Essayed Verbal Irony

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Verbal irony is an excellent tool of the writing trade. It allows readers to exercise a little bit of perception and omniscience. This type of irony occurs when a speaker says one thing, but means another.

Many people consider verbal irony to be akin to sarcasm. For example, after a hard day at work, we might say the day was, "Really, really spectacular." (Spectacular being in air quotes.) While you might file that under sarcasm, it's actually more of an instance of verbal irony. 

What’s the difference? Verbal irony occurs when people say one thing but mean another. Sarcasm, however, connotes a little bit of a mean twist, or a derogatory statement. In their purest form, that's a good way to distinguish the two whenever you're uncertain. With that out of the way, let's dive a little deeper into the mirrored waters of verbal irony! 

Use of Verbal Irony

Verbal irony is used in a variety of circumstances. We may stumble upon it in general conversation, the media, and, of course, literature. Television sitcoms and movies love to keep us on our toes with verbal irony. Are a thousand Friends episodes reeling through your mind right now? 

Verbal irony often brings levity to a situation, exposes double entendres, or pokes fun at a situation. Sometimes, it's intended to highlight a certain situation that the writer knows is going to carry weight in future scenes. Other times, it's a plain and simple deployment of humor. 

Let's take a look at a few examples: 

Verbal Irony in General Conversation

  • Saying “Oh, fantastic!” when the situation is actually very poor
  • Saying something's as clear as mud
  • If someone got in a fender bender and said, "Guess today's my lucky day…"

Verbal Irony in the Media

  • In Beauty and the Beast, Belle tells Gaston, "I just don't deserve you!" when, in reality, Gaston doesn't deserve Belle. 
  • In Shrek, Donkey asks Shrek if he can stay with him. Shrek replies, "Of course," when he really means, "No, not really."
  • Stanley Kubrick threw in a little verbal irony in Dr. Strangelove when this line made it into the script: "Gentlemen! You can't fight in here! This is the war room!"

Verbal Irony in Literature

  • In Pride & Prejudice, Darcy says his future beloved wife is, "tolerable but not handsome enough to tempt me." (Little did he know, right?)
  • In the Harry Potter series, Harry says, "And [the Death Eaters] would love to have me. We’d be best pals if they didn’t keep trying to do me in.”
  • In Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Biography, Snicket writes, "Today was a very cold and bitter day, as cold and bitter as a cup of hot chocolate."

Everyday Verbal Irony

You don't have to be a world-class playwright or author to engage in a little bit of verbal irony. Let's take a look at a few more examples that could play out in everyday life. 

  • Someone shopping for a mattress lays down on a really firm one and says, "This bed's about as soft as a brick."
  • When the air conditioning goes out on a hot summer afternoon, a tenant says to their landlord, "It's about as cool as the fires of Hell."
  • After a terrible blind date, a woman calls her friend and says, "He was as friendly as a rattlesnake."
  • A sister walks into her brother's messy apartment and says, "I see you're still the king of clean!"
  • A mother tells her son she enjoyed watching that horror movie "about as much as a root canal."
  • A food critic tells the chef, "Your steak was as tender as a leather boot."
  • A woman spills her morning coffee on her white silk blouse and says, "This day couldn't be off to a better start."
  • A team of co-workers is about to begin a major project when someone asks if they can have a five-minute break. The team leader responds with, "Sure! It's not like we have anything better to do."
  • A woman chips her nail and cries out in horror. Her boyfriend says, "Oh no! It's the end of the world as we know it!"
  • The candidate that nobody likes gets elected mayor. A couple of citizens are overheard saying, "Gee. I was really hoping he'd win."
  • A boyfriend plans to propose to his girlfriend on the night she cancels on him to stay home and binge watch Grey's Anatomy. He replies, "Sure. It's not like I had anything special planned."

Isn’t it Ironic?

Isn't it fun? You have to be really engaged in the conversation, or the situation as a whole, to pick up on verbal irony. And verbal irony certainly skirts the edges of sarcasm; the two are very close cousins, indeed. Why not try to spice up your writing with a little bit of verbal irony? See if your readers will pick up on the character's true intentions, in spite of their opposing language. 

It can serve to provide levity to a new situation, poke a little bit of fun, or even subtly foreshadow a very ironic future, such as in Mr. Darcy’s case. Verbal irony is another feather in your writing cap, so spread your wings and fly to newly formed ironic heights.

Do you have a good example to share? Add your example here.

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Examples of Verbal Irony

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Verbal irony is an excellent tool of the writing trade. It allows readers to exercise a little bit of perception and omniscience. This type of irony occurs when a speaker says one thing, but means another.

Baratunde Thurston’s How to Be Black is a work of nonfiction. For the purposes of our course, we are also considering it as a type of book-length essay. It is an essay that deals directly with race in America, as we saw Frederick Douglass do in his Narrative, and as we will see Claudia Rankine do in her lyric essay, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. But Thurston’s writing also engages us very directly with humor. (As he puts it in establishing his ethos, he has been black for over thirty years). One of the questions I want to ask and to explore: what can we, as essayists, learn from Thurston about humor? What rhetorical and poetic and even philosophical purposes can humor play in the work of an essay? In what ways can the rhetoric and poetics of humor and comedy be meaningful and purposeful (an expectation for any essay) as a way to engage the rhetoric of race?

Thurston shows us early on that his essaying will be humorous. But he also tells us that there is a complication he wants to pursue, or as he puts it, a “re-complication” of the idea of blackness for the purpose of “exposing the challenges, the fun, and the future of being black” (11). Why pursue this exposition by way of comedy? What’s the purpose, the rhetorical project, within this use of comedy?

