Last update: 17 April 2004
There are countless writers, university students, schoolteachers, radio announcers and assorted others who decry or deride what they claim is inexcusable abuse of the word ‘ironic’ in this song:
IRONIC by Alanis Morissette
An old man turned ninety-eight
He won the lottery and died the next day
It's a black fly in your Chardonnay
It's a death row pardon two minutes too late
Isn't it ironic... don't you think
It's like rain on your wedding day
It's a free ride when you've already paid
It's the good advice that you just didn't take
Who would've thought... it figures
Mr. Play It Safe was afraid to fly
He packed his suitcase and kissed his kids good-bye
He waited his whole damn life to take that flight
And as the plane crashed down he thought
"Well isn't this nice..."
And isn't it ironic... don't you think
Well life has a funny way of sneaking up on you
When you think everything's okay and everything's going right
And life has a funny way of helping you out when
You think everything's gone wrong and everything blows up
In your face
A traffic jam when you're already late
A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break
It's like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife
It's meeting the man of my dreams
And then meeting his beautiful wife
And isn't it ironic... don't you think
A little too ironic... and yeah I really do think...
Life has a funny way of sneaking up on you
Life has a funny, funny way of helping you out
Helping you out
I wrote this essay in response to:
'Irony' is perhaps the most troublesome word in the English language. In this essay I will discuss its meaning and explain how different forms of irony are related through a common characteristic. I will also argue that the song Ironic is actually more consistent with the general meaning of the word than current popular usage is. Finally, I will review some of the articles and internet pages that criticize the song.
This essay is a response to numerous articles and web pages. I decided that I could not respond effectively to them without reproducing some of them and responding to them point by point, so that's what I have done. Pages from the personal web sites of their authors have been reproduced only in part, except where they are reasonably short, so that readers will not regard text reproduced here as a substitute for the original page. Links to the source pages are provided for readers to verify that the pages exist and have not been misrepresented here. Of course, pages can change or disappear at any time, so I can't guarantee accurate reproductions or working links at all times, but I will endeavour to alter the content as necessary to keep it current.
In writing this I’ve assumed that those who pick over the words of Ironic don’t mind my doing the same to their words.
In this essay I have used the following typeface conventions:
- My words appear in this typeface
- Extracts from authoritative reference sources appear in this typeface
- Reproduced articles, internet pages and usage examples appear in this typeface
Comments may be e-mailed to eirig at yahoo.com. This is an infrequently checked mailbox.
February 2002 - First posting
(Updates before 2003 omitted.)
5 April 2003 - Removed reviews of pages http://www.oocities.org/Hollywood/Highrise/3313/song.html and http://www.ecs.soton.ac.uk/~rjm400/html/alanis.htm, which no longer exist. Added a review of http://www.fontsite.com/Pages/WritingStyle/W&S1-08.html.
8 April - Edited some too-harsh remarks in the added review.
18 April - Minor changes.
21 September - Added review of http://home.mchsi.com/~djdowns9/ironic.html.
17 April 2004 - Added examples to Irony and Situations sections; made minor changes to rhetorical irony section; changed one broken link.
‘Irony’ came into English in the 16th century from the Latin ironia, which came from the Greek eironeia (simulated ignorance), which came from the Greek eiron (dissembler), which came from the Greek eirein (say).
In general, irony is the use of language to express both a surface meaning and a different underlying meaning. There are many different forms of irony, some of which are given below. I've placed each form under one of two convenient categories.
1. This category consists of those forms in which there
are two audiences – an uninitiated audience, which understands only the
surface meaning of the expression, and a privileged audience, or inner circle, which understands
both meanings and is aware that the uninitiated audience does not understand. Typically,
the speaker addresses the uninitiated audience while the privileged audience
a) Socratic irony is a profession of ignorance. Socrates asked apparently simple, silly questions as a means of discovering whether the accepted wisdom of his time was based on sound principles. The “wise” men he questioned were under the impression that he was an ignorant simpleton, but their attempts to enlighten him served only to expose their own, even greater ignorance. Observers familiar with the technique knew what Socrates was up to, and that those he engaged with his silly questions did not.
b) Dramatic irony is the awareness by a play’s audience of the fate in store for a character that is not known to the character himself. In Greek tragedies, for example, certain words seem innocuous and unimportant to the character they concern, but the audience is aware of a meaning of far greater significance and that the character's unawareness will have tragic consequences.
