Ironic/Ironical...What gives?

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Ironic/Ironical...What gives?

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Mar 6, 2007, 10:36am

Could somebody please tell me if there is a difference between these two words besides the extra syllable? The word 'ironical' really bugs me. I have yet to see it used where 'ironic' wouldn't suffice. I'm reading A Fatal Inversion by Ruth Rendell (writing as Barbara Vine). I love her writing, but the word 'ironical' keeps popping up, and I groan inwardly each time. Somebody please make excuses for her so that I can read on with faith that the use of 'ironical' is completely necessary. Thank you!

Mar 6, 2007, 11:26am

I'm afraid I won't be any help... that word rates on my hit list about the same level as "conversate" instead of "converse" and "loose" where they mean to say "lose."

Oh yes, and "aweful." *fumes*

Mar 6, 2007, 11:30am



Editado: Mar 6, 2007, 11:36am

Just checked in the Roget's Thesaurus. They are both adjectives, both together, and both to be used as synonyms of "figurative" and "sarcastic" (and all the others in these two categories).
In other words, you can use either one.

Editado: Mar 6, 2007, 11:41am

Then why must people throw in another syllable? Do they think a four-beat word sounds more intellectual than a 3-beat one? She did it again two pages after I posted this thread! Grrrr... Stop it, Ruth!

Mar 6, 2007, 11:42am

Does it really make that much of a difference?

Editado: Mar 6, 2007, 11:46am

It looks silly. It sounds silly to my 'mind's ear' as I read. Also, since I'm reading the book, and it bugs me, yes, it makes a difference.

ETA: Even if 'ironical' were to be abandoned for the much less annoying 'ironic', it would still be overused.

Mar 6, 2007, 11:53am

I just thought of something....we would say (this is just an example) "an ironic/ironical laughter", but would say "this is ironic".

Mar 6, 2007, 12:02pm


Define "we".

I would never say "ironical laughter" unless under extreme duress. I may say "ironic laughter", though I am more likely to say "sardonic" or "derisive" (maybe "sarcastic"). I understand, of course, that those would not work in the context to which I am referring in the original post.

Mar 6, 2007, 12:08pm

Three cheers for Google. :-) If you put in "define: ironical" it asks "Did you mean: define: ironic"?

Too bad Rendell didn't try that.

Mar 6, 2007, 12:12pm

Google is such a lit-snob! :)

Now try 'utilize', as in "I only say 'utilize' when I'm being ironical".

Mar 6, 2007, 12:25pm

The difference? Less than a hundred years, the OED thinks the long form is older but it is far from infallible. Off hand I can't think of an occasion when I would prefer the long form but there might be instances when it would sound the more natural.

Mar 6, 2007, 12:45pm

I really like the explanations. Thanks Simon!

Mar 6, 2007, 4:17pm

I think some people see a distinction between the two words and use them with precise meaning but as the difference is so slight the longer word is being cast aside.

Ironic means exhibiting irony whilst ironical means in an ironic manner.

If you deliberately use a statement with irony you are being ironical but if you say something, without irony, but that people see irony in then you are being ironic. An ironical laugh could be sneering sardonic but an ironic laugh is a sincere one that seems misplaced. Short summary: it is all about the perception of others.

Racial and racialist have similarly been seen as distinct but have also lost their relative positions. An old usage guide suggested racial meant to do with race whilst racialist meant disparagingly to do with race. But as most references to race are tabooed the senses merge.

Mar 6, 2007, 7:10pm

thanks vopaltome for that nuanced but clear explanation. I love the subtle shifts in meaning that english contains

Mar 6, 2007, 9:56pm

Ditto as #15!

Editado: Mar 7, 2007, 3:19am

#14 I disagree with all of that! you assume to much from the the fact that ironically is constructed from the the longer form.
Here is an example from
1603 Another kinde there seemes to be of ironicall praise, opposite unto the former; namely, when semblant is made of blame and reproofe

clearly Ironical refers to intentional irony here.

the OED example of Irony also clearly refer to intentional irony.
1630,Most Socratick lady! Or if you will, ironick!

1788 If there was anything ironic in my meaning, it was levelled at your readers, not at you

as to racial and racist I do not have any trouble distinguishing between the two words . And I would be very surprised if many people do.


Mar 7, 2007, 9:14am

The term he used was 'racialist', not 'racist' in post #14.

Mar 7, 2007, 10:51am

Ah thanks bookishbunny. I think I have just demonstrated there are common confusions between the terms racist and racalist:^) but either of those and racial nope.

now back to irony. Ironically is also used for to describe both irony perceived and implied.

Mar 7, 2007, 11:36am

Ironically I'm not a pedant claiming there is and should be a difference between ironic and ironical, only that others have wanted to see a distinction.

Citing old usage is fine, but that that was when people were happy and carefree and used language anywhichway. Many of the shibboleths of english usage were imposed in the early 20thC or Victorian periods when those frightful lower classes were getting hold of pens. Many of their rules seem erratic, nonsensical and unnecessary.

Actually a good current definition comes from Urban Dictionary (despite UD being infested with cracks, loonies, hotheads and egotists ( like most websites)):

"Comically antiquated variation on 'ironic'..."

This is obviously not what ironical actually means but it is what it is perceived to mean by many.

An now, feeling dirty after quoting UD I will instead quote Philip Sidney from those happy times:

I know some will say, it is a mingled language: and why not so much the better, taking the best of both the other? Another will say, it wanteth grammar. Nay, truly, it hath that praise, that it wants not grammar; for grammar it might have, but needs it not; being so easy in itself, and so void of those cumbersome differences of cases, genders, moods, and tenses; which, I think, was a piece of the tower of Babylon's curse, that a man should be put to school to learn his mother tongue.

Mar 7, 2007, 1:07pm

hey those times still exist that is how I get away with constructions like for to.