The Grammarphobia Blog

The ironic age

Q: How did we end up with two adjectives, “ironic” and “ironical,” to describe irony? I assume the shorter version came first.

A: It may make sense that the shorter one came first, but let’s not jump to conclusions here. The suffix “-al” is a tricky little devil when it comes to word history. The longer “historical” (1561), for example, is older than “historic” (1669).

First, some background. The “-al” ending is derived from a similar Latin suffix, -alem, and lets us turn nouns into adjectives and adjectives into other adjectives.

In modern English and modern Romance languages, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “-al” can be added to a Latin-derived noun (like “nation,” “proportion,” “constitution”) to form an adjective (“national,” “proportional,” “constitutional”). Similarly, “-al” can be added to Greek-derived nouns to make adjectives (“baptismal,” “octagonal,” “choral”).

The suffix can also be added to other adjectives to make new adjectives, which is how we got “comical” (circa 1432) from “comic” (1387).

However, this isn’t the case with “ironical,” which came BEFORE “ironic.” The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology describes “ironic” (from 1630) as a shortened form of the earlier “ironical” (1576).

Here’s a little etymological family tree, starting with “irony,” the first of the family to make it into English.

We acquired “irony” from the Latin ironia, and ultimately from the earlier Greek eironeia, which the OED defines as meaning “dissimulation, ignorance purposely affected.”

In it’s original, classical sense, the word referred to a rhetorical method (sometimes called “Socratic irony”) in which a teacher or someone involved in a debate would feign ignorance in order to draw out a student or an opponent.

When the word was adopted into English in the early 1500s, the OED says, it meant “a figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used; usually taking the form of sarcasm or ridicule in which laudatory expressions are used to imply condemnation or contempt.”

It was first recorded in English, spelled “yronye,” in a devotional manual (or “ordinary”) called The Ordynarye of Crystyanyte or of Crysten Men (1502). The writer gave “irony” both a religious meaning and a grammatical one.

In the religious sense, the manual says, a man who speaks about his weaknesses just to get a reputation for humility before God commits a sin and “such synne is named yronye.” It compares the religious meaning with one in “grammare, by the whiche a man sayth one & gyueth [giveth] to understande the contrarye.”

“Ironical” and “ironically” came into English at the same time and were first recorded in the same place: Abraham Fleming’s A Panoplie of Epistles (1576), a book on rhetoric. Here are the passages in which the words appear (note that his spellings follow the Greek):

“It may be spoken eironically, for familiar friends use jeasting [jesting] nowe and then, in their letters.” And: “He was (belike) some Pomilio or litle dwarfe, and that made him to use this eironical method.”

Here are the OED‘s definitions: The adverb “ironically” means “in an ironical manner; by way of irony.” The adjective “ironical” means “of the nature of irony or covert sarcasm; meaning the opposite of what is expressed.”

“Ironic,” the latecomer, didn’t appear until 1630. The OED defines it as “pertaining to irony; uttering or given to irony; of the nature of or containing irony.”

It first appeared in print in Ben Jonson’s comic play The New Inne: Or, the Light Heart, in these lines: “Most Socratick Lady! / Or, if you will Ironick! gi’ you joy / O’ your Platonick Love ….” (These are Jonson’s italics.)

It may be that Jonson chose “ironick” simply to rhyme with “Socratick” and “Platonick.” If so, the very existence of “ironic” is ironic!

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