c) The irony of Fate is figurative irony in which an event or a set of circumstances takes the place of the expression of language. A situation that appears to have arisen naturally (i.e., in the normal or natural course of events) is sometimes of such a character that it can be more satisfactorily explained as an act of malice or mischief by Fate, i.e., an act of interference that on the surface was a natural occurrence. The obvious candidates are situations that are particularly perverse, or that seem to mock the expectations of most of us that the course of events will stay within reasonable bounds, or that are humorous at our expense. The description of a situation as the irony of Fate is thus a subjective attempt to explain the inexplicable or unexpected. The term is rarely heard nowadays, having been shortened over time to simply ‘irony’ or a derivative of it. This is regrettable because the complete term conveys meaning that ‘irony’ alone does not. The uninitiated audience comprises those who believe that such situations are really nothing more than nature or bad luck at work. And the initiated audience comprises those who are not surprised by such situations because they firmly believe that Fate, on occasion, does manipulate events to amuse herself at our expense.
d) April Fool's Day jokes are an effective use of irony. Every year on 1 April many respected news organizations take advantage of the gullible by presenting an outrageous, invented story as a serious news story that superficially seems plausible. See http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/aprilfool2.html for some good examples.
2. Rhetorical irony is the use of language to express a surface meaning and a different, usually intended, underlying meaning. This is the common classification for irony that is used simply to express oneself, usually to a single audience, though the term could be correctly applied more broadly (e.g., to Socratic irony, which is a rhetorical means to an end).
Dictionaries often state that the apparent and intended meanings are opposite to each other. Opposite meanings are the most common, and they are often the most effective, but they aren’t a requirement*. What matters is the audience’s recognition and appreciation of the usually sharp contrast between what was said and what was meant, regardless of exactly how the two meanings relate to each other.
Rhetorical irony can be quite sophisticated (e.g., a novel or film might contain a subtle, underlying meaning that only some in the audience detect), but it is most common in its simplest forms in ordinary conversations. Here are some examples of ironic expressions and their underlying meanings.
Apparent meaning relative to underlying meaning
That was a stupid thing to do.
“Oh, brilliantly done.”
It is extremely hot today.
“Chilly enough for you?”
Opposite, rhetorical question
There are twenty spoons but not a single knife.
“Ten thousand spoons but not a single knife.”
Hyperbole (e.g., in frustration)
|Japan faces annihilation by the enemy’s overwhelming forces.||“…the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage…” – Emperor Hirohito, radio broadcast, 15 August 1945 (translation). The announcement of Japan’s surrender in World War II began in this understated manner - probably to soften the blow of the brutal truth of Japan’s dire circumstances to follow. The speech shocked and dismayed the Japanese people, who had until then been told they were winning the war, and for whom surrender was “unendurable” dishonour and humiliation.||Understatement|
You are out of touch with progress.
“Hurray! Lindy has landed at Le Bourget!”
R1. Fowler, H.W. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 1st Edition (Oxford University Press, 1926)
R2. McArthur, Tom. The Oxford Companion To The English Language (Oxford University Press, 1992)
R3. Concise Oxford Dictionary, UK 8th Edition (Oxford University Press, 1990)
*Rhetorical irony - it is clear enough from the word's history that the two meanings do not have to be opposites to qualify as irony. Some references are more general than others, e.g., R1 specifies only that the meanings be different (the word ‘opposite’ makes no appearance in a two-column article), while R3 says, “language of a different or opposite tendency”.
**The references were used as guides, but definitions are in my words. Examples not otherwise attributed are mine.
As explained in the previous section, irony is primarily concerned with language, not situations. However, like countless other words, it is perfectly acceptable to apply 'irony' figuratively. For example, in the irony of Fate the essential two layers of meaning are present, but they are found in an event or circumstance instead of in an expression of language. Here are some examples of figuratively ironic situations:
1. By the use of secretly placed cameras, the fictional television show The Truman Show, depicted in the film of the same name, follows the life of a man, Truman, from birth to adulthood, living in what he believes is a real, normal town, in which he believes he has real friends, a real job and a real wife. In fact, the "town" is a giant studio that was specially built to isolate Truman from the world outside, his “friends” and “wife” are actors, and the company he works for isn’t real. As they observe Truman, the television audience knows both the truth and that Truman himself is completely in the dark. Truman is the one member of the uninitiated audience, while the actors, production crew and TV audience make up a very large inner circle.
