My daughter has been given the task - by me - of explaining irony. She identified and did a jolly good job of explaining 5 of the 6 apparent types of irony: dramatic, cosmic, socratic, situational, verbal, and irony of fate.

When it came to verbal irony she (we) stumbled. She is happy to accept that verbal irony is equivalent to sarcasm, but I would appreciate confirmation of this from the experts in this forum in order that I do not mislead her by accepting her appraisal of the matter.

Just to be clear, I am not asking whether irony is the same as sarcasm in the general case.

What exactly is "verbal irony"?

Update: my daughter's take-away from the answers so far (2012-04-16) is the following -- in her own words:

"Verbal irony is when someone says something but means the complete opposite. Like one person might say, 'Oh, that looks wonderful', in a kind of giggly voice. Its a bit like sarcasm except it's not negative"

I will accept the answer that get the most votes over the course of the next couple of days. Each point of view expressed has been helpful in its own way and I cannot pick an answer right at the moment, so will defer to the popular vote in the spirit of these sites.


This website has a nice definition of verbal (or linguistic) irony:

a duality of meaning... that language often carries a double message, a second often mocking or sardonic meaning running contrary to the first...

Apparently, irony can have varying levels of subtlety and richness; some double meanings might be more opaque yet brilliant. No wonder the full meaning of irony can be a bit elusive.

I'm reminded of a quote by the composer Rossini, taken from one of his letters:

I have just received a Stilton and a cantata from Cipriani Potter. The cheese was very good.”

  • That quote gave me a chuckle... irony is clearly subtle and all the more satisfying for it, and also a concept best understood by example. – user4770 Apr 12 '12 at 20:49

Terms like these are often used by particular writers to mean particular things, but a simple explanation is that verbal irony is saying one thing and meaning another.

  • So, would you say it was okay to say that sarcasm is verbal irony? – user4770 Apr 12 '12 at 20:40
  • @bodhicode: Not necessarily. Sarcasm usually has a hostile intent, verbal irony not always so. – Barrie England Apr 12 '12 at 20:56
  • I see now. A logician would say: sarcasm implies verbal irony, but verbal irony does not imply sarcasm. So sarcasm is not equivalent to verbal irony, but is a form of verbal irony. – user4770 Apr 12 '12 at 21:51
  • @bodhicode: No. As Toby's example from Churchill shows, it's quite possible to be sarcastic without being ironic. The two concepts have some overlap, but you can't define one as a subset of the other. – FumbleFingers Apr 13 '12 at 0:54

I'm not sure where you got that list of "6 types of irony". I've never seen that particular list before, so to the best of my knowledge, it's not a commonly accepted set of types, but something that one particular writer made up to illustrate his point. If that's the case, it may well be useful as a general explanatory tool of the meaning of irony, but I wouldn't get too wrapped up in detailed definitions of each. People are always coming up with lists of "the 6 types of mystery story" or "the 8 kinds of politician" or whatever. To the extent that such categories are useful in understanding the author's point, great. But I wouldn't try to memorize them or agonize over ambiguities, because the next book you read will talk about the 7 types of mystery story and the 3 kinds of politician, and they'll be totally different.

Of course some such lists become well-known and widely accepted, and at that point they have at least literary interest. Like Plato's 6 types of government, the 7 Deadly Sins, etc.

  • My daughter got the "6 types of irony" from simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irony. She is nine and I advised her to avoid going straight to Wikipedia-proper before she has understood the plain language content on the simple site. I appreciate your point concerning the non-standard nature of these lists, and will update the original question with the link for later readers, to clarify this. – user4770 Apr 12 '12 at 20:38
  • I must disagree with this view of what I consider to be a very useful, accurate and detailed (and as far as I've been able to discover, comprehensive) analysis of the different senses the word 'irony' is, perhaps unfortunately, forced to accept. It's easily the best working model I've come across, and covers the different usages very well. Yes, it's a working hypothesis, and yes, the terminology may not yet be universally accepted, but this classification explains and disambiguates far more satisfyingly than most dictionaries. Thanks to @codeitagile for flagging up this article. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 25 '14 at 23:14

From wikipedia

The psychologist Martin, in The psychology of humour, is quite clear that irony is where “the literal meaning is opposite to the intended”; and sarcasm is “aggressive humor that pokes fun”. He has the following examples: For irony he uses the statement "What a nice day" when it is raining. For sarcasm, he cites Winston Churchill who, when told by a lady that he was drunk, said "my dear, you are ugly ... but tomorrow I shall be sober", as being sarcastic, while not saying the opposite of what is intended.

  • If the example: "what a nice day" is verbal irony, then my comprehension of sarcasm, along with that of many - if not all - of my past teachers and cohorts has to this date been confused. What I thought was sarcasm, was in fact verbal irony. Wow. That is, of course, assuming that verbal irony != sarcasm. – user4770 Apr 12 '12 at 17:37
  • from my own understanding I would say that sarcasm is in the strictest sense a type of caustic humour or sharp, bitter remark though not necessarily saying the opposite of something. Whereas verbal irony is not necessarily humourous but is the opposite of the intended meaning. – Toby Apr 16 '12 at 11:10

I don't think you can derive very much about the content or tone of what is being referred to here as "verbal" (vs. the other apparently non-verbal?) forms of irony.

However, the term alone - "verbal irony" - does connote a physical, more active representation of said ironic unit. This contrasts well with the idea of cosmic irony, for example = which is often hard to anthropomorphize / explain to someone = be it sarcastically, or otherwise.

I would argue, this list has done very little to imply that this (verbal) type of irony is sarcastic, sad, or sadistic - but instead, is describing the realms in which ironies exist. Lot's of things are ironic - in varying degrees - to each individual person, and a lot of this is expressed through tone, pronunciation, and the like.

That said, and I guess if push come to shove - the mouth does deserve some sort of ironic distinction - just think of all those funny accents, robot voices, catcalls, etc..

  • I am happy to accept that sarcasm is a realm of irony - in the loose sense - but would really like an ontological argument, built on a logical treatment. At the moment, I am not fully convinced that sarcastic expressions are not a strict subset of ironic expressions. I am not convinced that the Churchill example given my @Toby is sarcasm for instance. – user4770 Apr 13 '12 at 8:18
  • If you don't like the term 'verbal irony', use 'whimsical antiphrasis', but don't sabotage a fine analysis for the sake of arguing about terminology. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 25 '14 at 22:56

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy