A post from Shady Characters

Irony & Sarcasm marks, part 1 of 3

This is the first of three posts in a series on Irony & Sarcasm Marks. Continue to PART 2 or view ALL POSTS in the series.

If the multiplicity of irony marks created over the centuries suggests anything, it is that irony must be peculiarly tricky to communicate in writing. And if the subsequent failure of each and every one of those marks to gain anything approaching mainstream acceptance is anything to go by, it is unlikely to get any easier.

Irony is, at its heart, the presence of a second, contradictory meaning within a situation or expression. Dictionary definitions1 vary in the details, but all broadly agree on its main flavours.2 Socratic irony, for instance, is the use of feigned ignorance of the subject at hand — the way a teacher answers a student’s question with another question, or a skilled debater gives his opponent enough rope to hang himself.* In dramatic irony, the audience of a dramatic work is made aware of the true state of affairs while one or more of the characters are not; Romeo’s despairing suicide in response to Juliet’s apparent death, which the audience knows to be faked, is an oft-quoted example. Situational irony describes an occasion or event whose outcome is opposite but perversely appropriate to what was expected, while its sibling cosmic irony sees a guiding hand behind such occurrences. When someone mutters “Isn’t that ironic?” they are almost certainly referring to a perceived situational irony.

In all these cases, the power to decide whether or not a given situation is ironic lies in the hands of its observers. Ironies like these simply are, or are not; they neither benefit from nor require punctuation.

Verbal irony, by contrast, the simple act of saying one thing while meaning something else, presents ample opportunity for both the ironist and their audience to get it wrong. This form of irony in particular is a staple fixture of modern communication: a study of conversations between American college students in 2000 found that verbal irony (along with its brattish stepchildren sarcasm, hyperbole and understatement) accounted for fully 8% of their conversational turns.4 Despite lending itself well to the nuances and inflections of the spoken word, committing verbal irony to paper is fraught with difficulty for both writer and reader, demanding a certain amount of skill on the part of the would-be ironist and an associated degree of perceptiveness of its audience. As such, it is the written presentation of verbal irony that has attracted the attention of a string of writers, academics, journalists and typographers bent on ‘fixing’ its shortcomings.

The first documented attempt to create a mark intended specifically to indicate an ironic statement came more than three centuries ago, when the English vicar and natural philosopher John Wilkins published his Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language in 1668.5 Brother-in-law of Oliver Cromwell, first secretary of the newly-founded Royal Society, head of Wadham College, Oxford and later Trinity College, Cambridge,6 Wilkins was a minor Leonardo da Vinci of his day: among other enterprises, he posited the possibility of extraterrestrial life on the moon7 (and designed a flying machine to get there8), wrote the first book on cryptography in English, and fabricated transparent beehives that allowed honey to be extracted without killing the bees inside.9 Essay, though, was to be his crowning achievement.

Delayed by the partial destruction of his manuscript in the Great Fire of London of 1666,10 Wilkins pressed on to publish the book two years later. Essay was a bold, bipartite endeavour: the ‘real character’ of the title was Wilkins’ proposed taxonomy of letters and symbols intended for “the distinct expression of all things and notions that fall under discourse”,11 while the corresponding ‘philosophical language’ was a phonetic guide to pronouncing the resultant terms.

Wilkins declared that within his constructed language, irony should be punctuated with an inverted exclamation mark (‘¡’).12 Like Ray Tomlinson’s selection of the ‘@’ symbol for his new email addressing scheme, with hindsight Wilkins’ choice of the ‘¡’ seems most appropriate. The exclamation mark already modifies the tone of a statement, and inverting it to yield an ‘i’-like character both hints at the implied irony and suggests the inversion of its meaning. Unfortunately, apt as his decision may have been, Wilkins’ invention has the distinction not only of being the first of many irony marks but also the first to fail. Essay is nowadays regarded as a glorious failure, a grand but ultimately doomed attempt to impose order on the intrinsic disorder of the universe. His irony mark sank along with it, seemingly without trace, and the prospect of a dedicated irony mark went unaddressed for two hundred years afterwards.

The next stirrings towards an irony mark came in 1781, when the Genevois philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau complained in his Essai sur l’origine des langues,13 (‘Essay on the origin of language’) that the vocal inflections that so readily identify an ironic statement are absent from its written representation. This lack of punctuation for irony seemed to hold a particular fascination for Francophones, for after Rousseau’s musings the next two attempts to remedy it would come from prominent French writers.

The poet Marcel Bernhardt — better known by his anagrammatic pseudonym Alcanter de Brahm — was first to throw his chapeau into the ring. His 1899 book L’ostensoir des ironies14 (‘The Monstrosity of Irony’) was a meandering philosophical tract in which he put forward a new mark of punctuation resembling a stylised, reversed question mark. Alcanter’s point d’ironie, or ‘irony point’, was dripping in knowing humour. In a nod to the sentiment often conveyed by verbal irony, he described it as “taking the form of a whip”,15 and, aware that irony loses its sting if it must be telegraphed in exactly the manner he was proposing, the French name for his new symbol was a double entendre with the additional meaning of ‘no irony’.16

Alcanter de Brahm's 'whip-like' irony mark
Alcanter de Brahm’s ‘whip-like’ point d’ironie, proposed in 1899 in L’ostensoir des ironies. (Derived from a public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Wayne C. Booth, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Chicago until his death in 2005, addressed de Brahm’s irony mark in the dense 1974 tome A Rhetoric of Irony. At first dismissing the point d’ironie as reducing the value of irony (de Brahm himself would have been first to acknowledge the limitations of his creation), Booth goes on to make the insidious suggestion that any reader encountering such a mark would be faced with a dilemma: does the mark genuinely signal an ironic statement, or is the mark itself being used ironically?17 Later, though, when discussing the variable degrees of success with which irony is deployed in literature, he drops in an ironic footnote of his own:

If [de Brahm] had ever developed his system he would surely have wanted a set of evaluative sub-symbols: * = average; † = superior; ‡ = not so good; § = marvelous; || = perhaps expunge.18

Unsurprisingly, Booth’s tongue-in-cheek ‘evaluative sub-symbols’ never went further than the pages of his book.

Perhaps unwittingly, Alcanter de Brahm had created a mark of punctuation that was uncannily similar in both form and function to a much earlier one. As far back as 1575, the printer Henry Denham had so doubted the acuity of his readers that he had felt it necessary to create the ‘percontation point’, a reversed question mark (⸮) used to terminate rhetorical questions.19 By taking it upon himself to furnish this subspecies of verbal irony with a unique mark of punctuation, Denham prefigured Alcanter’s own irony mark by three centuries.

Both Denham’s percontation point and de Brahm’s point d’ironie fared better than Wilkins’ inverted exclamation mark, though neither one managed the jump to common usage. Benefiting, perhaps, from the era’s still-malleable standards of punctuation, the percontation point soldiered on for fifty years before disappearing, while the point d’ironie merited an entry in the Nouveau Larousse Illustré encyclopaedia and its successors until 1960.15 In their respective times, neither amounted to anything more than a grammatical curiosity.

A few years after the whip-like point d’ironie appeared in the pages of Le Petit Larousse Illustré for the last time, one of France’s best-known authors revived the search for an irony mark with his own suggestion. And a mere suggestion it was, right from the very start: best known for novels of familial strife and youthful rebellion, Hervé Bazin adopted instead a distinctly playful tone for 1966’s Plumons l’oiseau: divertissement or ‘Plucking the Bird: a Diversion’. Born in Angers in 1911 to a strictly Catholic family,20 Jean Pierre Marie Hervé-Bazin railed against the strictures of bourgeois life from a young age, running away several times and generally doing his level best to infuriate his overbearing mother. The feud spilled over into his breakthrough 1948 novel Vipère au poing,21 or ‘Viper in the Fist’, in which he fictionalised the struggles of his childhood — the novel features a domineering mother named Folcoche, from the French folle for ‘crazy’ and cochonne for ‘pig’ — to great critical acclaim and not a little scandal.

By 1966 the firebrand writer had calmed somewhat, and Plumons l’oiseau was a gentle foray into spelling and grammar reform. Among discourses on the irrationality of modern French, descriptions of a proposed phonetic spelling system (‘l’orthographie lojike’) and sundry grammatical changes, Bazin found time to pen a few pages on what he called Les points d’intonation,22 or ‘intonation points’. Like Rousseau, he contended that written language lacked the nuance and subtlety of the spoken word; unlike Rousseau, he rolled up his sleeves and addressed the problem by creating a whole range of new punctuation marks. In addition to the ‘love point’, ‘conviction point’, ‘authority point’, ‘acclamation point’ and ‘doubt point’ was Bazin’s own point d’ironie:

Hervé Bazin’s menagerie of proposed punctuation marks
Hervé Bazin’s menagerie of proposed punctuation marks, the psi-like point d’ironie among them. (Image taken from Plumons l’oiseau, divertissement by Hervé Bazin © Grasset & Fasquelle, 1967, Paris.)

Bazin explained his new mark thus:

Le point d’ironie: ψ
This is an arrangement of the Greek letter ψ. This letter (psi) is an arrow in the bow, corresponding to ps: that is to say the sound of that same arrow in the air. What could be better to denote irony?23

Despite this picturesque explanation, and like Wilkins’ and Alcanter’s efforts before it, Bazin’s mark was doomed to obscurity. His point d’ironie was the last ‘analogue’ irony mark: the future resurrection of the idea would come not from traditional authors but instead the collaborative drive of that engine of relentlessly ironic discourse, the Internet.

irony,” Oxford Dictionaries Online, 2011. ↩︎
R. W. Gibbs and H. L. Colston, “Irony as Relevant Inapproriateness.” Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2007. ↩︎
J. Winokur, “You call that irony?,” Los Angeles Times, 2007. ↩︎
R. W. Gibbs and H. L. Colston, “Irony in Talk Among Friends,” in Irony in language and thought: a cognitive science reader, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2007, p. 339+. ↩︎
J. Wilkins, An essay towards a real character, and a philosophical language., Printed for S. Gellibrand [etc.], 1668. ↩︎
Unknown bibtex entry with key [chambers1847cyclopædia] ↩︎
J. Wilkins, The discovery of a world in the moone, or, A discourse tending to prove, that ’tis probable there may be another habitable world in that planet, Printed by E.G. for Michael Sparke and Edward Forrest, 1638. ↩︎
Forget Apollo and Sputnik: How a Briton launched the space race in the 1640s,” Daily Mail, 2009. ↩︎
J. L. Borges and R. L. C. Simms, “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins,” in Other inquisitions, 1937-1952, University of Texas Press, 1975, p. 101+. ↩︎
S. Auroux, “Theories of Grammar and Language Philosophy in the 17th and 18th Centuries,” in History of the language sciences: an international handbook on the evolution of the study of language from the beginnings to the present, Walter de Gruyter, 2000, vol. 2. ↩︎
S. Clauss, “John Wilkins’ Essay Toward a Real Character: Its place in the seventeenth-century episteme,” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 43, iss. 4, pp. 531-553, 1982. ↩︎
D. Knox, “Ironia Unmasked.” Brill, 1989. ↩︎
J. Rousseau, “Essai sur l’origine des langues,” in Collection complète des oeuvres de J. J. Rousseau, Citoyen de Geneve, Geneva: [s.n.], 1782, vol. 8, pp. 357-434. ↩︎
B. de Alcanter, L’Ostensoir des ironies, essai de métacritique, bibliothèque d’art de ‘la Critique’, 1899. ↩︎
S. Zank, “Gentle Irony.” University of Rochester Press, 2009. ↩︎
T. J. Attanucci, “No Irony?,” Meta Magazine, 2011. ↩︎
W. C. Booth, “Is It Ironic?,” in A rhetoric of irony, University of Chicago Press, 1975, p. 55+. ↩︎
W. C. Booth, “Learning Where to Stop.” University of Chicago Press, 1975. ↩︎
M. B. Parkes, “Plates 34-35. The Percontativus used by two sixteenth-century London Printers: Henry Denham and Abell Jeffs.” University of California Press, 1993, pp. 218-219. ↩︎
J. Kirkup, “Obituary: Hervé Bazin,” The Independent, 1996. ↩︎
H. Bazin, Vipère Au Poing, {\{}É{\}}ditions Garnier, 1948. ↩︎
Unknown bibtex entry with key [bazin1966plumons] ↩︎
H. Bazin, “\Les points d’intonation\.” B. Grasset, 1966. ↩︎
Proving that Socratic irony is not the sole preserve of classical Greek philosophers, Sacha Baron Cohen’s comic characters Ali G, Borat and Brüno use this very technique to skewer the attitudes, ignorance or prejudices of those they meet.3 ↩︎
The author’s own anecdotal experience suggests that this is a gross underestimate, and that the probability of the apology, “I was being ironic,” becoming necessary in any conversation approaches unity the longer that conversation continues. ↩︎
Booth’s Rhetoric incorrectly presents de Brahm’s creation as a rotated question mark (‘¿’). ↩︎

