Vs. Misuse of the Word “Ironic”

Posted: May 16, 2011 in Language
Tags: , , , , , ,

Here’s the deal.  If you don’t fully understand what irony is, don’t feel bad.  I’ve tutored kids for many years, and irony is a particularly difficult concept to explain.  So, if you don’t know what it is, it’s okay, just don’t try and use the word. 

It’s remarkable how commonly people say something is ironic when it is clearly not.

Okay, here’s a dictionary definition, “Incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected results.”  Clear?  No.  And the problem is, this doesn’t really capture the true meaning of the word.  I mean, one wouldn’t go to the zoo and expect to see a stand-up comic.  That would be incongruity.  But not irony.  (Plus, if I were that comic, I’d look into getting a new agent).

Clearly, the most well-known case of mistaken irony is Alanis Morisette’s song, Ironic.  In which, she lists multiple unfortunate incidents and then querries, “Isn’t is ironic?”  To which the answer is, strangely, “No.”  Nobody else thinks that finding a fly in your wine is ironic – just sort of gross.  (Plus, if I were that diner, I’d look into getting a new sommelier).

My favorite line from the song is, “It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife.”  Believe me, if I was looking for a knife and found, instead, ten thousand spoons…I wouldn’t be thinking, “Isn’t this ironic?”  No.  I’d be thinking, “Where the hell did all these spoons come from?”

These things aren’t ironic, they’re just unfortunate.  The other common mistake is to call any coincidence or unusual occurrence ironic.  And then, of course, there are those who just randomly call anything ironic.

It happens a lot in sports.  I recently read an article in which the author commented on the irony of one team getting worse as another got better.  Not only is this not irony, it’s not a coincidence or even unusual.  It’s really….nothing. 

Flavor Flav from Public Enemy performing live ...

Image via Wikipedia

 It’s like, oh, look a tree…how ironic.

A quick Google search just returned an article that was “the most ironic news story this week.”  It was about Flavor Flav getting arrested in Las Vegas when he was pulled over and they found he had four warrants out for his arrest.  Remember, irony is the opposite of what you’d expect.  Flavor Flav getting arrested is not the opposite of what you’d expect…it’s exactly what you’d expect. 

Irony can be as simple as a huge bodyguard named Tiny.  Or as complex (and common) as a politician who campaigns furiously against some transgression only to be found guilty of this very same behavior.

But it’s tricky.  It’s not like math.  In math, 2+2 is always going to equal 4.  But when it comes to literary devices, experts can differ.  People disagree over what is and isn’t ironic, only further complicating the issue.  It’s sometimes a thin line between irony and coincidence…and sometimes, as in the examples above, it’s a fairly thick line.

So, how am I going to do it?   How will I stop people from misusing this term?  Fortunately, I have a simple solution.  Those who want to be able to label things as ironic will have to take a course and become certified.  Only those who pass a rigorous training procedure will be able to use this term, only the best of the best, only the CIA (Certified Irony Authorities).

You know what?  Now that I think of it, maybe Alanis was right.  Maybe ten thousand spoons are ironic.  Because, just maybe, she was talking about ten thousand iron spoons – now that would be very irony.

  1. Wes says:

    Freaky. I just had a conversation about this with my wife, last night, about 14 hours ago. I told her “no one understands irony.. and Alanis’ song is not irony, it’s just unfortunate, but nobody gets it”. Perhaps the moment I said “no one understands”, you were writing about it. Isn’t that ironic?

  2. “No. I’d be thinking, “Where the hell did all these spoons come from?””

    Better yet, figure out where to sell the spoons so you can buy yourself a knife!

  3. roxyhart1973 says:

    Thank you. I am now singing the Alanis Morisette song at the top of my lungs.

  4. jimsnyder1 says:

    The other day I was in the Jeep on the freeway in NJ and was hit from behind. The accident was unfortunate but, luckily no one was hurt. What I thought was ironic was the fact that I have a big sign on the back saying, “Caution, this vehicle makes frequent stops”.

  5. jon says:

    This was a pleasure to read and very informative.

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