Last updated on December 3rd, 2023 at 04:20 am
What is verbal irony?
When someone says one thing but actually means the opposite, they’re probably being verbally ironic. Verbal irony is when the literal meaning (of a comment or remark) is the opposite from, or differs sharply from the true or intended meaning of what’s said. Verbal irony comes in different forms, which we explore, and, as you’ll see, it crops up in a seemingly endless stream of contexts and conversation.
Verbal irony is used all the time in daily conversation and speech. A typical example of verbal irony is if the weather outside was horrible, (let’s say it’s gloomy and raining), and someone says, “what great weather we’re having!“. Since we know, (and so does the person speaking) that the weather isn’t nice, they probably didn’t mean this sincerely—rather, they are using verbal irony.
See how with this example, the broader context of the comment is key to determining whether it’s meant to be verbally ironic. To put it another way: if you had no clue what the weather was like, you wouldn’t have a point of reference to situate what’s ironic about that comment. But, because we know the weather is terrible, it’s instantly clear that by saying “what great weather we’re having!“, the exact opposite is what’s actually being said.
Types of verbal irony
While verbal irony is a type of irony, (i.e., within the broader category of irony, including dramatic and situational irony). Verbal irony also has its own subtypes; see the chart illustrating the subtypes and an example of each.
|Type of verbal irony||Example scenario|
|Sarcasm||When a restaurant has terrible customer service and someone at your table says, “I’d totally recommend this place! They’re getting a 5-star Yelp review from this customer! Can’t wait to give an entire play-by-play of my experience.”|
|Understatement||Someone that’s drenched in sweat saying that they could use a shower.|
|My backpack weighs more than a truckload of bricks. I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.|
|Socratic irony||When someone feigns a position of ignorance to solicit information. An example would be a parent asking their teenager if they did anything over the weekend while they were away, knowing full well by the state of their house that their adolescent child threw a house party.|
Irony vs sarcasm
To restate a key point from the example: it’s the broader context that indicates if something (e.g., a situation, remark), is or is not verbal irony.
If you’re thinking “that verbal irony figure of speech over there sure looks like a lot like good ol’ sarcasm“, (with a southern accent) then kudos to you for knowing your figures of speech. Sarcasm and verbal irony are similar, and sometimes they overlap with each other. They’re not always the same, but sarcasm is a type of irony. Irony, however, is not always sarcastic (not all A’s are B’s, make sense?) In other words, sarcasm is a form of verbal irony, but not all instances of verbal irony are sarcastic.
Because my brain seems to be taking the day off, let’s recycle the last scenario to better illustrate the difference:
Let’s imagine that the weather is terrible outside, and someone says, “wow, what great weather we’re having–real smart choice you made moving you and your entire family to Wisconsin-I’m sure they’re all loving this weather too!”
This is sarcasm, and it’s also meant to ridicule and mock someone (or something) pointedly. Sarcasm, in this sense, goes a step further than regular verbal irony: the person still means the opposite of what they say, but the content of what’s said is in an attempt to be sneering or mocking.
Examples of verbal irony
1. Spilling coffee on your shirt
If you just spilled coffee on your shirt, and someone asks how your day is going, and you respond “My day’s been just great-thanks!“
2. Being stuck in an elevator
When you’re stuck in an elevator and someone says, “Don’t worry-it’s not like I’m claustrophobic or anything!” What they’re actually saying is that they do in fact suffer from claustrophobia.
3. “I could really use a spoon right now!”
Remember that lyric in Alanis Morissette’s song “Ironic“, “It’s like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife“. So, if the person with the 10,000 spoons went on to say, “sure’d be nice to get another spoon!” It could be that they’re antique spoon collectors, or just enjoy having tons of spoons. Otherwise, the remark was probably meant to be verbally ironic.
4. When your boss asks you to stay at work late
Has your boss ever asked you to have something done by end of day on a Friday afternoon? Maybe you responded, “No problem!“, when what you really meant to say was “Are you being serious right now? I’m about to flip this desk over“.
5. Helping someone with their groceries
When you’re helping someone with their groceries to be kind, but you’re too weak to carry the groceries and are practically falling down. Then, the person you’re carrying the groceries for asks, “Are those heavy?” and you say, “Nope-as light as a toothpick!” This is an example of an understatement (a subtype of verbal irony as mentioned above), since clearly the opposite is clearly meant. Understatements add humour to an otherwise mundane or arduous situation.
Examples of verbal irony in literature and media
1. Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”
The poem, “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost is frequently misinterpreted as a poem that encourages risk-taking and opting for ‘the road less travelled’. When you take a closer look at the words in the poem, a different story begins to unearth. Here’s the final stanza:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
He tells it with a sigh that he took the road less travelled by, and ‘that’s made all the difference’. But what difference has it made? Was the difference a positive one, or is Frost being verbally ironic?
- The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost. Accessed on Nov 14, 2023.