27 comments on “Irony & Sarcasm marks, part 1 of 3

  1. Comment posted by John Cowan on

    The real problem with an irony mark, I think, is that it’s only naive irony that wants to call attention to itself. Sophisticated irony is meant to slip past most people and appeal only to the cognoscenti. It’s the deadpan tone that makes “A Modest Proposal” the ironic masterpiece it is.

    The problem with Wilkins’s scheme is not so much the arbitrariness of his hierarchy as the fact that the words are too similar: Eco points out that Wilkins himself wrote gαde (barley) instead of gαpe (tulip).

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi John,

      I think you’d find that most irony mark creators would agree with you. I think there’s more of a case for a sarcasm mark, especially in quick-fire online conversations (I’ll get to this in part 3), but even then it isn’t clear cut.

      Thanks for the comment!

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Tammela — thanks for the comment, and I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Stay tuned for part 2 in a couple of weekends’ time.

  2. Comment posted by almeda on

    Can’t wait for the next installment!

    My French is nearly nonexistent, but might le point d’amour be a precursor to the Internet’s much beloved less-than-three?

    (And I couldn’t help but proofread as I read.)
    “more then three centuries ago”
    “Booth goes on makes the insidious suggestion”

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      The point d’amour does have a certain similarity to ‘<3’. A heart shape is probably the go-to icon for a love or affection point, and it’s nice to see that Unicode has a number of dedicated such symbols: “I♥NY” looks pretty neat, does it not?

      Thanks for the comment, and for pointing out the mistakes! They should be fixed now.

  3. Comment posted by Gordon P. Hemsley on

    This isn’t particularly on-topic, but I’ve been wondering why you put your footnotes after your references instead of vice versa. Is there any particular reason?

    In an attempt to redeem some topicality:
    The symbol Bazin actually uses is an exclamation point with a bit of a combining middle breve-like symbol. You represent it as identical to the psi, which it is not. Not being able to find a combining middle breve, I’ll try with a tilde: !̴

    I’ll also not that Bazin’s psi looks a lot like the USB trident logo (moreso than the psi you use, anyway): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:USB_Icon.svg

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Gordon,

      Thanks for the comment!

