There is perhaps no word in the English language more abused than the word ‘irony’. It is a remarkably important device in the worlds of language, literature, drama, and comedy. So, it is important to try and clear things up a bit. I’m going to try, and probably fail, to do that now.
There are many perpetrators of this misuse: both from those who have no idea what the word means and throw it around willy-nilly, and from those who think they know how to use it, and are woefully and terribly wrong.
I think the primary reason that the word is so often misused is because there is a great frequency of times when something can be ironic and something else. Many times something can be an example of irony, while also being an example of something like poetic justice, coincidence, an improbable occurrence, or sarcasm. Thus, people start confusing irony with the ‘something else.’ Often, poetic justice can be ironic, so people start confusing irony and poetic justice as if they are the same thing. Sarcasm is many times ironic, so people start using the words interchangeably. The result is that we wind up with the woeful misuse of the variations of the word irony.
The most infamous and much-maligned villain in this story is certainly Alanis Morissette, who wrote an entire song listing so called examples of irony, yet only accidentally touched on actual irony once or twice in the whole song. I’ve mused with friends that perhaps it is actually the purest example of irony ever, because she is attempting to sing a song all about irony, and is, ironically, doing nothing of the sort. She sings about “rain on your wedding day” (just unfortunate), “good advice that you just didn’t take” (simply poor judgment), and “a free ride when you’ve already paid” (What the fuck? That’s not possible, a ride can’t be free when you’ve already paid for it, that’s not even… I can’t… how is that ironic?!? It’s not even a thing!). Yet, while her lyrics may be infuriatingly stupid, I’ll stop wasting ones and zeroes on her song now, she’s suffered enough for her crime against the English language.
As a side note, while mentioning the song that represents the worst use of irony, I would also like to point out the best, from the song ‘Robots’ by Flight of the Conchords (these lyrics are from the live version, since they differ in the studio version).
Fellow robots, or ‘robros’, what we have done is wrong. By destroying the humans because of their destructive capabilities and tendencies, we too have been… well it was kind of ironic.
When it comes to misusing the word ‘irony’, Alanis may be the most famous offender, but she didn’t start the fire. She is just a symptom. The most common misuses of irony occur when people use it to refer to something that’s particularly unfortunate, or something that is a coincidence. Often, when something falls into Murphy’s Law (anything that can go wrong, will go wrong), people call it ironic. Also, as mentioned above, many times people refer to things that fall under the category of poetic justice as irony.
Examples of the misuses mentioned above:
- Your car is running fine all year, and you never really need it to get anywhere urgent. Then, on the one day that you really need to be somewhere, your car won’t start. You say to yourself, “Well, that’s ironic.”(Nope, that’s just a really unfortunate coincidence.)
- A basketball player is known as a dirty player, and often hurts other players with cheap shots. One day, during a game, someone cheap shots him back and the dirty player suffers a career ending injury. The sports analyst says, “How ironic!” (Nope, that’s just poetic justice).
- I write my entire life. I toil away at a novel, and no one cares. After my death, someone finds the manuscript amongst my things and it sells for millions of dollars, becoming one of the best loved novels of all time. People sadly say, “It’s so ironic.” (Nope, that just really sucks.)
Irony happens in life when you are attempting to achieve one result, and the opposite happens. Like, you take medication to reduce your cholesterol so you won’t have a heart attack, then it turns out the medication causes heart attacks, and you die from one. That’s ironic. You’re worried about the neighborhood you live in, it’s getting too dangerous. You move to the wealthy part of town, and the next day you are mugged by a neighbor. Ironic! In both cases, you were taking action to create or prevent a certain event, and somehow the opposite of what you were working toward is actually created by your action. That’s irony.
To put it in the example of the misuses I listed above, here is how each can be converted to actual irony:
- Your car has been running great all year, but you know you really need it to work for a trip you’re taking soon. You take it into the shop to get it checked over, a mechanic screws something up, and your car breaks down on your trip as a result. The car only broke down because of your reasonable, well planned attempt to prevent it from breaking down. That’s ironic.
- Said dirty basketball player takes aim for one of his famous cheap shots, intentionally hoping to injure another player. Instead, his plan backfires, so that he actually injures himself instead. That is poetic justice and irony. He tried for one thing, and the opposite happened.
- I toil on that novel, and after taking it to another literary agent or publisher, none are interested. I finally give up, throwing the manuscript off the top of a building in a dramatic display of disgust (alliteration!). It hits the sidewalk, and is picked up by a famous novelist who reads it, loves it, and champions it in the literary world. The book gets published and becomes successful. I physically attempted to give up, and my actions led to exactly what I’d been working so hard for in the past. That’s coincidence and irony.
“Henry Watson Fowler, in The King’s English, says “any definition of irony—though hundreds might be given, and very few of them would be accepted—must include this, that the surface meaning and the underlying meaning of what is said are not the same.” Also, Eric Partridge, in Usage and Abusage, writes that “Irony consists in stating the contrary of what is meant.” (via @ wikipedia)
Often, to be funny, we ironically say one thing when we obviously mean something else. Which leads us to one of the primary areas where people’s understanding of irony is mixed up with something else. What people often call sarcasm is actually irony. It’s funny, because most often, when people say irony, they are actually referring to something else. Then, when they could be saying irony correctly, instead they call it sarcasm.
The word sarcasm actually refers to a remark that is biting and taunting (it’s from Greek and Latin words which mean ‘to rend the flesh’). The reason it is often confused with irony is because it is usually ironic. When little kids are playing basketball, and someone shoots an air ball, and some other kid says, “Nice shot!”, that’s ironic sarcasm. It’s ironic because he says one thing and means the opposite, it’s sarcasm because he’s being a dick.
However, if I were to say “Wow, I really loved having that stomach virus all week!” Most people would refer to it as sarcasm. It’s actually not sarcasm at all, because it isn’t biting or taunting, no one is jeered by it. It is ironic, because I am saying one thing and meaning the opposite. Often, when someone says, “I was just being sarcastic,” they weren’t actually being sarcastic at all, unless they were actually attempting to belittle someone. What they were really being was ‘ironic.’
Let’s recap. Something is only an example of irony if, A. Someone attempted to accomplish or prevent something, and the opposite of what they intended occurs, or, B. Someone says one thing, but means the opposite. Don’t forget, almost every single time you hear someone say something is ironic, they are wrong. Sarcasm, poetic justice, improbable occurrence, funny coincidence, Murphy’s Law, and ‘things that suck’, often overlap with irony, but they are not irony. There is most certainly a big grey area where things get confusing, but most of the time people aren’t anywhere near the grey area, they’re just way out in the big wrong area. Be prepared, or the misuse of irony will happen to you, too.
There you have it. A brief overview of the proper use of irony. Now, go unto the world and preach the good news.