2a. Many practical jokes are ironic in an irony-of-Fate way, but the irony really belongs to the humans that play the jokes. Examples are a trick bar of soap that dirties people’s hands and candles for a birthday cake that re-light themselves when blown out. The victims, initially at least, are at a loss to understand what has happened. The irony is that the trick items are presented as ordinary (the surface meaning), but were actually designed to behave in the opposite way (the underlying meaning). Those on whom the jokes are played are the outsiders, and the perpetrator and any spectators in on the jokes are the inner circle.
2b. The television show Candid Camera also played practical jokes. In a typical segment, some perverse event was arranged to take place, apparently naturally (e.g., bowling pins that right themselves when knocked over), and a usually dumbfounded person’s reaction to it was secretly filmed. The viewers, however, know in advance what had been arranged to happen, and that this is a secret shared by all except the hapless subject on whom the joke was played.
3. Dorothy is a pensioner who enters the national lottery every week. She selects the same numbers each time, but after thirty years she has still not won even a minor prize. While waiting in the queue to purchase her next ticket, she sees an expensive book on lottery strategy and decides to buy it, after which, however, she has no money left and has to forgo her entry for this week. This time all her numbers come up.
4. Lost in a hot desert and near death from thirst, Norman crawled aimlessly in search of water. He could hardly believe his good fortune when he came across an oasis. He crawled forward onto its bank, leaned down and was just about to drink his fill when the bank collapsed under him. He fell in the water and drowned.
5. In one Road Runner cartoon Wile E. Coyote installed a solid steel plate in a road that he could pop up by remote control when the road runner approached. However, when the road runner approached the plate failed to pop up when activated, so Wile E. abandoned it. Several minutes later, by which time the cartoon's audience had forgotten about the device, he was chasing the road runner with rocket-powered assistance along the same road. The plate finally popped up a moment before he reached it.
Examples 3, 4 and 5 are suggested as examples of the irony of Fate. In example 3, the outcome could be explained by bad luck alone, but for some it’s perhaps a little too unlucky and better explained as the deed of a mischievous sense of humour. In example 4, the outcome could also be explained as an unfortunate natural occurrence, but it might also be interpreted as an expression of Fate’s black humour. Example 5 is also an accident on the surface, but the exquisite timing seems deliberate. In each of these examples there is a surface meaning - that nature or luck was responsible - and, subjectively, a different underlying meaning - that Fate’s manipulation of events was responsible.
Perhaps Norman (briefly) and Dorothy observed from their experiences that sometimes Life has a funny, funny way of helping you out.
irony - noun, incongruity between the actual result of
a sequence of events and the normal or expected result.
Okay, got it?
– the opening words of one unfavourable assessment of Ironic (formerly located at http://www.slacktime.com/archive/d9709-1.html)
Some of Ironic’s critics try to “prove” that the song contains no irony. They typically do this by quoting a dictionary and then assessing, with varying degrees of bias, how well each situation described in the song corresponds to it. The implication is that the chosen dictionary has the correct meaning, and no further discussion is required. This is nonsense. The definition above, for example, is simply a description of a context in which the word is commonly used (i.e., a specific class of situation). It is one usage derived from a more general meaning. Most dictionaries fail situational irony, as it is commonly called, by defining it, without explanation, as a particular kind of situation, even though there are other kinds of situations that are figuratively ironic, or are given under irony in other dictionaries. Roughly equivalent would be to define the word ‘metal’ merely as ‘iron’ in one dictionary and as ‘copper’ in another, with no other information given, so that only after reading both dictionaries would you realize that iron and copper are metals, and that perhaps they aren’t the only ones. Then, with more investigation in better reference books would come the revelation that there is a general definition of ‘metal’ that can be used to test whether any conceivable material is a metal. Well, the treatment of situational irony by most dictionaries is worse than this. You can find precise definitions and loose ones, general ones and specific ones, those that allow plenty of subjective interpretation and those that don't, those that are variations of some other one and those that have nothing recognizable in common with each other. The differences between definitions expose the folly of assuming that a dictionary will tell you what is not ironic. Here are some examples:
1. A condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was, or might naturally be, expected; a contradictory outcome of events as though in mockery of the promise and fitness of things.
