Wednesday, September 28, 2011

“Ironic,” Isn’t It?

John from Newberry asked if there is a punctuation mark to signify irony. On air, I focused on what a writer shouldn’t use, and that is quotation marks. To write something such as, My, what a “clever” remark, can best be characterized as smarmy, heavy-handed, and tacky. They’re like air quotes: the first time I saw Steve Martin use them, I chuckled; since then, I roll my eyes.

Off air, some down and dirty research showed that there have been attempts to invent an irony pointer. My feeling is that if you need to be whacked upside the head to recognize irony, you should switch to lighter reading.

At any rate, in 1899, French poet Alcanter de Brahm proposed a point d'ironie that would signal that a statement was ironic; he was later joined by Hervé Bazin. Alcanter proposed placing a question mark facing backward at the end of a sentence to declare the presence of irony. He seems to have lifted the mark from an earlier source, 16th century British printer, Henry Denham.

However, Denham wasn’t concerned with missed irony. He focused on an equally unenlightened group of readers: people who couldn’t recognize a rhetorical question. A rhetorical question doesn’t require an answer; it is directive rather than genuinely inquisitive. What responsible adult wouldn’t help a child in trouble? would be an example.

In our day, a man from Washington, Michigan, is selling a typographical mark to install on your computer. He calls it the SarcMark. It looks something like the at mark @, but upside down and enclosing a dot. He’s asking $1.99. A spokesman for the firm was quoted as saying that this is not a frivolous enterprise. For instance, it would help deaf people recognize irony in closed captions. Perhaps. But if you are hearing-enabled and you need a prompt to recognize irony, you have a problem between your ears.

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