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It is a figure in which the very opposite of what is stated is intended.

Prof. Bain defines it thus : 'Irony consists in stating the contrary of what is meant, there being something in the tone or the manner to show the speaker's real drift'.

In this figure what is intended is the very opposite of the literal meaning of the words used to hurt someone or something. Here we say one thing when we mean another. In this figure ridicule is disguised as praise or compliment. Here words outwardly imply commendation but their sneering accent leaves us in no doubt that their intended meaning is really something disparaging. It is a strong and effective instrument of attack and, like innuendo,  it,  too,  seeks to hurt the character or reputation of a person or thing in an indirect way. Thus, when Robin Hood ways, 'Oh, that's a princely speech ' his sneering tone indicates that he does not mean what he states, i.e., he actually means the speech to be most cowardly. 

About irony Nesfield rightly says :  ' This figure consists in making damaging remarks about some person or thing,  in words,  which,  if  they were taken literally,  would imply commendation. It is expected, however,  that their intended meaning will be understood from the sneering accent or manner of the speaker. 

The chief characteristics of this figure are given below:

(i) Something is said but its contrary is meant

(ii) Apparently it implies commendation but really it wants to hurt.

(iii) This hurting is done in an indirect way and can be known from the very sneering mode of utterance of the words.

Examples :

1.

And Brutus is an honourable man (Shakespeare) 

2.

No doubt ye are the people,  and wisdom will die with you.

3.

I thank (i.e., blame) thee, Jew, for teaching me that word (Shakespeare) 

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