– Oxford English Dictionary (1st edition, c. 1900)
2. A discrepancy between the expected and actual state of affairs.
– Canadian Oxford Dictionary, 1998
3. A condition of affairs or events exactly the reverse of what was expected: the irony of fate.
– New International Webster’s Dictionary and Thesaurus, 2000
4. Irony of Fate: Fate’s mock compliance with one’s wishes, e.g., water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.
– Pocket Oxford Dictionary (UK revised 4th edition, 1946)
5. A condition in which one seems to be mocked by fate or the facts.
– The Chambers Dictionary, 1998
6. And the double audience for the irony of Fate? Nature persuades most of us that the course of events is within wide limits foreseeable, that things will follow their usual course, that violent outrage on our sense of the probable or reasonable need not be looked for; and these ‘most of us’ are the uncomprehending outsiders; the elect or inner circle with whom Fate shares her amusement at our consternation are the few to whom it is not an occasional maxim, but a living conviction, that what happens is the unexpected.
– A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, by H. W. Fowler (1st edition, 1926)
7. Situation, event etc., that is desirable in itself but so unexpected or ill-timed that it appears to be deliberately perverse: the irony of fate. He inherited a fortune but died a month later; one of life’s little ironies.
- Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Current English, Encyclopedic Edition, 1992
8. Ill-timed or perverse arrival of event or circumstance in itself desirable, as though in mockery of the fitness of things.
– Concise Oxford Dictionary (UK 6th edition, 1976)
9. An ill-timed or perverse arrival of an event or circumstance that is in itself desirable.
– Concise Oxford Dictionary (UK 8th edition, 1990)
10. The quality of an occurrence being so unexpected or ill-timed that it appears to be deliberately perverse.
– Oxford Paperback Dictionary (4th edition, 1994)
11. Apparent perversity of fate or circumstances.
– Oxford Guide To The English Language (1984)
12. cosmic irony/irony of fate -- when a malicious force seems to deliberately frustrate human efforts.
It is a mess, but it is possible to make sense of it all. All of these definitions probably derive, one way or another, from the the irony of Fate, which is defined in detail in definition 6 above and in the Irony section. This is the common origin that ties these definitions together. You have to consider them in that context to understand them, a fact that many dictionaries - the most popular ones in particular - fail to recognize. Dictionaries would no doubt argue that they are simply reflecting changing usage, to which the irony of Fate no longer has much direct relevance. But this reasoning has left us with the mess above. It has also left us with with entries such as this one in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, 8th edition, which keeps its readers completely in the dark:
1 an expression of meaning, often humorous or sarcastic,
by the use of language of a different or opposite tendency.
2 an ill-timed or perverse arrival of an event or circumstance that is in itself desirable.
3 the use of language with one meaning for a privileged audience and another for those addressed or concerned. [L ironia f. Gk eironeia simulated ignorance f. eiron dissembler]
The root and two of the three definitions are concerned with language, in each case with a double meaning involved, so is the reader expected to just accept number 2 without an explanation? All it does is raise questions. Where on earth did it come from? What do desirable events have to do with irony? Why are other dictionaries different? Doesn't any other kind of situation qualify? Why can't it be defined in a way that enables the reader to understand it? Aren't some readers sure to take it literally, at the exclusion of everything else, without the faintest idea of what it has to do with irony? Such a bizarre definition is not enough. To understand it properly it is necessary to know that this is just one form of ironic intervention by a supposed mocking or malicious force, as some other dictionary entries explain.
The failure of some dictionaries to explain the word properly is, however, no excuse for those of the song’s detractors who mindlessly present a single, narrow definition as "proof" that little or nothing in Ironic qualifies. Criticism of the usage of a word, if it is to be fair, requires somewhat more research than reaching for the nearest dictionary.
Though I haven't gathered any statistics, my regular intake of contemporary material from print and electronic media, books and ordinary conversations indicates that most situations described as ironic in current English satisfy the following definition:
situational irony - an outcome that, in some respect or on some level, is the opposite of the expected outcome.
- a definition that most current usage satisfies
Ironically, these volcanic soils and inviting terranes have attracted, and continue to attract, people to live on the flanks of volcanoes.
