Roger Kreuz on irony and the OED

Roger Kreuz on irony and the OED

What do the words perpetrate, picnic, and precious have in common? How about the phrases clutch one’s pearls, fun and games, and little ray of sunshine? It turns out that a sense for each of these terms is labeled as ironic in the Third Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The online dictionary has grown to over 600,000 entries, but out of this vast number, the ironic usage label appears only a few hundred times.

Scholars in a variety of fields continue to grapple with the meaning of the term “ironic.” Verbal irony is typically defined as language that “normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect,” to quote the current definition in the OED. In addition, irony’s overlap with the concept of sarcasm continues to be a source of controversy among philosophers, rhetoricians, psychologists, and cognitive scientists who study the referents for these terms. The usage labels in the OED provide a unique lens for taking a close look at this slippery concept.

Only 295 entries in the OED contain a usage label that refers to irony. This is the smallest number of entries for any of the thirteen usage labels available via the advanced search function. It’s far smaller, for example, than the number of entries marked as “regional” (about 13,000), “poetic and literary” (3,300), or “derogatory” (2,700). The 295 entries actually contain 349 instances of the ironic usage label, since some entries have multiple senses that are marked in this way. And this is a large enough number to allow some generalizations to be made.

How well do the dictionary’s entries match up with modern research on verbal irony? One could argue that this source of data isn’t particularly informative. After all, the OED reflects the work of many hands over the course of about 140 years. It may be, therefore, that these labels simply reflect folk theories about irony held by various editors over time. But it’s worth taking a look to see what these entries can tell us.

For example, nearly half of the senses marked as ironic in the OED are nouns or compounds (e.g., Einstein, funfest, Second Coming). This makes sense, given that nouns form the largest grammatical class in English. However, another quarter of the ironic senses are adverbs or adjectives (deathless, dreaded, fine) which is far higher than their base rate in English. This fits well with contemporary psycholinguistic research on verbal irony. This work has shown that particular parts of speech, such as adverbs and adjectives, are associated with ironic intent.

In some cases, a word or phrase is used ironically far less often than its literal form, while in others, an ironic intention predominates. The editors of the OED have tried to capture this by including qualifiers in the usage labels. These are intended to provide a general sense of how often a sense is employed ironically. Two-thirds of the entries with an irony label include a qualifier, such as “frequently,” (beaut, that’s a laugh) “also” (comedian, silly me) or “sometimes” (bounty, one big happy family). In fact, just one entry has the bald assertion “always ironic:” a fat lot, in a definition dating from 1895.

This equivocation is in line with modern scholarship that treats verbal irony as a graded phenomenon. In other words, a word or a phrase might be perceived as slightly or as deeply ironic depending on the context in which it is uttered. Who is doing the speaking, and to whom, matters a great deal. And the tone of voice that a speaker employs matters as well.

It is unclear, however, how helpful these sometimes subtle gradations might be for the dictionary’s end users. One can imagine someone looking up sage or an officer and a gentleman to help figure out whether they’ve been complimented or insulted with such an appellation, only to be less than enlightened by a terse label like “frequently ironic.”

About a fifth of the irony usage labels in the OED contain a diachronic qualifier. Most of these are either “now ironic” (genius, sapient) or “in later use ironic” (alms, liberate) but never, for example, “previously ironic” or “once ironic.” This suggests that new words and phrases tend to be employed literally at first and then evolve (or devolve) into figurative and nonliteral forms. This seems to occur frequently with phrasal forms as they transmute into clichés (fun and games, never a dull moment, wonders never cease).

Such shifts may not be apparent during the course of one person’s lifetime. They do, however, emerge when lexicographers compare citations over longer timescales. And in this way, lexicography can provide insights that cannot be obtained through experimental research.

Finally, verbal irony serves a variety of discourse goals, such as to be humorous or to express negative emotion. About a sixth of the irony labels in the OED mention a role played by humor, as in “frequently ironic or humorous” (Englishy, mighty) or “in humorous or ironic use” (dreaded, titular). By comparison, however, verbal irony’s role in expressing negative emotion is not much in evidence. Only a handful of the ironic entries are marked in this way, such as with the qualifier “derogatory” (patriot, right mess of it) or “depreciative” (milady, picturesque). And only five entries mention sarcasm (laugh it up, what fun), even though many researchers have equated these two concepts.

In short, the usage labels from the OED can provide a useful test bed for evaluating ideas about language use. And in the case of documenting usage over time, these labels can provide information that can be found nowhere else.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.