Dear Craig Brown
4th June 2000
The first thing you should know is that, married to an American, I might be presumed to live in an irony-free zone. As it happens, Sarah has a delightful wit and a lively apprehension of British humour, but I am conscious from people’s comments about Americans in general that irony is seen as a peculiarly British trait, like tea and crumpets or the stiff upper lip. A penchant for irony seems to be one of those defining characteristics, in which the rapier thrust of the nimble-minded ironist is contrasted favourably with the lumbering blunderbuss broadsides of, for instance, the German intellectual tradition which has so influenced American public discourse.
Irony is also a commonly misused term. There is an Alanis Morrisette song called Ironic which illustrates this perfectly. It’s “like rain on your wedding day” she warbles. In case you missed her drift, she goes on to say that it’s also ironical to take “a free ride when you’ve already paid.” No, actually, Alanis, it isn’t-it’s just a crying shame.
In search of a more precise definition, I turned, as English people always do, to my OED, which I keep (all 20-odd volumes of it) by my bedside. Here, I find that irony is “a figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used.” Now I know that you were educated classically, so let me brag a little by telling you that in its first recorded appearance, in Plato’s Republic, it has the meaning of “a glib and underhand way of taking people in.” In Plato, it’s usually Socrates who takes the role of the eiron or “dissembler.” He asks the na? questions that trap his interlocutor into an apprehension of the truth about things. Hence Socratic irony. Translated into Greek comedy, the eiron became the underdog, a feckless but quick-witted character who always got the better of the blustering braggadocio. (I copied that last bit out of a reference book, by the way.)
The first mention of irony in English comes in 1502: “yronye-of grammare, by whiche a man sayth one & gyveth to understande the contrarye.” By the middle of the 18th century, Dryden, Swift, Voltaire, Pope, Fielding and Johnson have all displayed a fine literary command of irony, even though it was not much referred to as a concept. By…