the understanding that motivates it becomes clear to the disciple only at the end.

In the so-called irony of fate, due to their limited knowledge of the circumstances (or even to their lack of knowledge of the future) mortals act in a way that seems reasonable at first, but ends up having negative consequences in the end: here it is only Fate itself that knows the truth about people's destiny, and when they realize it it is too late.

Sarcasm is the use of wit or ridicule to taunt, mock or contemptuously strike at a target. Irony is a common tool for sarcasm, but it is by no means the only one. Often, a mere laugh can be sarcastic, without any use of words.

For the uncultured

Sarcasm: cheap irony.

Irony: when something goes contrary to expectations, and this is considered humorous or otherwise notable. Like rain on your wedding day.

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What is the meaning of those titles? –  Alenanno May 23 '11 at 23:12
    
It seems that there is a rift in the usage of these words, so I had to give two different answers. When trying to determine what someone else means by "irony" or "sarcasm", figure out which category he belongs to, and look up the definition under the corresponding heading. When trying to determine what meaning to use, think of which kind of person you are, or want to appear. –  LaC May 23 '11 at 23:19
    
Rain on your wedding day is not ironic without further context. –  KitFox May 24 '11 at 17:49
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@LaC: What is the definition of cultured? –  MrHen May 24 '11 at 18:06
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@MrHen: oh, I didn't realize you were the one who asked the original question. I owe you a better answer, then. The situation with "irony", and even more with the adverb "ironically", is like the one with "literally": it used to mean something, but then it was abused so much that a different meaning became established. I used "cultured" and "uncultured" because of my preference; others might call the two usages "formal" and "informal", "traditional" and "contemporary", or even "prescriptive" and "descriptive" if they want to be asses. Is this satisfying? –  LaC May 25 '11 at 12:43
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On etymology under the entry for humor you will find a table that classifies humor and lists several qualities for both terms (from H.W. Fowler, "Modern English Usage," 1926):

  • In terms of motive and aim, sarcasm aims to inflict pain, while irony aims for exclusiveness.

  • For the province, sarcasm deals with faults and foibles, while the province of irony is statement of the facts.

  • Regarding methods and means, sarcasm uses inversion, irony mystification.

  • For the audience sarcasm is perceived by the victim and bystanders, while irony is intended for inner circle.

This is illustrated from the point of humor and, I believe, tries not to define, but to illustrate characteristic attributes for each category.

From the point of rhetorics, sarcasmus is figure of irony - this contradicts definitions of irony that emphasizes the intention of sarcasm and state that irony is not intentionally hurtful (as defining difference between two terms; although you will find dictionary entries that define sarcasm as "bitter irony").

Then, on top of all this, lot of people especially on the internet, will not make a distinction and use them interchangeably, so looking for proper examples is not easy.

Pragmatically speaking, I call something that was said sarcastic if I can call it mean (intention). I use it for spoken word or written comments, sometimes writings.

With irony it is not limited to something said or written, it can also describe situations which are not result of someone's intentions.

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Would the mystification/inner circle/exclusiveness of irony be apt for an occurrence where one person says something to other but the meaning is intended for a third, non-engaged party? As in, half of the dialogue in the Dune novels. –  MrHen May 24 '11 at 18:04
    
@MrHen, I belive that is a good example (also there is a ring in Dune that corresponds to the statement of facts, honesty, search for truth). Also, I must admit that from the above illustrations I never fully understood attribute of exclusiveness. –  Unreason May 24 '11 at 22:13
    
If you compare this table of qualities with my definitions of irony and sarcasm, you'll see that they're a perfect fit. The exclusiveness is due to the fact that the ironic expression has an apparent but misleading meaning on the surface, which conceals a true meaning beneath; the latter is not necessarily accessible to all. Consider my example of the "10 types of people". –  LaC May 25 '11 at 17:09
    
@LaC, thanks for explanation - but I percieve that under audience (inner circle of people who understand binary) and I question how is the aim of that statement meant to be exclusiveness. –  Unreason May 25 '11 at 17:20
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To those who understand binary, the sentence says "there are two types of people: those who understand binary, and those who don't". To those who don't, it says "there are ten types of people", and then proceeds to list only two. The exclusiveness lies in the fact that you need special knowledge to understand the humor. When that statement is posted on a general forum, you can often see the dual reactions, amusement for the "in" group and confusion or annoyance ("that's only two kinds, stupid!") for the rest. –  LaC May 25 '11 at 17:28
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It's odd, but I've never considered irony nor sarcasm as part of humor. They can be used for humor, but likewise for dramatic tension or defense ("Sarcasm...the protest of those who are weak."-John Knowles)

Irony is the juxtaposition of a superficial situation with its more profound opposition, where the deeper meaning is genuine.

