Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Isn't It Ironical?

A few days ago I thought in print about the form orientate. It's a word many people hate. I mentioned in that same post another word that has a similarly maligned reputation: ironical.

What jars many an ear is probably the apparent extra suffix. Ironic sounds sufficient so why add the -al? Are we maybe looking at a difference in meaning? Could it be that something that is characterized by irony is ironic and something that has ironic characteristics is ironical?

Ummm...well...hold on.

The -ical ending in other words is met quite easily and quite often without eliciting the scowl. Even when ending a word with a counterpart that ends in -ic. Economical historical and metrical change meanings slightly when the suffix changes. Technical's counterpart is a relatively uncommon adjective.

Some words such as clerical or cynical have a counter that is a noun. This is an effect that was also seen in Greek. Adjectives ending in -ikos were, in absolute use, nouns. There is some evidence that -ic nouns came through a branching of the -ic form in Middle English. The same Latin and Greek forms that preceded the French -ique (connected to the English adjective form) might have been the source of the Middle English -ike: the ancestor of so many nouns.

And several words (farcical nautical popsicle) have no (or extremely rare) -ic forms.

In some cases the -ic form can be either a noun or an adjective. Though we find that the adjective -ic form is not used in a predicate. It may be a comic opera but the opera is comical. And the lyric sung by the lyric tenor was lyrical.

The -ical suffix can be traced variously to Medieval Latin -icalis or even to the additon of -al to English -ic nouns (cynical) or French -ique adjectives (diabolical).

My guess is that the prejudice against ironical comes from the fact that there has been no clear split in the semantics of the two forms. The noun irony [< Fr ironie < L ironia < Gk eironeia < eiron, dissembler] was established by the early 16th century. Ironical took root by the late 16th and ironic finally settled in by the middle 17th. The ready use of irony could well have kept ironical from needing a noun -ic form. So when the -ic form did come along it was pure evolutionary competition. Ancestral adjective forms were the French ironique and late Latin ironicus.

The -ic/-ical struggle is sometimes resolved by semantic specialization or flat out victory of a form. I suggest to those who hate ironical that a different meaning is quite manageable. In fact a clearly written dictionary will likely have the definitions nicely aligned already. We can assign ironic for situations that are characterised by the schism of perspectives. We can save ironical for the people who create those situations. Don't you think.


  1. I can't figure out why the difference between "economic" and "economical" is crystal clear to me, but the difference between "ironic" and "ironical" is so hard to conceive.

    An economic decision has to do with money. And economical decision saves money.

    So an ironic statement would mess with the distance between what is said and what is implied. And ironical statements... I can't figure it out.

    Maybe we should ask Nathaniel.

  2. If we commit to using "statement" as the noun for each of the adjectives we've made it more difficult from the start.

    Economic and economical bifurcate very easily even with an identical noun. But I don't think ironic/al does so as easily.

    Maybe you can only be unwittingly ironic. Once you purposefully try to create (or discuss) irony you're being ironical.

    Do "characterized by irony" and "related to the subject of irony" work well?

    So Oedipus was an ironic hero and his situation was ironic. But Sophocles was being ironical when choosing the character's name.

    There was nothing ironic about Sophocles when he wrote that.

    But apparently I don't have a good enough grasp on it that I don't just start repeating myself.

  3. Ironical Intention - With the intent of creating irony
    Ironic Intention - The intention itself was ironic


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