ETYM Latin ironia, Greek, dissimulation, from eiron dissemblera dissembler in speech; cf. French ironie.
1. A trope that involves incongruity between what is expected and what occurs.
2. Incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.
Literary technique that achieves the effect of “saying one thing and meaning another” through the use of humor or mild sarcasm. It can be traced through all periods of literature, from classical Greek and Roman epics and dramas to the good-humored and subtle irony of Chaucer and the 20th-century writer’s method for dealing with nihilism and despair, as in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
The Greek philosopher Plato used irony in his dialogues, in which Socrates elicits truth through a pretence of naivety. Sophocles’ use of dramatic irony also has a high seriousness, as in Oedipus Rex, where Oedipus prays for the discovery and punishment of the city’s polluter, little knowing that it is himself. Eighteenth-century skepticism provided a natural environment for irony, with Jonathan Swift using the device as a powerful weapon in Gulliver’s Travels and elsewhere.