Irony alerts in the 14th and 21st centuries

by John Q on March 10, 2004

‘Truly this is the sweetest of theologies’, William said, with perfect humility, and I thought he was using that insidious figure of speech that rhetors call irony, which must always be prefaced by the pronunciato, representing its signal and its justification – something that William never did. For which reason the abbot, more inclined to the use of figures of speech, took William literally …

Umberto Eco The Name of the Rose

Having run afoul of irony in both directions lately (having my own ironic post on Lent taken literally, then taking literally an ironic comment by Chris), I’ve come to the conclusion that HTML needs its own version of the pronunciato.

Here’s my proposal: Text meant to be taken ironically would be surrounded by <irony > tags. Such text would render normally, but would have a hover property such that, when the mouse hovered over ironic text, it would flicker through a range of suitably ironic colors. Not perfect, but a lot more appealing than a smiley :-).



Kieran Healy 03.10.04 at 9:31 am

Alas, the problem with this is that the tag would itself immediately become a candiate for use in an ironic way. It’s yer old use/mention problem. I believe Frege faced this problem, as does the Pharisee in the stoning scene of _The Life of Brian_:

Official: Stop, will you?! Stop that! Stop it! Now, look! No one is to stone anyone until I blow this whistle! Do you understand?! Even, and I want to make this absolutely clear, even if they do say ‘Jehovah’.

Crowd: Ooooh! [Crowd stones Official.]

I’ll defer to Brian (Weatherson) on the fine points of detail here.


Richard 03.10.04 at 9:46 am

I tend to rely on an ellipsis at the end of sentences I want to be taken ironically. Annoying, but slightly less so than a bloody smiley…


Anthony 03.10.04 at 9:57 am

Now I’m confused Richard. Do you mean ellipsis *isn’t* less annoying than a smiley? And what about when you actually want to signify …
Never mind.


Motoko 03.10.04 at 10:13 am

Emoticons and html-tags are a completely mistaken approach to irony.

A statement’s possibility of being misconstrued seems to me to be the essence of irony. By some silent agreement the speaker and the listener, the writer and the reader, construe a third person in the conversation, a hypothetical figure, the dupe, who does in fact take the ironical statement literally, and the joke is really on this virtual nr.3.

Nobody likes to actually assume that third party role, but the risk that it happens must exist for irony to be possible. Once you attach explicit irony signs, you get rid of the concept altogether.


John Isbell 03.10.04 at 11:07 am

We used irony so much at my boarding school it became impossible to determine if any given statement was ironic or not. Even as teenagers, we felt that went a bit far.
Someone said that the smiley signifies “Please don’t hit me.” I stuck Edwin Starr’s “War” on the jukebox in a country bar last night, and felt a bit self-conscious.


Jeremy Osner 03.10.04 at 1:24 pm

Motoko — that is a wonderful explanation of irony. Is it your own doing?

I remember a few years back, talking to a parent of young children who explained that the children were going to a Waldorf school in order to avoid exposure to irony. This seemed at the time, and still seems, like one of the most wrong-headed parenting strategies I have ever heard tell of. I can’t imagine it would work, but even so. Trying consciously to raise a naif, a square?


praktike 03.10.04 at 2:02 pm


you can use the div tag, and then put title=”Irony” on it. not sure if it works in all browsers, and some other tag might be better, but there yo have it.

no problem.


Motoko 03.10.04 at 2:23 pm

Motoko — that is a wonderful explanation of irony. Is it your own doing?

Well, partly; I was thinking about a conversation I had some time ago with a friend. We talked about the policeman who based his research on telemarketing fraud on an article from The Onion, and we decided that he was really the ideal reader, the person you’re imagining when you read The Onion – the one who believes it’s true. I think you find this concept of a “dupe” in psychoanalysis too.


Morvern Callar 03.10.04 at 2:50 pm

Motoko, you said it perfectly. If irony is overtly signalled, it’s not irony.

The written word offers more challenges in this respect to both writer and reader than the spoken word and visual communication but… you can’t sacrifice the effect for the sake of assistance to the irony-impaired.

(In fairness to John’s intentions, I don’t think missing the irony in one statement once in a while qualifies as irony-impairment… Plus, even if you get it only later, you’re still getting it, at least! )

Jeremy: I think same-irony schools should be a good idea. Separation is the best way to ensure freedom of irony.


