Irony is a rhetorical stylistic medium, which is used in all literary genres, in the speech as well as in the vernacular. The irony describes that the speaker expresses something, which means exactly the opposite of the expressed. It is important, however, that the recipient (listener, reader, viewer) or at least a certain audience recognizes that the utterance was ironic and the opposite. The figure resembles sarcasm, mockery and cynicism.
The term can be derived from the Greek (εἰρωνεία ~ eironeía) and translated with dislocation or else deception. Consequently, the translation already refers to the fundamental point: namely, the pre-eminence of a statement, although the exact opposite of this statement is meant. That is why the irony is partly difficult to recognize. Let’s look at an example.
Peter balances several coffee cups. Suddenly they fall to the ground.
“Great!” Anne calls out, his boss.
In the example above, situational embedding, ie the short history, is really important. Otherwise it would not be clear to the reader that the statement is ironic. What is important here is that it is clear that it can not be great to drop several cups on the floor so that they break.
If there would only be “Toll made”, Anne calls him […]. “It would not be clear that the statement in the actual must mean the opposite and does not actually refer to a laudable act. It is noticeable that irony is sometimes difficult to recognize and can therefore be misunderstood if it is not obvious that the opposite is meant. Let us look at another example.
A student comes home and tells that on the way home his new smartphone has fallen to the ground and now no longer goes. The mother looks at him and says, “No problem. We have it! “.
The example is ambiguous and shows the problem of irony. Is the mother’s comment ironic, or does she actually tell her son that it is not a problem that the smartphone is broken? In everyday life this question can usually be answered by the undertone or other irony signals (facial expressions, gestures, stress). In literary works, however, this is usually more difficult.
What is important here is that the mother’s utterance is ironic only when the family has no money at all and the son knows that. This means that both sides know that there is no money and it would be problematic to buy a mobile phone. But if there were large financial reserves, the statement would not be ironic, since it expresses the truth. Another example:
A man comes home. The dog has devastated the home.
Man: “This is a beautiful gift!”
This example sentence obviously means the opposite and is thus ironically meant. He is also an example of the fact that sometimes there are certain ironic expressions that are common in the language. The above sentence usually means the opposite in German and rarely what it expresses.
All examples are ironic. This can either be due to irony signals (wink, disguised voice, and other signals that point to something else), or rely on the knowledge that something else is meant. If both sides have a common knowledge, there is no need for further signals. For the outsider the irony is difficult to interpret.
Difference: irony, sarcasm and cynicism
Once the stylistic device of irony has been recognized, it is often found that there is a closeness to sarcasm and cynicism. But even if the concepts are related to each other and are partially similar, they can be distinguished. The following is an overview of the differences.
Irony: As a rhetorical stylistic means, it primarily means the fact that something is expressed by the contrary. It is important that the recipient is aware that this is the case. Otherwise, the ironic is misunderstood. It is therefore a common knowledge that the utterance is ironic, necessary. Irony uses the technique of meaning reversal and is a means to express something.
Sarcasm: Signs of mockery or mockery. Sarcasm can be expressed ironically when the opposite is said. However, he can also be completely free of irony. In contrast to irony, sarcasm is not a technique but an intention of the statement. This should clearly mock the recipient as well as ridicule. The mean can be expressed directly or indirectly.
Cynicism: In contrast to irony and sarcasm, describes a kind of mental attitude. Cynicism is not a technique but a life setting. A cynic rejects central norms and morals of society and makes them ridiculous. Cynicism is such a character. Who makes the values of other persons ridiculous, violates and ridicules them deliberately. Cynical remarks can, however, be sarcastic and ironic, which is why the distinction is difficult in individual cases.
Irony in the literature
The ironic remarks presuppose a shared knowledge between the receiver and the broadcaster. Either this already exists or can be transported by clear irony signals. If the respective signal is ambiguous, the ironic is misunderstood and has to explain the irony.
The problem that the literature has is that the author of a work does not know what knowledge his readers have, and mimic, aural, or gesture irony signals are hardly mediated. Consequently, the author has to equip his readership either with the necessary knowledge or can refer in the book to the fact that this or that is ironic and therefore the opposite.
This knowledge exchange is often neglected, particularly in the case of sophisticated literature. This means that the author transmits to his reader the responsibility to recognize and decipher the ironic message. However, there is a danger that the irony is not understood, which is deliberately accepted. The author must assume that only readers with similar knowledge recognize the irony.
These problems are also present in journalism. If the audience of a publication is clearly defined and is composed of a specific target group, it can be assumed that the medium (magazine, magazine etc.) and the reader have the same or at least very similar knowledge. If, however, the target group is larger, there is a risk that the ironic undertone does not arrive at the addressee.
A proverb from the media industry and a warning, which is sometimes taught in journalism seminars, reads as follows: “Never understand irony!”. For this reason, texts which do not necessarily express what they are saying are marked as such in the newspaper (cf gloss, column, comment).
But personal correspondence can also face this challenge, since essential signals of irony are lost through the writing process. In exchange via SMS or in the chat is often helped by emoticons, which can underline the intention of the sender. Typically, a lying twinkling face, or quotes can be interpreted as signs of irony.
In the lifetime of Socrates (469 BC-399 BC), a Greek philosopher, the term was not a stylistic device but a technique of conversation. It is about making yourself smaller than you really are, and being so stupid to lure the conversation partner into a linguistic trap, to teach him to think or to think about it.
This is actually about the adjustment. This meaning also indicates the translation of the word, which can be translated by pretending or translating. Socrates himself described this form of irony as a midwife art (mäeutik), which should lead the respective conversation partner to look at his own erroneous ideas and views and to arrive at other views through the irony.
It was only in the course of time and through the development of rhetoric that the concept of the stylistic figure, as we now use it, changed. Nevertheless, the original concept, that is, of the small-scale, is referred to by the subject of Socratic irony. But the irony is mostly stylistic.
Short overview: The most important thing about the Stilfigur at a glance
Irony is a rhetorical stylistic device. The point is to express the opposite of what is actually meant. It is important, however, that some of the recipients also recognize this. Otherwise the irony is misunderstood.
In order to make an ironic undertone clear, the speaker can use various irony signals, which certainly inaugurate the receiver. If, however, speakers and recipients have the same knowledge or have similar views, the irony can get along without such signals. In this case she can be quite funny.
However, especially in the literature (see fiction), such signals are not always clearly communicable. Therefore, an author has to point to the ironical and thus to inaugurate the reader. If he renounces this, the irony can sometimes be misunderstood.
In antiquity, especially during the lifetime of the philosopher Socrates, the term was different. It was a matter of forcing a conversation partner to ignore ignorance and deliberately shifting it into a linguistic trap. This should lead the speaker to other insights.
Note: The stylistic means is related to cynicism, sarcasm, but also ridicule and derision. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish the terms clearly from each other.