      The ordering of footnotes and references is a product of the WordPress plug-ins (WP-Footnotes and papercite) I use to manage them. I’m sure that with a bit of playing around I could place the footnotes first, but unfortunately there’s always been more pressing work to do.

      I chose the Greek letter psi mostly to mirror Bazin’s suggestion of its sound, and partly because I didn’t have much time to investigate alternatives. Your breve plus exclamation mark sounds promising, though, and if I revisit the article again in the future I’ll have a play around with that!

    2. Comment posted by Aaron Davies on

      I note another possible layer of irony in Bazin’s design—his handwritten form looks an awful lot like one of the most French of all symbols, the fleur-de-lis ⚜. Perhaps he means to imply that irony is indeed peculiarly Gallic?

  4. Comment posted by Cy on

    Interesting piece, interesting research. I advise you to get a little help with your French before you publish. One example among others: an ostensoir is a monstrance, not a monstrosity or any other kind of monster. A monstrance is a bejewelled casing on a rod or other support that holds a Christian relic for display in processions. Latin monstrare: to display.
    J.-J. Rousseau’s years were all in the 18th century, not the 19th.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Cy — thanks for taking the time to comment, and for pointing out those errors! I’ll add them to the list of errata.

  5. Comment posted by Higgs Bison on

    Now people just do it like this!!!1

  6. Comment posted by Harry on

    In digital communications, :P, which is the typographic form of a tongue-in-cheek emoticon, is used extensively as a way of depicting a irony, or at least a loaded, unspoken meaning.

  7. Comment posted by Madeck on

    Very compelling article and website, both by content and form.
    Articles in several parts would benefit greatly from a link to the other parts, maybe like so:

    Part I
    Part II
    Part III

    It took me a full minute on my mobile device to find the following parts of this series. Although it made me see some of the other great content you write about, I was eager to follow up the Irony & Sarcasm marks story, and even browsing by tag was somewhat unsatisfactory with only four articles per page. I believe this is a minor implementation that would much improve the browsing of your excellent website.

    Your extensive use of references is also very nice.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Madeck — I take your point about making it more apparent to which series an article belongs. Next and previous posts are, of course, linked to in the article footer, but I agree that there’s room for improvement.

      Thanks for the comment!

    2. Comment posted by Madeck on

      First, next and previous is somewhat unclear because one could consider left to be either newer or older. To me, if newer articles appear on top of older articles—as is the case on your homepage—you could by the same logic expect newer articles to be on the left of older articles. Here I believe this logic is inverted and only once I have scrolled to the bottom of your article can I know the its posting date and time.

      Second, because the navigation is only at the bottom of the article and not mirror at the top, flipping through articles requires to click » scroll-click » scoll-click » scroll instead of click » click » click. This again assume the time-direction relationship is correctly understood by the user.

      Third, googling “irony sarcasm part 2 of 3” would get me there faster that through your own website.

      Again, these comments concern solely the user experience.

    3. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Madeck — more good points. Thanks again! I’ll have to look into all this when I find some free time.

  8. Comment posted by Catherine Barber on

    I wish there could be a standard punctuation-mark that indicated a rhetorical ‘question’. I was told that one should use the ordinary question-mark for rhetorics as well as for an actual question, but, to me, this seems ‘flabby’ somehow so I’ve always left off any punctuation mark at all.

    How about using the question-mark reversed to indicate a rhetoric….. (Which brings me to the question: does one use a question-mark when the sentance is a suggestion as much as a question?).

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Catherine — for the most part, I’d think that a switched-on reader will pick up a rhetorical question punctuated with nothing more than a standard ‘?’. As for a question that is as much a suggestion…hmm. That’s a difficult one, and I’m not sure I could come down on one side or the other. I imagine each such sentence will suggest the appropriate punctuation!

    2. Comment posted by Catherine Barber on

      Hello Keith – I find that’s the problem: many readers just don’t seem that ‘switched on’ – the most reason being that they have a zero-concentration which makes them just skim through anything. Understandable really – afraid I often find myself doing this too. Life has been made too short.