Sarcasm is verbal irony, so it is not surprising that people confuse them frequently. Sarcasm is verbal; intonation and non-verbal expression help carry the meaning, and as such, it does not convey well on the Internet and other socially blind media (excepting of course, streaming video, etc).

As for the rest of what defines ironic, the important thing to remember is that the surface presentation must appear in direct opposition to the undercurrent. Otherwise, it is not ironic.

One of my favorite examples is Alanis Morrisette's song. The only thing that is ironic about "Ironic" is that nothing in it is ironic. That is, on the surface, the song is about Irony, but the deeper truth is that it is Wholly Unironic, which ironically makes it ironic.

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Oh, and both are purportedly bitter. That's funny too, because one would think that irony would taste, well, iron-y. –  KitFox May 24 '11 at 18:46
    
Every discussion of irony should include Alanis Morisette's song as an illustration. +1 –  Josh Brown Dec 4 '13 at 22:09
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The difference is there in the definitions you found.

Leech, a famous linguist who sometimes appeared in my studies, while talking about Linguistics matters that I won't explain in depth, said something about irony (he mentioned it making a comparison with "banter", but we will leave this aside for the sake of this question); he said that it "is an apparently friendly way of being offensive".

Irony is used to convey, usually, the opposite meaning of the actual things you say, but its purpose is not intended to hurt the other person.

Sarcasm, while still keeping the "characteristic" that you mean the opposite of what you say, unlike irony it is used to hurt the other person. It might interest you to know that the etymology of sarcasm is this one:

ad. late L. sarcasm-us, a. late Gr. σαρκασµός, f. σαρκάζειν to tear flesh, gnash the teeth, speak bitterly, f. σαρκ-, σάρξ flesh.]

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If pressed for a specific choice, would you suggest that irony refers to a situation or an expression? –  MrHen May 24 '11 at 18:04
    
Sorry but I'm not sure I understood: Are you asking me when do I choose irony, or what type of situation do I associate irony with? –  Alenanno May 24 '11 at 18:31
    
In the definition of irony, is it more accurate to say it refers to a situation or an expression? –  MrHen May 24 '11 at 18:32
    
Oh I see now. Well, I've seen before someone distinguishing them as in they apply to different contexts, but I know that irony can refer to both. A person can express irony, but sometimes you live a situation that has irony. The "first" meaning should be referred to people, though. –  Alenanno May 24 '11 at 18:42
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I'm not sure if I can clear up sarcasm as it seems how I understood it is slightly more wide than the definition for it you've posted.

As for irony, it's one of those words that many people today seem to misunderstand completely, as this entertaining page: 9 Words that don't mean what you think they do, illustrates.

To quote:

People think it means: Any kind of amusing coincidence.

Actually means: An outcome that is the opposite of what you'd expect.

So, if a porn star moved to Virgin, Utah, that would be ironic. If the same porn star bought a house in Boner Knob, Montana that would not be ironic.

I was not aware that the official definition you stated, that sarcasm actually has to include irony, but I suppose it does as my understanding of sarcasm is a phrase (or just a manner of phrasing something) that indicates the opposite of what you feel; which when it comes down to it I suppose is a form of irony. The part about mocking or showing contempt is what defines sarcasm in my mind, however (which is generally done by use of a sarcastic tone.)

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I've always understood irony to be strictly a literary construct, not an observation on real life. So if a porn star moves to Virgin, Utah that's not irony but just an interesting coincidence. Now if someone writes a story where a porn star moves to Virgin, Utah then that would be ironic.

That should make everything perfectly clear. <----- sarcasm

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Irony is a plain mock. Sarcasm is veined of bitterness.

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