I just read something where a phrase was described as ironical. To me the word ironical jars terribly. It just doesn't sound right at all. I would have said ironic.

Is ironical a feature of American English, or am I just missing something? Where would you use it over ironic?

  • I like where you said "the word "ironical" jars terribly". – jcarmody Nov 14 '10 at 12:44
  • I always thought of the difference as being more or less immediate in exactly what has irony. A novel can be ironic, meaning that there is irony somewhere in the novel, or possibly through-out it. A sentence can be ironical since the sentence itself contains the irony. However we know ironical must be word since ironically is a word, whereas ironicly is not. This also supports my previous claim since an object which only indirectly has irony (like the novel) does not directly do something in an ironical manner. Only the specific sentence says something ironically. – stevendesu Nov 14 '10 at 17:35
  • FWIW, ironical is older than ironic by 55 years. – Barrie England Nov 24 '11 at 14:02
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    I don't think the fact that ironically is a word implies that ironical is a word. To be specifical, eclectically and eclectic are both in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, and eclectical is not. – Peter Shor Nov 25 '11 at 5:12
  • What does FWIW mean? Ironical does have an odd ring to it from my perspective. Which would make sense, vis a vis your answer, as my usage is American English. – Ellie Kesselman Nov 25 '11 at 9:37

The Corpus of Contemporary American English shows 4253 occurrences of “ironic” and 134 occurrences of “ironical”, that is 32 to 1. The British National Corpus shows 703 and 88, respectively, that is 8 to 1. These results support the feeling that “ironical” is less common than “ironic,” but they do not suggest that the word “ironical” is a feature of American English.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) does not state any regional preference of the word “ironic” or “ironical” (the links require subscription). Interestingly, the definition of “ironic” in the OED is just:

Pertaining to irony; uttering or given to irony; of the nature of or containing irony; = IRONICAL.

and detailed definitions are given for “ironical.”


As a native speaker of American English, I'll say that it's at least not a widely used variant. I was actually surprised to see that it's given credence as an acceptable term in several dictionaries. However, the blog entry here does an excellent job describing my feelings on it, so I won't reinvent the metaphorical wheel.

  • Interesting. From your link: "Burchfield suggests that the choice is "governed by the rhythm of the sentence"; it's my conjecture that this is more true in Britain than America, where, it seems to me, 'ironic' clearly prevails in all contexts." This suggests that "ironical" is more used in British English according to rhythm. Being British this amused me as I had thought, perhaps badly assumed, "ironical" was more an American affectation. – Colin Mackay Nov 14 '10 at 0:02

As a native of America, I will say that most speakers are not good examples of what constitutes correct usage (although it exactly constitutes popular usage). Also, citing occurrence statistics does not provide any clarity, meaning, or value, since you are citing the usage statistics or words that are not synonyms.

Here is how I would attempt to explain the difference.

  • The joke was ironic. The comedian was ironical.

  • The joke used irony. The comedian used an ironic joke.

Here is an example that supports this view (from "The Six Labors of Father Vilmer" by Garrison Keillor):

Without looking down he slowly climbed up under the first light, reached up, took hold of it, and twisted it out. Then he moved the ladder, looked up, saw it still swaying up there, and bravely climbed again. He stretched way up and pulled out the second light. He moved the ladder again, and again and again, got the third, the fourth, the fifth light. As he started up the sixth time [the last light], he looked up all those rungs and prayed, “O Lord, please don’t be ironical. If you wanted me to fall, it should have been on the first one!”

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    If what most speakers say doesn't constitute correct usage, then what does? As long ago as 1891, the British philologist Henry Sweet wrote 'whatever is in general use in a language is for that very reason grammatically correct.' – Barrie England Nov 24 '11 at 10:40

I am American; I definitely think of "ironical" as chiefly a British word, as the first (and one of the few) times I heard the word, it was a British MP or bureaucrat describing the fall of Chamberlain and selection of Churchill as PM during the "World at War" programme.

Not really related, but I have heard on more than one occasion that it is a common perception in UK that Americans are not capable of understanding irony, or even raw sarcasm. I found this hilarious. This is related to my impression that Americans are generally regarded by the British as idiots, except with respect to matters of (that most pedestrian of pursuits,) "business."

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