Definition of Verbal Irony
Verbal irony is a form of irony in which someone says or writes something that is in opposition to the person’s true meaning. There must be some indication, however, that the speaker does not exactly mean what she or he says. This can be demonstrated through competing information, tone of voice, etc. This makes verbal irony unique as a subset of irony, as it is the only form of irony that is intentional. Verbal irony most often takes the form either of overstatement or understatement, and can also include double entendre, hyperbole, rhetorical question, and sarcasm.
The word irony comes from the Greek word εἰρωνεία (eirōneía), which means “dissimulation” or “feigned ignorance.” All forms of irony, whether situational, dramatic, verbal, or otherwise, have an aspect of things appearing to be different than reality.
Difference Between Verbal Irony and Sarcasm
The definition of verbal irony is very similar to that of sarcasm to the point where they are used interchangeably. Some sarcastic comments do indeed use verbal irony to prove a point. Generally, however, sarcasm is used to show foolishness on the part of the other person, and it often biting and/or harsh, and carries some intimation of contempt. Verbal irony, meanwhile, is not necessarily used for the purpose of ridicule. In addition, many sarcastic comments do not, in fact, contain a contrast between what is meant and what is said. There are many sarcastic comments in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, such as the following exchange between Harry and his aunt and uncle:
“Why were you lurking under our window?”
“Yes – yes, good point, Petunia! What were you doing under our windows, boy?”
“Listening to the news,” said Harry in a resigned voice.
His aunt and uncle exchanged looks of outrage.
“Listening to the news! Again?”
“Well, it changes every day, you see,” said Harry.”
Harry is being truthful—the news does indeed change daily—but because there is clear contempt in this expression of truth the exchange counts as sarcasm.
Common Examples of Verbal Irony
Many people use examples of verbal irony frequently in everyday communication. Here are some examples:
- “I don’t want to go outside; it’s a bit too hot for my tastes.” (when the weather is unbearably cold)
- “I’m so glad the professor moved up the deadline for our essays; I was hoping I’d have too much work to go to that party this weekend.”
- “It’s so delightful to be home with a sick child twice in one week.”
There is also a famous scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which verbal irony is used for comedic effect via understatement:
[after slicing one of the Black Knight’s arms off]
King Arthur: Now, stand aside, worthy adversary!
Black Knight: ‘Tis but a scratch!
King Arthur: A scratch? Your arm’s off!
King Arthur: [after Arthur’s cut off both of the Black Knight’s arms] Look, you stupid bastard, you’ve got no arms left!
Black Knight: Yes I have.
King Arthur: Look!
Black Knight: It’s just a flesh wound.
Significance of Verbal Irony in Literature
Verbal irony, as it is intentional on the part of the speaker, requires that the reader/listener understands the nuance of the statement. Therefore, encountering examples of verbal irony in literature can be very pleasurable for the reader, as some analytic skills are involved. Verbal irony also requires a speaker or close narrator to make this intentional distinction between what is said and what is meant. Therefore, it’s most common to find verbal irony examples in drama or dialogue.
Examples of Verbal Irony in Literature
ANTONY: The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious.
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answered it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest—
For Brutus is an honorable man;
So are they all, all honorable men—
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me.
But Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honorable man.
(Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare)
Antony’s eulogy for Julius Caesar in William Shakespeare’s telling contains on the of most famous verbal irony examples in all of literature. What’s more, Antony repeats the verbal irony several times: “But Brutus says he was ambitious, / And Brutus is an honorable man.” It is clear that Antony thinks Brutus to be anything but honorable after having a hand in Caesar’s murder. Thus, the repetition of this line highlights the verbal irony in the speech.
After he made up his mind to spend the rest of the war in the hospital, Yossarian wrote letters to everyone he knew saying that he was in the hospital but never mentioning why. One day he had a better idea. To everyone he knew he wrote that he was going on a very dangerous mission. “They asked for volunteers. It’s very dangerous, but someone has to do it. I’ll write you the instant I get back.” And he had not written anyone since.
(Catch-22 by Joseph Heller)
Joseph Heller plays with how language can reveal and obscure truths in his novel Catch-22. In this excerpt, the protagonist Yossarian intentionally throws his friends and family off by using verbal irony. He knows that he is not planning on writing to them again and gets around this problem by insinuating that if they don’t hear from him he must be dead from a dangerous mission. This solves his problem of obfuscating the truth in other letters to them.
“I don’t even know what you think I asked for,” said Francine.
Dwayne mimicked her cruelly in a falsetto voice: “‘I don’t even know what you think I asked you for,’ ” he said. He looked about as pleasant and relaxed as a coiled rattlesnake now. It was his bad chemicals, of course, which were compelling him to look like that. A real rattlesnake looked like this:
[drawing of rattlesnake]
The Creator of the Universe had put a rattle on its tail. The Creator had also given it front teeth which were hypodermic syringes filled with deadly poison.
Sometimes I wonder about the Creator of the Universe.
(Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut)
One subset of verbal irony is called ironic similes, in which similes are used to show a clear dissimilarity between things. For example, “as clear as mud,” “as soft as rock,” and “as dry as the ocean” are all ironic similes. In the above excerpt from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Breakfast of Champions we can find the ironic simile of “as pleasant and relaxed as a coiled rattlesnake.” Vonnegut goes on to develop this juxtaposition by including an actual drawing of a rattlesnake in the book.
“Yeah, Quirrell was a great teacher. There was just that minor drawback of him having Lord Voldemort sticking out of the back of his head!”
(Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling)
While many of Harry Potter’s most beloved quotes are examples of his sarcasm, especially saying something direct but in a contemptuous way, the above quote is an example of verbal irony. Harry agrees that “Quirrell was a great teacher,” which is clearly not the truth. He qualifies this verbal irony example with drastic understatement in the next line, reminding his audience that Professor Quirrell was directly working with villain Lord Voldemort.
Test Your Knowledge of Verbal Irony
1. Which of the following statements is the best verbal irony definition?
A. A remark that unintentionally wounds.
B. A harsh retort meant to cruelly point out the foolishness of the interlocutor.
C. A statement that is in opposition to the speaker’s true meaning.
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2. Choose the example of verbal irony from the following quotes from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
“And [the Death Eaters would] love to have me,” said Harry sarcastically. “We’d be best pals if they didn’t keep trying to do me in.”
Harry: “Yes,” said Harry stiffly.
Professor Snape: “Yes, sir.”
Harry: ”There’s no need to call me “sir” Professor.”
Umbridge: “Potter, do something! Tell them I mean no harm.”
Harry: “I’m sorry, Professor. But I must not tell lies.”
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3.Consider the following quote from William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth:
MACBETH: Here’s our chief guest.
Macbeth says this when Banquo, the man he plans to murder, arrives at a feast. Is this an example of verbal irony?
A. No, Macbeth means exactly what he says.
B. Yes, Macbeth may be referring to Banquo as an important guest, yet hides his true meaning.
C. Yes, Macbeth is explicitly stating that he is planning to kill Banquo.
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