Henry Fowler on Irony.
irony. For a tabular comparison of this & other words, see HUMOUR.
Irony is a form of utterance that postulates a
double audience, consisting of one party that hearing shall hear &,
shall not understand, & another party that, when more is meant than
meets the ear, is aware both of that more & of the outsiders'
incomprehension. 1. Socratic irony
was a profession of ignorance. What Socrates represented as an
ignorance & a weakness in himself was in fact a non-committal
attitude towards any dogma, however accepted or imposing, that had not
been carried back to & shown to be based upon first principles. The
two parties in his audience were, first, the dogmatists moved by pity
or contempt to enlighten this ignorance, &, secondly, those who
knew their Socrates & set themselves to watch the familiar game in
which learning should be turned inside out by simplicity. 2. The
double audience is essential too to what is called dramatic irony,
i.e. the irony of the Greek drama. That drama had the peculiarity of
providing the double audience — one party in the secret & the
other not — in a special manner. The facts of most Greek plays
were not a matter for invention, but were part of every Athenian
child's store of legend; all the spectators, that is, were in the
secret beforehand of what would happen. But the characters, Pentheus
& Oedipus & the rest, were in the dark; one of them might utter
words that to him & his companions on the stage were of trifling
import, but to those who hearing could understand were pregnant with
the coming doom. The surface meaning for the dramatis personae, &
the underlying for the spectators; the dramatist working his effect by
irony. 3. And the double audience for the irony of fate?
Nature persuades most of us that the course of events is within wide
limits foreseeable, that things will follow their usual course, that
violent outrage on our sense of the probable or reasonable need not be
looked for; & these ‘most of us’ are the
uncomprehending outsiders; the elect or inner circle with whom Fate
shares her amusement at our consternation are the few to whom it is not
an occasional maxim, but a living conviction, that what happens is the
That is an attempt to link intelligibly together
three special senses of the word irony, which in its more general sense
may be defined as the use of words intended to convey one meaning to
the uninitiated part of the audience & another to the initiated,
the delight of it lying in the secret intimacy set up between the
latter & the speaker; it should be added, however, that there are
dealers in irony for whom the initiated circle is not of outside
hearers, but is an alter ego dwelling in their own breasts.
For practical purposes a protest is needed against
the application of ‘the irony of Fate’, or of
‘irony’ as short for that, to every trivial oddity: —
But the pleasant
note changed to something almost bitter as he declared his fear that
before them lay a ‘fight for everything we hold dear’
— a sentence that the groundlings by a curious irony were the
loudest in cheering (oddly enough)./ (interesting)./It
would be an irony of fate, according to many members, if Mr Chamberlain
were elected to succeed Mr Balfour, for it was his father who dealt the
first blow at Mr Balfour's ascendency‘The irony of the
thing’ said the dairyman who now owns the business ‘lies in
the fact that after I began to sell good wholesome butter in place of
this adulterated mixture, my sales fell off 75 per cent.’ (‘It's a rum thing that...’ seems almost adequate). The irony of fate is, in fact, to be classed now as a HACKNEYED PHRASE.
H. (Henry) W. Fowler.
A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.
Oxford at the Clarendon Press.
First Published April 1926.
Corrections in 1930 and 1937.
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