Ironically, most laptop computer theft occurs inside office environments.
http://www.targususa.com/t5/pdfs/t5v1i11.pdf (page 17)
Ironically, many people involved in posting or downloading illegal files don't think of it as stealing.
Even the best-conditioned athletes get stitches unpredictably. Interestingly (and ironically), people who do not exercise regularly and are in poor condition are less likely to get them.
The irony is this: we are discussing ways in which the rich world can help the poor world, when in fact it is the poor world that is financing and sustaining the rich world.
The irony is that pressure in one direction elicits pressure in the other; whenever one group of volunteers works toward change, another group often reacts to preserve tradition or advocate yet another alternative.
Usually, "ironic" situations today are of such a character that a natural or other sensible explanation for the "unexpected" outcome seems likely. That is, the outcome would have been expected if only you had known more. For instance, it is not really surprising that fertile volcanic soils attract people to live on the flanks of volcanoes, in spite of the danger. And if laptop computers are often left unattended inside office environments because their owners don't believe that a colleague would steal them, then in large offices it probably isn't all that surprising that they sometimes vanish. So, "expected" often means "expected without giving it any thought at all". It is as though one's expectation is all that matters, even if based on complete ignorance of the likely outcome.
In contrast, the irony of Fate is concerned with situations that apparently just "happened", but for which no natural explanation, including chance, is satisfactory. So, in the opinion of the beholder, it is a situation that cannot be adequately explained in terms of nature and therefore must have resulted from interference with the normal course of events, hence the conclusion that some manipulating intelligence, such as Fate, or a human in some cases, must have been responsible.
Now, as the Irony section explains, different forms of irony have much in common. In fact, certain essential characteristics they share are the reason they qualify as irony. So, does the current definition of situational irony qualify for membership of the irony family on similar grounds? No, it certainly doesn't. Current usage is a severely mutated descendant of the irony of Fate. Unlike its ancestor, current usage does not imply an "utterance" (the arranged situation), with surface and concealed meanings, by a "speaker" (the manipulating intelligence responsible) - characteristics that are central in irony. In other words, current usage does not require that any irony be present at all. Also, there seems to be a common belief (which is reinforced by uninformative dictionaries) that a situation cannot be ironic unless it is the opposite of what was expected, but there is no irony-related basis for this restriction.
Is this the "irony" that the critics believe Ironic should have used?
Q: How did you come up
with the lyrics to the Ironic song? Is there a story behind it?
Alanis M: Glen (Ballard) and I were having our usual analytical conversation and we ran into a brick wall when it came to trying to find an answer to all the inexplicable and random things that happen in this crazy world...
"The whole aspect of things happening for a reason sometimes eludes me."
- Alanis Morissette, TV concert special & interviews, aired 1996
It is unclear from the quotes whether Morissette expects things to happen for physical reasons or supernatural reasons (e.g., God’s purpose). Either way, there are clearly some “inexplicable and random” and “funny” things that don’t conform to whatever rational explanation she has for everything else. If some event or circumstance is presented as though it just happened in the normal course of events, but you believe that there is no satisfactory natural reason for it, then it is necessary to look for a supernatural or abnormal reason, the obvious one being that what occurred was arranged to happen by some intelligence, such as Fate or God (or a human, if what happened was within human capability to cause). In other words, in such situations there is a contrast between the appearance of what occurred and what you believe is the underlying reality - a contrast of meanings that is the essence of irony. So, if "inexplicable" situations are to be the basis for a song, then nothing would be more appropriate than to write it about irony.
Nevertheless, it is reasonable to say that some of the situations described in the song are poor examples of irony. By that I mean that it is difficult to see any irony in those situations that seem to lack any circumstantial evidence that they were contrived rather than natural or accidental. Situations that are perverse, or seem a little too unlucky or ill-timed, or combine humour and misfortune, are those most likely to persuade observers that some unseen manipulation of events might have been involved. However, interpretation is somewhat subjective. One person's irony might be another person's bad luck. For example, consider A traffic jam when you’re already late. A routine, expected traffic jam is not ironic, but an exceptional, unexpected one might be ironic to some annoyed, already-late people who get caught in it, particularly if things tend to go against them more often than they believe is reasonable. As written, this is not a good example, but it is wrong to pronounce, as though it were a fact, that it isn’t ironic. The irony that you see or don’t see in a given situation depends on your outlook – why you think things happen the way they do. That Morissette wrote the song at all is perhaps an indication that she is suspicious of some situations that others are satisfied to attribute to nature or luck.
