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The week in radio: Radio 4's A Brief History of Irony - a quest to define the indefinable?


Trying to explain the concept of irony can get you into hot water. When I recently told my six-year-old that it meant saying one thing and meaning the opposite, she replied, quite reasonably, "But why not say the thing you mean?"

"Because often sarcasm is more funny," I said.

"But that doesn't make sense."

"Well, yes, I know but..."

"So it's basically like lying."

"Well not exactly..."

"But how is it funny?"

And so it went on.

A similar problem afflicted Radio 4's A Brief History of Irony that set out not only to define irony, but find out where it comes from and what it is for. But what irony is depends on who you ask, as the presenter, writer and satirist Joe Queenan quickly found out.

In the course of his investigation, Queenan consulted the Oxford English Dictionary, Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, Armando Iannucci, Kathy Lette, Ian Hislop, Natalie Haynes, Barry Cryer, John Sergeant, Michael Rosen and Harold Bloom. He was certainly thorough. There was also some archive material of "the great American singer and actress" Madonna explaining the use of irony in her work. If you didn't know why that was funny, this programme probably wasn't for you.

Queenan was quick to acknowledge that "some people might think it ironic that the BBC has hired an American presenter for his show". Because, of course, Americans are a nation that we Brits like to accuse of having no sense of irony, though this claim is swiftly scuppered at the mention of Frasier, M*A*S*H, Larry Sanders, Woody Allen, David Letterman and many, many more.

Indeed, irony in America is so widespread that, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter declared that the age of irony was over. He was wrong, naturally.

Irony, we learned, is all about context. A person's understanding of it can be related to class, culture and geography. It can be a matter of nuance and inflection. Irony is also exclusionary. What's ironic to one person can be lost on another. Which is not only part of the allure, it's part of the effect.

John Sergeant was particularly enlightening, noting that having a sense of humour and being able to laugh at a joke are not the same thing. People from different places and cultures have different joke structures and pulling them apart is a complex business. Meanwhile, Tim Harrod, a staff writer at the American satirical organ The Onion noted that most people have a vague understanding of what irony is, "but the borders are always going to be fuzzy, and in fact every generation gets to define the borders for themselves".

Hamstrung by the task of nailing jelly to a wall, A Brief History of Irony was more of a sweeping glance at modern comedy than a penetrating philosophical enquiry. But that doesn't mean it wasn't worth doing.

The question of where irony began was repeatedly raised – was it with Juvenal, Jane Austen or Jonathan Swift? Was it fully popularised in the 1920s, the 1970s or the 1990s? No one could decide. But if few contributors could hammer out a definitive meaning – Armando Iannucci probably came closest with his "Irony is about recognising a second voice, which is not your own and thinking it might be just as valid" – they certainly knew what it wasn't.

Queenan was particularly good railing against youngsters adopting the fashions of previous generations for ironic effect. "Irony is a weapon," he growled. "It's not a look."