One of the ways we might then think of humor in terms of the rhetoric of essays is satire. Though this genre of literature is more familiar to fiction and poetry, there is a famous example in nonfiction, perhaps the first version of journalistic/nonfiction/essayistic satire: Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”¬† Swift engages thoroughly in the rhetorical tropes of hyperbole and irony. This is one way to think of satire’s more serious use of humor: the edge of irony, directed toward a kind of reductio ad absurdum. There is also the rhetorical figure of litotes, understatement, that works effectively and prominently as a comedic scapel. The Onion (see below) puts this to great use. Thurston, who wrote for The Onion, uses both figures, hyperbole and litotes, in his essay. Another rhetorical trope related to irony is paralipsis: when the writer claims to pass over something (saying she won’t/can’t discuss it) yet speaking about the matter in the process of saying otherwise.

Satire generally means a text that critically explores social follies by way of ridicule or sarcasm or humor or parody. The origin of the word–coming from the Latin for medley, literally a dish of various fruits–helps us to see that the satirical often works by way of medley, variety, juxtaposing various elements, ranging among them seemingly loosely, but with an underlying purpose. Think of a comedy routine, or “The Daily Show” (worth noting–prominent places where satire in America is nonfictional); or the ways Thurston ranges in his essay, while keeping the focus on the meaning of racial stereotypes. It makes me think of Frederick Douglass at the end of chapter 2 in his Narrative, discussing the complexity of the songs of the slaves. Recall that the audience can’t fully understand the meaning of the songs (so we are warned) if not “within the circle.” And yet, the author couldn’t fully understand their rude meaning either until he got outside the circle.

Another way to consider the contexts for the use of humor or wit for rhetorical purposes: classical rhetoric included in the focus on “refutation,” the part of a discourse where the speaker/writer refutes or counters opposing views, refutation by wit along with refutation by appeal to logic, emotion, and ethics (logos, pathos, ethos). The ancient Greek rhetorician Gorgias advised speakers to “kill our opponent’s seriousness with our ridicule and his ridicule with our seriousness.” Wit, like all things rhetorical, remains dependent upon one’s audience. And it was cautioned that using wit to hide a weak or specious argument would damage one’s ethos. I think of this in regard to a sketch by Louis C. K. on “The N-Word,” where he refutes the hatred conveyed by this well-known racialized term, but does it through wit–and also through irony, arguing that the phrase “n-word” has become itself (for him) as troubling (more troubling?) a form of racism as the word it stands for.

Another rhetorical structure and trope of importance to Douglass, chiasmus, or relation through the reversal of structure, might be extended to comedy. In Douglass, such reversal (chiasmus thus is also a type of irony) is thoroughly serious. Its most succinct formulation comes in the sentence that refers to his encounter with Covey: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.” The “you” should remind us of the stakes of this reversal: the reader is put in the position of the slave, undergoing the reversal, and then counter-reversal, with the narrator. This chiasmus is an extreme form of pathos–making the familiar strange in order to defamiliarize covnentional or stereotypical views. Is not this what comedy can, or does, do? I think, for one telling and vivid version of this reversal, Dave Chappelle’s skit on “The Niggar Family.”

What about wit, comedy, satire that goes too far (as is always a potential with irony), or is a joke that isn’t funny? How do we know? Consider this image regarding the death of Trayvon Martin. And note all the commentary around it–I worry about who is and isn’t “within the circle,” as Douglass puts it.

Speaking of satire as medley or mixture, here is a medley of links for thinking and reading further about the rhetorical work of satire and humor in contemporary American culture.

The Onion: an example of its brand of satire. What’s the difference between this, what Thurston is writing, what the various comics are doing with their bits on race, and the sort of irony that Douglass pursues rhetorically and philosophically in his narrative? In other words, how might we think of similarities with regard to the rhetoric of race, exploring racial and cultural identity and difference in writing? [an earlier piece from The Onion that features Thurston]

Example from The Onion of the rhetorical scheme or figure (think of it as a lens) of litotes, understatement: Mom’s Got her Thing Tonight.

The website “Stuff White People Like,” an inspiration for Thurston’s writing and rhetoric of racially-focused satire.

Comedy routines about race: link here for a brief story and links to clips from a variety of comic sketches and bits exploring race.

Louis C.K. on being white

Eliot Chang: Things Asians Hate

Key and Peele: Substitute Teacher

Dave Chappelle: Stereotype Pixies: Black; White.

And finally, we might also consider the ways Thurston’s writing merges with, one could even say, emerges from, the world of social media. In his new venture, Cultivated Wit, Thurston calls this “digital storytelling.” Think of the essay as Ted talk. The idea for this book, as he tells us, began with a tweet. Link here for the How to Be Black on Twitter.

As a point of comparison (and possibly contrast), here is a recent social media project that has been in the news, I, Too, Am Harvard. This project doesn’t use humor in the way Thurston does. Does it nonetheless pursue a similar argument, a sort of essay through digital imaging?

What about the essay in new media forms: what are its possibilities, its limitations? This is something we will explore further when looking at the poetics of new media essays.

Posted on by ProfMeehan in Class Reflection • Tagged Baratunde Thurston, chiasmus, comedy, Dave Chappelle, Frederick Douglass, hyperbole, irony, litotes, Louis C. K., race, refutation, rhetoric, satire •


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