Cosmic irony or irony of fate: Situational irony that is connected to a pessimistic or fatalistic view of life.
"A pessimistic and fatalistic view of life" is an apt description of what the song, in general, seems to be expressing, at least in relation to unexpected, external events that we are helpless to prevent. In my opinion, Ironic contains a mixture of good, borderline and poor examples, in about equal parts. However, the same can’t be said for Current Usage. A comparison of the usage in Ironic with the common usage elsewhere is no contest - Ironic is far better.
"I guess what people forget sometimes is that when I write songs, I write them in about 20 minutes, and that it was just a snapshot of that moment. It's not something that I foresaw turning into a song, first of all, that I'd have to sing every night for a year; or something that I thought millions of people would be listening to. Honestly, it was something that I just wrote as anyone would write a poem, for a high school project. They write it, then they honestly think they'll never have to read it again, really. And that's kind of how I saw my songs."
- Alanis Morissette, "Alanis Morissette" (Carlton Books, 1996)
“When I wrote that song it was just a chance for me to step into the humorous side.”
- Alanis Morissette, referring to Ironic, TV concert special & interviews, aired 1996
In writing Ironic, there is no sign that Morissette failed to do what she set out to do, as many of the critics believe. The song might have been motivated by an attempt to analyse inexplicable events, but it obviously ended up as a light-hearted song written for fun. The focus of the song is on “funny” or “crazy” situations in life, for which the description ‘ironic’ sometimes is, but sometimes isn't, particularly appropriate. People are entitled to criticize it for that if they wish, but they appear to be mistaken in assuming that the the song was some sort of academic exercise and that Morissette cares about its technical correctness. Besides, as the Current Usage section points out, the usage of 'ironic' in general has gone completely off the rails, so if the critics had their way, Ironic would probably contain no irony at all.
That Ironic's critics have completely ignored the song's intention and inappropriately focused their attention entirely on its usage of 'ironic' is not the central argument of this essay, though it is a valid one. The central argument is that, having chosen to dissect the song and submit its lyrics to an exhaustive technical analysis, the critics' premises, reasoning and conclusions are wrong. Nevertheless, I decided not to include a line-by-line analysis of Ironic in this section. Of course, I have analysed the song too, but the idea of a section devoted to poring over its words and examining them under a microscope in the manner of its critics was too distasteful. I preferred instead to leave most of the analysis for the reviews that follow, in which criticisms of most lines in the song are individually addressed.
"If I had realized how upset people would be I suppose I might have given it a little more thought."
- Alanis Morissette, http://www.oocities.org/Hollywood/Hills/3132/ir.html
They are upset because they are ignorant. As we’ll soon see, most don’t deserve any consideration or explanation.
The Washington Post
Moby - Journal entry
Now THIS Is Ironic; It's Like a Hit Song That Got the Words Wrong
by Richard Leiby
April 04, 1996
It's like rain on your wedding day.
It's a free ride when you've already paid.
It's the good advice that you just didn't take.
-- Alanis Morissette, "Ironic"
Isn't it ironic? Sorry, Alanis, but no, it isn't. The gazillion-selling singer is back on top of the charts with a song and video about a series of events that qualify as annoying or unfortunate, but wouldn't pass for ironic in most freshman English courses. "The most ironic thing about that song," says WHFS-99.1 morning deejay Kathryn Lauren, "is that it's mostly not about irony at all. It's about bummers."
I take it that ‘bummers’ here implies bad luck. If something appears to be bad luck, then one is entitled to explain it otherwise, hence it does not necessarily follow that an apparent ‘bummer’ is not ironic.
And it's just one more example of rampant Irony Abuse. Many are called to practice irony: David Letterman, Dana Carvey (and his erstwhile sponsor, Taco Bell), "Zippy the Pinhead" and "The Simpsons," Winona Ryder and hordes of young filmmakers and performers who clad their anti-glamour ethic in Goodwill castoffs. Few succeed in the classic sense, but it doesn't really matter -- practically anything qualifies as "ironic" today. Just wrap quotes around a word, capitalize it or add an exclamation point, and you've got Instant Irony!