      So, it’s crucial to me that anything I write is as ‘skim proof’as possible: so that hopefully the essence (ie, irony or rhetoric) as well as any essential points would catch the attention of even the most fleeting or not-very-bright reader.

      So, universally-recognized standard marks immediately indicating irony or rhetoric would be a godsend. I’m quite a user of the ‘(!)’ but realize this ‘catch-all’ mark can easily get overused – simply because it’s the only one around.

    3. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Catherine — I take your point, especially with respect to writing that you expect will be skimmed over rapidly. Henry Denham’s percontation point is exactly the reversed question mark that you describe in your earlier comment, and it would certainly draw a reader’s attention to a rhetorical question. Perhaps it’s time to make a comeback, and perhaps you’re the writer to resurrect it!

  9. Comment posted by Duncan Chappell on

    Hello Keith,

    There is an avant-garde arts periodical named after de Brahm’s point d’ironie, originally conceived by fashion designer agnes b, artist Christian Boltanski, and curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist in 1997. Around 6 episodes a year are published and distributed free-of-charge to arts institutions, as a kind of ‘gallery without walls’. Each issue, a different artist or designer is given carte blanche to use the format in any way they wish. http://www.pointdironie.com/

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Duncan — I seem to remember coming across Le point d’ironie a while back. I thought it had perhaps ceased publication, but it’s good to hear that it’s still going strong. Thanks for the comment!

  10. Comment posted by John V. Karavitis on

    At the bottom of Comment Boxes (like this one), they have fields for Name, Email, and “Website”. Why “Website”? Is some other website more important than the one that’s being commented upon right here and now? Quite ironic, if you ask me, and more so, given that it’s found in an article about irony and punctuation marks related to irony. (Actually, I’m being sarcastic, if you couldn’t tell. And too bad there are no punctuation marks for that, eh?)

    So is the “Website” field a “double” irony? Would you (even want to) use an irony punctuation mark twice to highlight to a reader that that is the case? Or once, and a second time superscripted on top of the first instance of the irony punctuation?

    Punctuation marks for highlighting an (alleged) instance of irony are futile and counter-productive, since irony has to be in the eyes of the reader. Something may be ironic to one person, sarcastic to another, and pointless to a third. Punctuation marks are guides to make reading more efficient by helping readers with situations which are unclear, such as commas used to separate clauses. Any such marks to highlight/note “irony” go beyond this, in that they do the thinking for the reader. That’s not the purpose of punctuation marks. Does the writer really want to go beyond clarifying his intention, as with commas, colons, semi-colons, periods, question marks, etc., and start doing the thinking for the reader??? (Triple question marks for intensity of emotion. Perhaps I should have used an interrobang? Actually, I couldn’t have, even if I had wanted to. No such critter on my keyboard! (More irony? Or should I say instead that I was again being sarcastic?)) No poet worth his quill would deign to do the thinking for the reader.

    The whole thing is… ironic, no?

    John V. Karavitis

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi John — I’m sure you twigged, but the “website” field is there to let the commenter add a link to their own website (or Twitter profile, or Instagram profile, and so on), if desired.

      I take your point that irony and/or sarcasm marks are a difficult subject, but punctuation hasn’t been solely for the reader’s benefit for some time. They’re a negotiation, to some extent, between the writer and the reader — they aren’t just clarification as to the writer’s intent but can also be used as a creative tool in their own right. Nor is there a right way or a wrong way to use a given mark: your decision to use an exclamation mark here or there might ring false to me (and vice versa), and so there’s plenty of room for an irony or sarcasm mark whose use might occasionally be contentious.

      Thanks for the comment!

Leave a comment

Required fields are marked *. Your email address will not be published.

Leave a blank line for a new paragraph. You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

3 links to “Irony & Sarcasm marks, part 1 of 3