Recently I was walking and talking with my co-worker, who happens to be a freelance writer and aspiring journalist. We were talking about the fact that our employers were providing us with a Thanksgiving lunch the day after Thanksgiving, and she said, “It’s so ironic!’’ – all emphasis and drawing-out of syllables possible used on the last word.
This is a smart girl I’m talking about. She’s a college graduate and has done her fair share of writing and reporting. And even so, she doesn’t know the definition of irony.
Merriam-Webster defines irony as:
1: a pretense of ignorance and of willingness to learn from another assumed in order to make the other’s false conceptions conspicuous by adroit questioning —called also Socratic irony
2: a) the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning
b) a usually humorous or sardonic literary style or form characterized by irony
c) an ironic expression or utterance
3: a) : incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result; an event or result marked by such incongruity
b) incongruity between a situation developed in a drama and the accompanying words or actions that is understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play —called also dramatic irony, tragic irony
Here is Google’s definition for irony:
the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.
A simple way of putting it is that irony usually signals a difference between the appearance of things and reality. For instance, here is how Wikipedia defines it:
Ironic statements (verbal irony) often convey a meaning exactly opposite from their literal meaning. In ironic situations (situational irony), actions often have an effect exactly opposite from what is intended.
Confusion is such that there is even a website, IsItIronic.com, where you can post your own question about whether or not something is ironic. Readers will cast their own vote – you can see the percentages of the votes – and the website will provide the final yes or no verdict.
Here are some examples of irony (or the lack of):
Is it ironic that I posted a video about how boring and useless Facebook is on Facebook?
Reader’s Verdict: 93% NOT IRONIC; 7% IRONIC. Final Verdict: NOT IRONIC.
Is it ironic that the name of Britain’s biggest dog (until it died recently) was Tiny?
Reader’s Verdict: 75% IRONIC; 25% NOT IRONIC. Final Verdict: IRONIC.
Is it ironic that I can’t go to church because I have a theology test to study for?
Reader’s Verdict: 95% NOT IRONIC; 5% IRONIC. Final Verdict: NOT IRONIC.
Is it ironic that someone steps into a puddle and you make fun of them… and the next thing you know – YOU step in one!?
Reader’s Verdict: 94% IRONIC; 6% NOT IRONIC. Final Verdict: IRONIC.
Has Alanis Morissette spoiled irony for us forever? Perhaps my generation is just in recovery from her 1995 lyrics. What do you think – do you understand the meaning of irony? Do people around you?
Irony versus Sarcasm
Sarcasm is when your words mean one thing when taken literally – but, in fact, you mean the opposite. It’s normally used when you’re annoyed about something.
- “Oh, great!” – when there’s a huge line at the coffee shop
- “That’s just perfect” – when the printer jams yet again.
- “Lovely weather today” – when it’s pouring with rain.
Some people would describe these as forms of verbal irony (because they say the opposite to the intended meaning) – but it’s important to recognize that they’re not examples of an ironic situation. It isn’t “ironic” that there’s a line at the coffee shop … just unfortunate.
Sarcasm also normally involves mocking or even attacking someone – or at least expressing irritation. Irony tends to come into play more often in literary ways, to make people laugh, or to heighten the drama of a situation.
Irony versus Unfortunate
While a situation that’s ironic often is unfortunate, these words definitely aren’t synonyms. An ironic situation is one where an attempt to cause a desired outcome actually results in an undesired outcome, or one where something happens that’s opposite to what you’d expect.
- If you’re late for work because you lost your keys yet again, that’s unfortunate. (But not ironic.)
- If you’re late for work because, in an attempt to be on time, you put your keys somewhere safe and then forgot where they were, that’s ironic. (And also unfortunate.)
- If the printer jams at work when you’re in a big rush, that’s unfortunate. (But not ironic – unless your rushing caused the jam.)
- If the printer jams at work and you discover it’s because of the “fix” that your colleague performed to stop it from jamming, that’s ironic. (And unfortunate.)
- If your friend calls round to see you with an important package, but you’re out for the first time that week, that’s unfortunate. (But not ironic.)
- If your friend calls round to see you, but you’re out because you’re driving to their house to retrieve your package, that’s ironic.
Irony versus Paradox
A paradox occurs when something can’t logically work: it contradicts itself.
For instance, the statement “I am lying right now” is a paradox – either the speaker is lying (and so the statement is true … meaning they’re not lying) or they aren’t lying (but they can’t be telling the truth, either…)
Another example is the “grandfather paradox” in time travel – if you go back and kill your grandfather, you’ll never have existed … but then no-one would have killed your grandfather, so you must have existed … and so on.
Ironic situations aren’t paradoxes. They’re perfectly possible – though they might be unlikely.
For each sentence, decide whether the situation being described is ironic or not.