Verbal Irony

At our LST Research miniConference on 28th March, Margaret Sim (of SIL) led us in looking at irony in the Corinthian Correspondence., proposing a definition that verbal irony in epistles are when writers make statements with which they do not in fact agree. Personally, I think that definition is too broad… I think it’s not irony unless the disagreement is implied rather than stated — if writers explicitly disagree with a statement of an opponent, that’s just disagreement, not irony. There almost needs to be ambiguity about it — a temporary suspension of clarity — for it to be truly ironic.

But there are a couple of things I’d never really considered about verbal irony before:

First: the clues which a good communicator includes to let an audience know he or she is being ironic are not integral to the irony but added clues or markers. Thus, the exaggeration of the view or the words of introduction or, in oral speech, the tone of voice, are additions to and enhancements of the irony — the setting, not the gem — irony is not defined by exaggeration or tone. Perhaps the reason that commentators fail to recognize irony is that we fail to recognize the markers from another culture. Paul writing today might have said “Already you are kings… NOT.”

But, second, if irony is about a speaker/writer giving representations which the hearers/readers should come through ambiguity to understand are not their true position, then it stands to reason that a good communicator will be careful to give clearer markers to an audience who does not know them and their true position than to people with whom they are close. For example, to someone who knows me, the irony in the remark “that looks like it was formatted in Microsoft Word” would be clear. A stranger might need an extra marker: “that looks like it was formatted in Microsoft Word (if it can be called formatted).”

Given that the Corinthians probably knew Paul and his ideas very well, the markers of irony could be very subtle indeed and the interpreter should be ready for instances of statements with which Paul gives very little explicit clues of disagreement.

Some examples of irony in the Corinthian correspondence:

1 Cor. 4:8 “You are already filled, you have already become rich, you have become kings… without us.”

2 Cor. 11:19-21 “You, being so wise, bear with the foolish gladly. For you bear with anyone who enslaves you, if he devours you, if he takes advantage of you, if he exalts himself, if he hits you in the face. To my shame, I admit that I have been weak by comparison.

2 Cor. 12:13 “So how did you lose out compared to other churches apart from the fact that I did not burden you? Forgive me this wrong!”