Keith Houston’s 2013 book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks has a chapter on the surprisingly extensive historical effort to put forth a punctuation mark that indicates irony. In his Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (1668), John Wilkins proposed an inverted exclamation mark for this purpose. Nearly two centuries later, Jean-Baptiste-Ambroise-Marcellin Jobard created an “irony point,” which Houston describes as “a “triangular, Christmas tree-like glyph.” In 1899, Marcel Bernhardt (also known by his anagrammatic pen name, Alcanter de Brahm), offered his own irony point, a reverse question mark, which he described as “taking the form of a whip.”
In 1966, the French writer Hervé Bazin proposed a whole series of typographical “intonation points,” to indicate love, conviction, authority, doubt, acclamation, and irony. The last, as he described it, was “an arrangement of the Greek letter ψ [psi]. This letter is an arrow in the bow, ... that is to say the sound of the same arrow in the air. What could be better to denote irony?”
That brings us to the edge of our present age, where both irony and typographical indicators of it abound. The latter include the tilde (˜), the rolling-eyes emoticon, and the winking smiley face, rendered as ;-). Wikipedia reports: “Another example is bracketing text with the symbol for the element iron (
</Fe>) in order to denote irony. Typing in all-capital letters, and emoticons like ‘Rolling eyes,’ ':>,’ and ':P,’ as well as using the ‘victory hand’ dingbat/emoji () character to simulate air quotes, are often used as well.”
The reference to air quotes is a reminder of the most successful, albeit specialized, irony indicator. To express disdain for, or at least some psychological distance from, a word or phrase, writers surround it with quotation marks, also known as scare quotes or inverted commas. (As I observed here last year, our president uses them in his own special way.) That, of course, led to a version for speech: air quotes, which Joey on Friends famously didn’t understand.
What put me in mind of this subject was a recent experience of spending two weeks in Italy with a diverse group of about a dozen people. Two of them -- bright American women in their mid-to-late thirties -- quickly paired up and started spending a lot of time together. It struck me that when they spoke, a big part of their vocabulary was slang terms from the past 25 or 30 years. The really striking thing was that they almost always used the slang ironically -- and that the degree of irony increased according to how old the slang was. They didn’t use air quotes to indicate irony but rather a deft vocal pause and emphasis.
If I were rendering one of their exchanges in print, I might render the degree of irony by the number of inverted commas. So it might look like:
A: We’re ''chillaxing’’ with the ‘peeps’ at the bar this afternoon.
B: 'Awesome sauce.’ That would be '''tots’'' '''da bomb.’''
A: Good day to put on some '''bling’'' and ''get our Spritz on.’'
The two women’s verbal style suggests to me that the half-life of slang has gotten shorter. Consider: Green’s Dictionary of Slang indicates that the adjective groovy emerged from jazz and African-American lingo no later than 1937, and for decades after that, it was possible to use the word ironically. But take a look at some of the slang terms for “good” that have emerged, according to a Green’s timeline, in recent times: bitchin, dope, sick, all that, off the hook, bootylicious, amazeballs, dopalicious, lit, and fire. With the possible exception of the last two, which date from 2016, today it would be impossible to use any of them with a completely straight face.
John Oliver recently addressed the subject in his HBO series Last Week Tonight. He started by showing this tweet:
Then he declared: “I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree with Mister Junior on this, because I don’t think this is ‘lit’ at all. I mean, it’s obvs cray AF, no one is denying that fam, but I would argue that this week’s news was neither lit nor on fleek nor was it three fire emojis. Now, granted, I’m still a little shook jsyk, but I personally believe Kennedy’s retirement is super werpt. And I’m happy to announce that in saying that, all of the slang words I just used are now officially dead forever — and that includes ‘werpt,’ a term that doesn’t even exist for which I preemptively ruined just in case.”
Thanks a lot, Oliver ;-)