What’s the difference between sarcasm and irony?

Ironic beach? (Photo by David Goehring - CC-BY)

Sarcasm and irony are interesting words. They are particularly interesting because they are used with different meanings by different people.

Sarcasm is easier to pin down. Sarcasm is when we say something where the intended meaning is different from the literal meaning of the words. If a politician makes a claim and someone says “We know it must be true, because he’s a really honest politician”, that’s sarcasm.

We can usually tell when someone is speaking sarcastically, because they emphasize one or more of the words. The emphasis is strong but not enthusiastic. That’s our clue! In written language, the closest we can come is to use italics or boldface for emphasis, as in the previous paragraph.

Irony is less clear-cut. Robert Cawdrey, in his 1604 dictionary, defines irony simply as “a mocking speech”. Reyner, in 1656, was more specific:

An irony is a nipping jeast, or a speech that hath the honey of pleasantnesse in its mouth, and a sting of rebuke in its taile

It’s clear that irony involves the deliberate use of a double meaning—one with a positive connotation and one with a negative. Both of those definitions seem to include sarcasm. But sarcasm is not concealed, whereas irony can be.

Consider a play where the characters are having a conversation, quite oblivious to a surrounding event that gives their words a completely different meaning. This is dramatic irony, appreciated only by the audience, not by the characters having the conversation.

Many other definitions of irony can be found, but I am satisfied that irony is defined by the two levels of meaning that can be conveyed using the same words, and that sarcasm is a direct, overt, spoken form of irony.

Now, let’s complicate things further. In modern informal usage, the word irony has a widespread meaning that is quite different from the meaning discussed above. It refers to an outcome that is different from the expected outcome, in a way that is unexpectedly or humorously related to the context of an event. Here are a few examples of the modern meaning of irony:

  • Ironically, the president of the Cancer Prevention Council died last week of cancer
  • I arrived late to the meeting of the Accident Prevention Team because I crashed my car
  • He is always telling us what he plans to say to his sweetheart, but when he is with her he is tongue-tied
  • The prison officer was sentenced to jail for his part in the crime
  • The Roads Department spent thousands on fixing the road, just weeks before the power company dug it up

It’s useful to have a word that describes what’s going on in these examples, and irony seems as good a word as any. The original meaning of irony is not going to die out, as it will continue to be used by those educated in formal language, so there’s going to be some confusion.

The kind of irony in the above examples can be described as situational irony or incongruity when the distinction needs to be made. The literary form of irony can be described as sarcasm, ridicule or humorous irony as appropriate.

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