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

Example Sentences

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 In this world, a too-smart intellectual can liken a supermarket to church without irony (while, of course, being satirized, however gently). K. Austin Collins, Rolling Stone, 30 Dec. 2022 Balenciaga is without a doubt a streetwear label, grounded in club culture, dark irony and Georgian irreverence. Ashley W. Simpson, Robb Report, 22 Dec. 2022 Often, these symbols strike notes of irony and absurdity. Jody Rosen, New York Times, 21 Dec. 2022 The dominant idiom on so many platforms is one of soi-distant irony and disaffection. WIRED, 16 Nov. 2022 Kjartansson uses very 21st-century modes of irony and humor, as well as repetition (his aesthetic calling card) and boredom, to draw our attention to this. Sebastian Smee, Washington Post, 14 Nov. 2022 Perched on the lower slopes of the mountains on the north side of Tehran, Evin’s solidity and efficiency loom over the city below—emblematic of an ideology without irony. Kian Tajbakhsh, The Atlantic, 1 Nov. 2022 The Final Girls uses clever irony and meta-play to riff with its viewers, where knowledge of the summer horror sub-genre becomes really the only way to safely exit this endless camp time loop — for both mother and daughter. Nathan Smith, Vulture, 5 Aug. 2022 That the best solution for GrapheneOS is to install it on a Pixel device, due to the improved security in Google's hardware, is the ultimate irony... Ewan Spence, Forbes, 31 Dec. 2022 See More

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'irony.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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 2 Feb. 2023.

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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