Ted Barlow 03.10.04 at 3:19 pm

A. I think that I’m in love with the idea of “suitably ironic colors.”

B. I’m reminded of a bit of dialogue from the Lollapalooza episode of the Simpsons:

TEENAGER 1: Oh, it’s that cannonball guy. He’s real cool.

TEENAGER 2: Dude, are you being sarcastic?

TEENAGER 1: I don’t even know anymore.


james 03.10.04 at 3:26 pm

I was going to make the point about irony being undermined if it is too explicitly signaled… but then I thought John was being ironic and lost my nerve.


Brian Weatherson 03.10.04 at 3:35 pm

I love that Simpsons scene Ted quotes. It’s always the first thing I think of when someone mentions irony now.

I seem to recall from grad school that some people take the irony/sarcasm distinction very seriously, and they seemed to have decent reasons. It might be worth reviving that distinction in the blogworld at some point.

On distinctions, I think the one Kieran is looking for is force/content not use/mention. This deserves a longer comment, but unless someone else writes it it will have to wait until the close of business here.


Brian Weatherson 03.10.04 at 3:36 pm

By the way, I’m pretty sure the Chris John refers to in his post is not Chris but someone else called ‘Chris’.


somebody who may or may not be called chris pretending to be somebody not called chris so as to impe 03.10.04 at 3:49 pm


Sadly, MT comments seem to strip out title attributes. I was experimenting with a self referencig anchor. But primary posters could probably do it.


Matt Weiner 03.10.04 at 4:09 pm

Praktike–Oh, like that’ll work.
Well, it looks like typing
a href=”http://irony”
in the angle brackets will get you something, but perhaps some people still won’t get it. (If you click it, it’ll take you to a gaming company.)


Matt Weiner 03.10.04 at 4:17 pm

Seriously–oh my god, I can’t start a post on this thread like that. I’m sorry.
Professionally, irony seems to me to work by violating a Gricean maxim of conversation (and IIRC Grice explicitly cites irony). You say something that the hearer knows is not to be taken seriously, thus implying the opposite, or perhaps implying mockery of those who would be dumb enough to believe it/take it seriously, or something like that.
Of course reception of the irony depends on knowing what the speaker will and will not mean seriously–meaning that in an ironic enough context, communication is absolutely impossible!
Well, as Tom the Dancing Bug says, “Sarcasm is the downfall of civilization! Oo! Run! It’s sarcasm!” (The first panel of that strip contains a definition of the irony/sarcasm, distinction, I guess. Duh.)


Ken C. 03.10.04 at 4:22 pm

This proposal, as with emoticons, is maybe partly motivated by the limitations of written vs. oral communication: on the web, no one knows you’re sounding quizzical.


Chris Bertram 03.10.04 at 5:14 pm

Brian (or “Brian”) is right, though, as it happens, I did know the “Chris” who is not Chris many years ago.


ogged 03.10.04 at 6:13 pm

talking to a parent of young children who explained that the children were going to a Waldorf school in order to avoid exposure to irony.

Jeremy, surely you were the victim of perfect irony.


praktike 03.10.04 at 7:19 pm

oh, and further, you could hack MT to do this pretty easily.

sorry to be all “literal.”


Jeremy Osner 03.10.04 at 8:10 pm

Ogged — that is a tempting thought, but I talked with them at length and they were quite earnest about it.


Kriston 03.10.04 at 9:11 pm

But irony has long been dead! Today you need counterintuitivity tags. That’s where the currency is.


Morvern Callar 03.10.04 at 9:27 pm

… and no one has mentioned Alanis Morrissette yet.


bryan 03.10.04 at 11:37 pm

damn, morvern morrissetted the thread.

Actually I’m one of those people who takes the distinction between irony and sarcasm seriously, very seriously indeed. It just pisses me off, especially this one time at capoeira when this goddamn.. well, friend, said that irony meant saying something you don’t mean. And really I couldn’t talk her out of it, no matter the references I made to Greek Drama, she’s a communications major so I can of course understand her not understanding the concept. I just had to post about this here, sorry if I was sort of incoherent but I’m really still sort of pissed off about it. This was two years ago.


john c. halasz 03.11.04 at 12:11 am

“Of course, the reception of irony depends on knowing what the speaker will and will not mean seriously- meaning that in an ironic enough context communication is absolutely impossible!”

