Is there a way (spoken or written) to make a phrase sound ironic in Latin?

For example "good for you" would be "tibi bonum est"?

Could there be intonation or another word to make it sound ironic?

  • 5
    Irony comes mainly from context. In speech prosody makes a big difference. To get a good suggestion an ironic idiom in Latin, you should give an example situation where you want to use it. There is no guarantee of a one-to-one correspondence to English idioms.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Mar 8, 2016 at 2:51
  • 4
    I'd be particularly interested in knowing if Latin ever adopted any form of irony punctuation. Mar 8, 2016 at 19:39

2 Answers 2


Irony is certainly present in the Latin lexicon: it was one of the classical rhetoric techniques in fact. Joel's reference to Cicero's credo is a good example of its use.

Other common semantic inversions, most of which we would recognize as a kind of irony, include:

  1. Paralipsis: mentioning something in the context of "leaving it out," as Cicero is rather famous for, for example, in the repeated praetermitto's of In Catalinam I.
  2. Sarcasm: a more bitter kind of irony, demonstrated in the same speech by an ever-obliging Cicero with such turns of phrase as Nos autem fortes viri.

To find a veritable treasure trove of more colloquial (and quite hilarious) irony, I recommend some quality time with Plautus. Here is a good example from the Curculio:

Phaedrus: Huic proxumum illud ostiumst oculissimum. salve, valuistin?

Palindromus: Ostium occlusissimum, caruitne febris te heri vel nudiustertius et heri cenavistine?

Phaed: Deridesne me?

Pal: Quid tu ergo, insane, rogitas valeatne ostium?

My translation:

Phaed: Close to this [temple] is that most beautiful of doors. [to the door] Hello, how have you been?

Pal: O most closed [N.B.: almost the same as "most beautiful"] of doors, I hope you haven't been sick yesterday or the day before and that you ate well yesterday.

Phaed: Are you mocking me?

Pal: Well, idiot, why were you just asking how the door has been?

Here (as in English), the use of unnecessary superlatives is an effective way of conveying the exact opposite.

Along these lines, I would suggest translating an ironic good for you as:

Optimum factu!

I found examples from both Cicero and Caesar using the supine with optimum, so this should sound fairly fluent. An alternative that more readily fits into the supine mold would be Mirabile factu! I would be happy to help with a more exact translation of this phrase if you can provide more context.

Concerning the proposed translation tibi bonum est, this does not convey the same meaning as the English idiomatic phrase good for you. I found a few examples of this phrase in some Renaissance moral manuals, but the phrase depends on context: it means something like "X is [a] good for you." I believe the phrase is so rare because this meaning would normally be conveyed by a double dative: Tibi bono est.

Note that the phrase "good for you" is not necessarily ironic: context, in English as in Latin, almost always determines the tone. "Good for you" can be alternatively ironic, condescending, or even complimentary.

  • O me miserum is also typically ironic when used.
    – cmw
    Mar 8, 2016 at 15:47
  • Hmm. I'm not sure I buy the Plautus example, though here we're entering a wider territory in which there's dramatic irony as well as rhetorical irony. But to me Phaedrus means the superlatives in his speech earnestly, which is of course why they're funny. As for "good for you," I'd just go with Euge! or Eugepæ! but in a sarcastic tone. Mar 8, 2016 at 18:30
  • 1
    Actually, I was referring to Palindromus's "echoing" comments as being ironic.
    – brianpck
    Mar 8, 2016 at 18:33
  • Ah, then yes, absolutely! Sorry to misunderstand. Mar 8, 2016 at 21:05

Whenever Cicero uses crēdō parenthetically, he means it ironically. For example In Catilinam I:

Si te iam, Catilina, comprehendi, si interfici iussero, credo, erit verendum mihi, ne non potius hoc omnes boni serius a me quam quisquam crudelius factum esse dicat.

And In Verrem:

At, credo, in hisce solis rebus indomitas cupiditates atque effrenatas habebat: ceteræ libidines ejus ratione aliqua aut modo continebantur.

I'm fairly certain the OLD discusses this in the entry for credo but I don't have one to hand at the moment so I'll have to quote an editorial signed only "C.K." in The Classical Weekly, vol. X no. 3, October 16, 1916:

As everyone knows, the parenthetical credo repeatedly marks irony.

I'm not sure I buy tibi, credo, bonum est, and of course there are all sorts of non-ironic uses of credo, but still you might find it useful at some point.

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