Irony: Misunderstood and Misused

I know it’s been said, but, as this is one of the most misused words I run into, it never hurts to go over it again:

According to my forty-year-old dictionary:

Irony IS the use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning. It can also refer to a situation, utterance, or literary style that is marked by such a contrast between expected and perceived meanings.

Then it gets a bit muddy, because the definitions of irony also include the incongruity between expectations and results, itself, as well as any circumstance notable for such an incongruity.

Irony Is Not a funny coincidence or an interesting paradox. And it’s not necessarily the same as sarcasm. Though sarcastic statements are often ironic.

For all of my fellow geeks out there who have shouted “Aha!” and curled your fingers into typing position to begin your rebuttal: I am deliberately leaving dramatic and Socratic irony out of this discussion. But, by all means, feel free to comment with your definitions of those two specialized definitions of irony.

Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift

One of the most famous examples of an ironic literary work isJonathan Swift‘s A Modest Proposal. If you haven’t read it then you’re missing out. Briefly, it’s a 1729 essay from an Irish writer/social commentator suggesting (ironically) that the best way to solve the problems of rampant Irish poverty and unemployment was for the upper class Irish to eat the infants of the Irish poor. Incidentally, he added that their soft skin would also “make admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen.”

Gruesome but effective use of irony.

As Swift’s example teaches, irony rocks for pointing out the ridiculousness of a situation, even a really horrifying one.

Bob Harris

Bob Harris

So what’s an example of the misuse of the term. Well, Alanis Morrisette‘s famous song “Ironic” is the most glaring contemporary one I can think of.  And, apparently Bob Harris agrees. In his2008 NY Times essay he sums it up beautifully, so I’ll just quote him:

Alanis Morissette

Alanis Morissette

“Alanis Morissette’s song “Ironic” is equally useful.If it rains on your wedding day, that’s a coincidence, not an irony. If you win the lottery and drop dead before claiming the money, it’s good luck followed by bad luck. If you meet the man of your dreams and then meet his beautiful wife, it’s a bummer. But if a song called “Ironic” contains no irony, is that in itself ironic? Nope.”

In closing, please forgive my pedantry, but, while it’s annoying to misuse the term irony in conversation, as Harris points out when he quotes the NY Times style guide, the “use of irony and ironically, to mean an incongruous turn of events, is trite. Not every coincidence, curiosity, oddity and paradox is an irony, even loosely.”

Remember, writing ironically is difficult and, again quoting the Times manual, “where irony does exist, sophisticated writing counts on the reader to recognize it.”

So, please, for the sake of pedants like me, make sure you actually are being ironic if that’s what you’re trying to do.