plural ironies
: the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning
: a usually humorous or sardonic literary style or form characterized by irony
: an ironic expression or utterance
: incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result
: an event or result marked by such incongruity
: incongruity between a situation developed in a drama and the accompanying words or actions that is understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play

called also dramatic irony

: a pretense of ignorance and of willingness to learn from another assumed in order to make the other's false conceptions conspicuous by adroit questioning

called also Socratic irony

Did you know?

What's irony?

Considerable thought is given to what events constitute “true” irony, and the dictionary is often called upon to supply an answer. Here are the facts about how the word irony is used.

Irony has two formal uses that are not as common in general prose as its more casual uses. One refers to Socratic irony—a method of revealing an opponent’s ignorance by pretending to be ignorant yourself and asking probing questions. The other refers to dramatic irony or tragic irony—an incongruity between the situation in a drama and the words used by the characters that only the audience can see. Socratic irony is a tool used in debating; dramatic irony is what happens when the audience realizes that Romeo and Juliet’s plans will go awry.

The third, and debated, use of irony regards what’s called situational irony. Situational irony involves a striking reversal of what is expected or intended: a person sidesteps a pothole to avoid injury and in doing so steps into another pothole and injures themselves. Critics claim the words irony and ironic as they are used in cases lacking a striking reversal, such as “Isn’t it ironic that you called just as I was planning to call you?,” are more properly called coincidence.

The historical record shows that irony and ironic have been used imprecisely for almost 100 years at least, and often to refer to coincidence. This 1939 quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald is typical: "It is an ironic thought that the last picture job I took—against my better judgment—yielded me five thousand dollars five hundred and cost over four thousand in medical attention." Is this true situational irony? It’s debatable.

The word irony has come to be applied to events that are merely curious or coincidental, and while some feel this is an incorrect use of the word, it is merely a new one.

Choose the Right Synonym for irony

wit, humor, irony, sarcasm, satire, repartee mean a mode of expression intended to arouse amusement.

wit suggests the power to evoke laughter by remarks showing verbal felicity or ingenuity and swift perception especially of the incongruous.

a playful wit

humor implies an ability to perceive the ludicrous, the comical, and the absurd in human life and to express these usually without bitterness.

a sense of humor

irony applies to a manner of expression in which the intended meaning is the opposite of what is seemingly expressed.

the irony of the title

sarcasm applies to expression frequently in the form of irony that is intended to cut or wound.

given to heartless sarcasm

satire applies to writing that exposes or ridicules conduct, doctrines, or institutions either by direct criticism or more often through irony, parody, or caricature.

a satire on the Congress

repartee implies the power of answering quickly, pointedly, or wittily.

a dinner guest noted for repartee

Examples of irony in a Sentence

The great irony of human intelligence is that the only species on Earth capable of reason, complex-problem solving, long-term planning and consciousness understands so little about the organ that makes it all possible—the brain. Amanda Bower, Time, 20 Aug. 2001
The great irony of anthracite is that, tough as it is to light, once you get it lit it's nearly impossible to put out. Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods, 1999
And the irony is obvious: those who once had been the victims of separatism, who had sacrificed so dearly to overcome their being at the margins, would later create an ethos of their own separatism. Shelby Steele, Harper's, July 1992
a writer known for her clever use of irony “What a beautiful view,” he said, his voice dripping with irony, as he looked out the window at the alley. She described her vacation with heavy irony as “an educational experience.” It was a tragic irony that he made himself sick by worrying so much about his health. That's just one of life's little ironies. The irony of the situation was apparent to everyone. He has a strong sense of irony. See More
Recent Examples on the Web The irony is that in the dispute that precipitated her ouster, Gay was right and Stefanik was wrong. Yair Rosenberg, The Atlantic, 5 Feb. 2024 The irony here is that, for all Cooper’s strenuous efforts, Maestro has managed to become the season’s official villain without ever being a legitimate threat. Vulture, 3 Feb. 2024 There is some irony, of course, in asking women who have done so much — made countless movies and shows, produced others, won a shelf of awards — to play women who did so little. Alexis Soloski, New York Times, 30 Jan. 2024 There is certainly an irony to centering this take on Griselda’s life around her relationship with her children. Hunter Ingram, Variety, 26 Jan. 2024 Another irony in this case is that the monopolist in the airline industry that is interfering most with healthy competition is the government itself. Stephen Moore, National Review, 23 Jan. 2024 That is no small irony, as the 5th Circuit sits in a courthouse named for John Minor Wisdom, one of the heroic judges of the civil rights era. Jonathan Entin, The Conversation, 22 Jan. 2024 With some irony, Jones presents their sleuthing through a mix of computer and cellphone screens – the very places L’espérance doesn’t want to be. Thomas Page, CNN, 29 Jan. 2024 The conversation plays out in full and without commentary: The irony of having to humor the advances of one man to prove those of another is plain and startling, though Ito, long hardened to such cruelties, also finds dry, mirthless humor in them. Guy Lodge, Variety, 26 Jan. 2024 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'irony.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


Latin ironia, from Greek eirōnia, from eirōn dissembler

First Known Use

1502, in the meaning defined at sense 3

Time Traveler
The first known use of irony was in 1502

Dictionary Entries Near irony

Cite this Entry

“Irony.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 22 Feb. 2024.

Kids Definition


iro·​ny ˈī-rə-nē How to pronounce irony (audio)
plural ironies
: the use of words that mean the opposite of what one really intends
: an ironic expression or utterance
: inconsistency between an actual and an expected result of a sequence of events
: a result marked by this inconsistency
: the contradiction between the situation developed in a drama and the words or actions of the characters that is understood by the audience but not by the characters themselves
Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
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