Before anything: these posts purposely set aside Socratic Irony, Kierkegaard’s understanding of Irony, Romantic Irony, Rorty’s Irony and any number of other instances of capitalized “Irony”, considering them not directly relevant (though, in some sense, related) to, broadly speaking, the field of communication and language analysis. Another area which will be left unscathed consists of the psychological, social and cognitive aspects of irony.
The dictionary tells us that irony is either a) The use of words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning, b) An expression or utterance marked by a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning, or c) A literary style employing such contrasts for humorous or rhetorical effect. Right from the back, as it can be easily observed from these definitions, irony seems to be something progressive: we can produce irony through a) words, b) utterances or c) entire texts. For now, let us not look any further into the particular question of whether “ironic texts” could be appraised by means of dividing their ironicalness into “ironic utterances”, and these, in turn, into “ironic use of words”. Instead, one can notice the inclination to point out the “opposition” or “contrast” that irony involves. The rhetorical point of view, which construes irony as a figure (antiphrasis, “Speaking in such way as to imply the contrary of what one says”), seems to go in the same direction. This direction of defining irony squarely as “reverse meaning” will be the subject of this post.
There’s no actual need to search for the historical backgrounds of the word “irony”. To gratify one’s additional encyclopedic wants, we should confine ourselves to noting the Latin term ironeia and its Greek grandparent eironeia, the latter referring to a kind of sly, clever posture of false ignorance or unbecoming pretense. Similarly, bygone definitions of Quintilian or Dumarsais are in fact riders, since they provide the main understanding found in today’s dictionary explanations – the ones we are already engaged in criticizing.
What is the problem with “reinterpret-as-opposite” definition? Let’s begin by saying that it is not altogether wrong. If we consider such paradigmatic examples as “Facing a rainy, cold, muddy walk back home from work one says to his colleague (or himself): Nice weather!”, then the understanding of this (ironic) utterance would be, of course, the semantic opposite, “Awful weather!”. The problem is that so many other cases of utterances which we would promptly call ironic do not fall under this category. Consider the following example:
At the beach, Mary and Jane notice a ridiculously bulged bodybuilder stretching and studying his king-sized biceps. Mary observes calmly: (1) ‘I think he enjoys lifting an extra pound every now and then.’
This example could not be interpreted as neither of the statements: (1a) I do not think he enjoys lifting an extra pound every now and then, or (1b) I think he does not enjoy lifting an extra pound every now and then.
Understatements (saying less, but not quite the opposite) are not the only examples one can bring as counter-examples of the ‘classic’ definition. Sperber & Wilson (1981, 1986, 1992) added “ironical quotations” and “ironical interjections” to the list, both of which cannot be reconstructed as their opposites. Including further details, we could think of:
Mary and Jane are both fans of Bill Vaughan. Mary observes: (2) “Muscles come and go; flab lasts”
Both Mary and Jane know about each other they could never be attracted by such musculoskeletal system. Mary rumbles, biting her lower lip: (3) “Rrrrrr!”
These examples illustrate a much bigger problem of, let’s call it, “oppositeness”. An entire range of ironic speech acts which are not, strictly speaking, assertives do not support the “reinterpret-as-opposite” explanation (Kumon-Nakamura, Glucksberg & Brown, 1995). What is more, a) the classic definition cannot account for instances of non-ironical falsehoods and b) it leaves no room for incorporating the motives for choosing to speak in such manner.
The perspectives of Standard Pragmatic Model – Austin, Grice, Searle & the gang –, while offering new terminological solutions, are rather unprepossessing (yes! always wanted to use that word …) In the time-honored articles “Logic and Conversation” and “Further Notes on Logic and Conversation”, H. P. Grice integrates the concept of irony into the conversational implicature theoretical framework. Suppose A is our Mary, and she has made one of the remarks above, which will be considered ironic. Then what happened is this: “It is perfectly obvious to A and his audience that what A has said or has made as if to say is something (s)he does not believe, and the audience knows that A knows that this is obvious to the audience. So, unless A’s utterance is entirely pointless, A must be trying to get across some other proposition than the one he purports to be putting forward. This must be some obviously related proposition; the most obviously related proposition is the contradictory of the one (s)he purports to be putting forward” (Grice, 1989, p. 22, my italics). Basically, while this provides a more appropriate explanation for the phenomenon, it is still inhibited by the long-lasting tradition of “oppositeness”. John R. Searle falls not far from the three either, considering irony as an indirect speech act: “Since it is grossly inappropriate, the hearer is compelled to reinterpret it in such a way as to render it appropriate, and the most natural way to interpret it is as meaning the opposite of its literal form” (Searle, 1979, p. 113)
In the next post, we will have a look at some “modern” theories of irony – their modernity laying precisely in their separation from the straightforward “reinterpret-as-opposite” classical definition.
 „A ce genre d’allégorie où le contraire est signalé, appartient l’ironie. […] Ce qui la fait comprendre, c’est soit le ton de la prononciation, soit la personne, soit la nature de la chose ; car, s’il y a désaccord entre l’un de ces éléments et les mots, il est clair que les paroles veulent dire quelque chose de différent. […]. Et il est légitime de déprécier en simulant de louer et de louer en simulant de blâmer” (Quintilien VIII, 6 : 54-55)
 Of course, you can always overextend the interpretation so that „I know” is the opposite of „I (merely) think”, „a few” – the opposite „many”, and „enjoy” – the opposite of „really taking pleasure in”, but this would surely be a unwieldy overdo.
 Mary’s statement “He is not there” would hardly be taken as an irony, while the similar statement “He is not human” could be. Grice (1989, p. 53) illustrates this insufficiency with the following example: “A and B are walking down the street, and they both see a car with a shattered window. B says, Look, that car has all its windows intact. A is baffled. B says, You didn’t catch on; I was in an ironical way drawing your attention to the broken window. The absurdity of this exchange is I think to be explained by the fact that irony is intimately connected with the expression of a feeling, attitude, or evaluation”.