Isn’t it Ironic? Probably Not – The Misuse of the Word Irony

by | Mar 12, 2018


Funny. But not quite irony.

Irony is a tough, slippery concept. I have made troubled peace with the word irony by never using it for fear of misusing it. That’s a tough way to live – without ever using the word irony, so I undertaken research and have a better grasp of what irony means. Here is a summary of my research and then the best explanation I found, which comes from George Carlin.

First thing to know: three types of irony are generally recognized – dramatic, verbal and situational.  It is the third type that gets misused the most.

Dramatic Irony: This occurs in art such as plays, books and movies. It occurs when the audience is aware of something of which the characters in the story are not aware. For example, in Romeo and Juliet the character  appears to be dead to the characters, but the audience is aware she has merely taken a sleeping potion.

Verbal Irony: Occurs when what is said is the opposite of the literal meaning of the words used. Such as: “that is clear as mud,” or “as fun as a root canal,” or “I literally died,” or “I’d rather pull out my own teeth.” Verbal irony includes sarcasm among its flavors. Sarcasm is intended to be biting or hurtful where the other types of verbal irony are not.

Situational Irony: This is the tough one.  According to the New Oxford English Dictionary, “Irony is a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result.” From the New York Times Editorial Guide: “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. And where irony does exist, sophisticated writing counts on the reader to recognize it.” Situational irony is most often confused with coincidences, bad luck, being hypocritical or mere incongruity. Here are a few things that are not ironic and then a few things that are:

If while  out-of-town on vacation I am seated at a restaurant at a table surprisingly adjacent to where my next door neighbor has just been seated, that is a coincidence and a surprise, not ironic.

Washing your car and having it start to rain a bit later is just bad luck, not ironic. Similarly, rain on your wedding day is bad luck. Winning the lottery and dying the next day is very good luck followed by very bad luck. Not irony.

How about writing a song called “isn’t it ironic” with many examples of irony none of which are actually ironic? Is that ironic? Probably.* It seems ironic, but most don’t want to credit the writer/singer Alanis Morissette with having actually created irony.

If my job is working at an unemployment benefits office and I get laid off because unemployment is so low, that is ironic.

Here’s another good example of irony from the Huffington Post: “We moved our wedding to an indoor venue because the forecast predicted rain, but the day turned out to be sunny. Ironically, the sprinkler system at the venue malfunctioned and doused the ceremony with water, so we all got wet after all. If only we’d just stuck with the outdoor wedding plan!”

From the great George Carlin – his explanation of Irony:  181ab9c2-3c2d-49d4-82ef-48de28f92c4f-150x150-1698561

Irony deals with opposites; it has nothing to do with coincidence.
If two baseball players from the same hometown, on different teams, receive the same uniform number, it is not ironic. It is a coincidence. If Barry Bonds attains lifetime statistics identical to his father’s, it will not be ironic. It will be a coincidence.

Irony is a state of affairs that is the reverse of what was to be expected; a result opposite to and in mockery of the appropriate result. For instance: a diabetic, on his way to buy insulin, is killed by a runaway truck. He is the victim of an accident. If the truck was delivering sugar, he is the victim of an oddly poetic coincidence. But if the truck was delivering insulin, ah! Then he is the victim of an irony.

If a Kurd, after surviving bloody battle with Saddam Hussein’s army and a long, difficult escape through the mountains, is crushed and killed by a parachute drop of humanitarian aid, that, my friend, is irony writ large.

Darryl Stingley, the pro football player, was paralyzed after a brutal hit by Jack Tatum. Now Darryl Stingley’s son plays football, and if the son should become paralyzed while playing, it will not be ironic. It will be coincidental. If Darryl Stingley’s son paralyzes someone else, that will be closer to ironic. If he paralyzes Jack Tatum’s son, that will be precisely ironic.

*Alanis Morissette’s revised attempt to write a song about irony with actual irony in it: Maybe It’s Finally Ironic

Lyrics to “Isn’t it Ironic”: Ironic Lyrics

Finally, the word “peruse” is misused a lot too: IFOD about Peruse


1 Comment

  1. Hmmmm, I don’t see how the List isn’t Verbal Irony….


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