Why would someone say the opposite of what they mean? The usual explanation is that irony creates an incongruity setting up mockery or humour. It seems a dangerous stratagem if it evinces puzzlement or incredulity in their listener. It can backfire embarrassingly. Yet it prevalent in all cultures to a greater or lesser degree.

The benefits associated with using verbal irony must be significant if they are to outweigh the social risks. Suppose there were a country whose history was characterised by colonial subjugation and famine. The people were powerless but had to find hope. They used the power of the word to achieve three things: transcendence, solidarity and humour.
Irony stresses the absurdity in the contradiction between substance and form. Whatever fate or man would throw at the benighted peasants, they could maintain their dignity. They embraced the world as it might be, not as it was. Their language was of transcendence not of supplication. Furthermore, they wanted to show solidarity with their fellow souls. Given that the overt expression of defiance could be detrimental, it was necessary to have a different way of interpreting language. The simplest code was to reverse the usual meaning . A shared awareness of this doublespeak provides an element of control over the situation and numerous opportunities for humour.

Verbal irony has developed to a refined level amongst the Irish who are famous for their wit and repartee. Irish authors from Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne to Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde have been masters of irony. Their irony is not just a literary device – it is an essential element to communication in their contemporary culture.
American culture has a more circumscribed role for irony given the need to find a common language for the waves of immigrants speaking different tongues. If verbal irony was ever widespread, it was doused by the dynamics of economic growth and social progress. Yet it is visible in creative media such as The Simpsons which comments brilliantly on the modern world whilst appearing to be a childrens’ cartoon. Where there is social or political stasis, irony will bloom. Why are three Russian policemen travelling in a car? One to read, one to write, and one to monitor the two intellectuals.