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Christmas in Berlin … Irony and H.W. Fowler 26th of December, 2005 POST·MERIDIEM 04:45

I hope everyone’s enjoying themselves—I enjoyed my Christmas (I’m in Berlin for it); lots of Lisp hacking, reading, and a dinner of pizza and wine, no need to interact with anyone, so more time to devote to the stack of grammar books and dictionaries to my right and the email inbox full of problems with XEmacs.

Via our friends at Wikipedia, H. W. Fowler, in Modern English Usage,  had this to say of irony:

"Irony is a form of utterance that postulates a double audience, consisting of one party that hearing shall hear and shall not understand, and another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware, both of that "more" and of the outsider's incomprehension." 

1926 was the publication date of Fowler’s book, but I come across this in the Bulletin de la société de linguistique de Paris. 1871  :

« I think it very likely, dit-il [M. Whitley Stokes, of Calcutta]  that mahaut  [elephant rider] = mahâmâtra “man of great wealth” is merely an ironical title. So we call
   a sweeper mihtar  “prince”;
   a cook bäwarchí  “trusty”;
   a watercarrier bihistî,  paradisical
   a tailor khalifa, 
So the most degraded class of brahmans (those who attend to the burning of the dead) are called mahâbrâhman.  »

So, Fowler was wrong, because there’s no party “that hearing shall hear and shall not understand” in that example, the elephant jockey is well aware that he’s not a man of great wealth. If you’ve been trying to follow Fowler in your usage of the word, like I was, then give it up :-) . The OED’s first definition seems exact:

"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."