Didn’t Kafka once write something about that?


john c. halasz 03.11.04 at 12:55 am

Seriously now, with respect to the use/mention and force/content distinctions, I don’t know that they are specific enough to pin down the particular matter. And I don’t think that the notion of “seriousness” is quite apropos. Doesn’t irony have to do with the interplay between belief and disbelief and the expression thereof? And in this respect, irony would pertain to the level of discourse itself rather than reality and to the surplus of discourse over reality. That would be why literary fiction almost inevitably tends toward irony. (Though, in the case of the peripety of classical tragedy, it is the seeming force of reality itself that traps and crushes one in one’s belief.) The charge against irony would be the charge of disbelief, of an utter lack of belief. Against the pomo/pop culture hipster crowd this has the ring of truth delivered with blunt force trauma. But there is no necessity in the case, for it could just as well be a matter of discrimination between beliefs. And in the face of conventionalistic authoritarians who want to impose their narrow take upon “reality” and what such conventionalism is wont to bring about, the despair of sheer disbelief is not without its merit.


nnyhav 03.11.04 at 3:21 am

We’re all kibologists now.

Where’s Chun?


bad Jim 03.11.04 at 8:15 am

Realistically, Quiggin and DDavies don’t need irony tags.


Morvern Callar 03.11.04 at 8:20 am

Can anyone translate what John C. Halasz wrote?

Or was it ironic?

Crikey, I feel like a dupe.


Dave F 03.11.04 at 11:02 am

Right on, matako. The use of such a device would, like the exclamation mark used to signal “humour” by the witless, be a dead giveaway.

Emoticons. Scum of the blogiverse.


Chris Lightfoot 03.11.04 at 12:30 pm

You can use <span title=”Irony”>…</span> if you want to (this probably only works in modern, i.e. post-about-1999, browsers). Personally I think this is an absolutely jolly splendid idea and you should all start using it, though I note that it doesn’t work in MT’s comments….


Natalie Solent 03.11.04 at 1:17 pm

Bernard Shaw once suggested the introduction of a new irony-conveying typeface on the model of italics but sloping left, to be called “ironics”.

I don’t know if he was being serious or not.


bob mcmanus 03.11.04 at 3:24 pm

“Can anyone translate what John C. Halasz wrote?”

Nah. Too much in there.

No irony in nihilism, no irony without belief
“Irony is the last refuge of the moralist,…”

Can anyone finish the above for me?

“the despair of sheer disbelief is not without its merit.”

Cetainly a willful typo in there somewhere.


Joshua W. Burton 03.11.04 at 6:15 pm

_Motoko — that is a wonderful explanation of irony. Is it your own doing?_

It’s straight out of Fowler, 1926.


john c. halasz 03.11.04 at 9:58 pm

Sorry, I thought I was being clear enough. I was contesting the idea that irony was not “serious”, as in the Gricean maxims. Nor is “seriousness” necessarily a useful or even identifiable criterion in language. I think seriousness would probably depend on the consequentiality of what is transacted. Like “literal meaning”, “seriousness” as a linguistic criterion is a notion that depends on what it is not, as if the shifting of levels and modal relations in language could be eliminated to get down to its basic form.

Nor is that matter of irony necessarily an either/or proposition.

And there were no typos that time.


bob mcmanus 03.12.04 at 1:19 am

“And there were no typos that time.”

“the despair of sheer disbelief is not without its merit.”
Certainly a willful typo in there somewhere.”

This was just a stupid allusion to “Sickness Unto Death”, meant to be ironic

“Nor is that matter of irony necessarily an either/or proposition.”

But perhaps you caught it afterall :)

I liked the piece


Morvern Callar 03.12.04 at 10:14 pm

John C. Halasz, that is so much clearer now. Seriously.

Bob: Irony is the last refuge of the moralist
I thought that was sarcasm, not irony?


bob mcmanus 03.12.04 at 10:43 pm

“Bob: Irony is the last refuge of the moralist
I thought that was sarcasm, not irony?”

It is a quote from Kierkeggaard, or half a quote.

The second half goes something like:

“moralist, for he has no way of expressing…”

I tried googling, and looking in the indices of my books, but I can’t remember and can’t find the passage.

The first half, as stated is my favorite K quote, and one of my favorite all-time quotes. Take a long time to explain


morvern callar 03.13.04 at 4:24 pm

Bob: I think I just confused it with the thousand variations of “sarcasm is the last refuge of the…” (weak-minded, incompetent, pedant, moralist, etc.). I know I’ve heard that a lot, but never with “irony” in place of sarcasm…

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