"The word gets thrown around with much more regularity than it ever did before," says Bliss Carnochan, Stanford University emeritus professor of English literature. "We've moved toward a looser and looser construction."
In common usage, it's become a synonym for "interesting"; in show biz, it's anything that could once have been described as "arty" or "self-referential"; in real life, it's any trivial coincidence. ("It's a black fly in your chardonnay," to quote Alanis Morissette again, or "a traffic jam when you're already late.") But true irony, Carnochan says, is "a very, very, very difficult concept."
Before we trudge to the dictionary, let's consult an authoritative pop-culture source, Ben Stiller's 1994 movie "Reality Bites." Therein the recently graduated and despondent Ms. Ryder is turned away from job after job. Ultimately, she begs a newspaper to hire her.
"Define irony," an editor commands.
"Well, I can't really . . . but I know it when I see it," Ryder offers before the elevator doors slam shut.
Later she asks her scruffy love interest, Ethan Hawke, to define the word. "It's when the actual meaning is the complete opposite of the literal meaning," he replies precisely.
That's the definition of a rhetorical irony: saying the opposite of what you really mean. To cite an example from Webster's, it's calling a stupid plan "clever." It's saying "What a lovely day" when it's pouring rain. It's describing a great tennis player this way: "He hits the ball occasionally."
The great satirist Jonathan Swift's "modest proposal" is often cited as a classic irony: As a solution to the Irish famine, an economist proposes that the babies of the Irish poor be sold as food to the rich landlords -- to raise money and prevent starvation.
Then there's situational irony, which Morissette is grasping for. When the firehouse burns down, that's ironic, according to Webster's. It's "a combination of circumstances or a result that is the opposite of what is or might be expected or considered appropriate."
See Dictionaries about the pitfalls of using a single dictionary’s definition.
So, back to "rain on your wedding day." Ironic?
"To me, that's just bad luck," says Prof. Carol Myers-Scotton of the University of South Carolina, who teaches discourse analysis and knows her irony.
Filing for divorce on your wedding day would probably qualify, in the burning-firehouse sense. But Myers-Scotton is a tough grader. Of the firehouse, she says, "I don't know that I would consider that ironic, even if the dictionary says it is."
“Filing for divorce on your wedding day” doesn’t qualify in the burning-firehouse sense. It’s a human decision. Someone who decided to do this obviously had a reason, even if it was the last thing anyone expected.
Of the firehouse example (fire station outside the U.S., I believe), if such a building is combustible like any other, then it can burn down for the same, ordinary reasons for which other buildings burn down. I imagine that this is why the professor is not impressed. Still, unlike the divorce example, it is at least possible to conclude that it is ironic, in the irony of Fate sense.
Morissette also sings about a condemned prisoner who gets a call from the governor "two minutes too late." Again, to qualify as ironic, this needs more punch. Say, a prisoner is strapped into Old Sparky and dies of a heart attack when he's told that Gov. Frye is on the phone. (Should be easy to fit all that into a rhyme . . . )
I completely disagree. Although the timing seems ironic, if he dies of a heart attack then his number was up no matter what. But if he is executed and a pardon arrives two minutes later, it appears as though the outcome could so easily have been different. For example, any loved ones left behind would be tormented by the knowledge that only two minutes separated death from freedom. The late pardon is more effective than the “improved” version. The simplicity and conciseness of the original line is also more attractive than its convoluted replacement (the same applies to my own verbose examples in Situations). The original line is better in all respects. Incidentally, it also agrees rather well with definition 9 in Dictionaries.
Most of Morissette's examples fall into the old "irony of Fate" category, which Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage classifies as "hackneyed."
Let me get this straight. Most of Morissette's examples fall into the irony of Fate category, but because that’s “old” and “hackneyed”, they don’t count? What should they be if not the irony of Fate?
But to be "fair," at least one line can be read as rhetorically ironic: A man on a doomed plane thinks to himself, "Well, isn't this nice."
If he means that it isn’t really nice, then he is in remarkably good humour for someone who knows he’s doomed. His reaction is even more remarkable when you consider that he’d previously been too afraid of exactly what’s about to happen to get on a plane. I have a better explanation: He’s never been on a plane before and doesn’t know what to expect. He’s just sitting there, naively assuming that whatever the plane is doing, it’s normal. I don’t think he has any idea that disaster is imminent. However, it is ironic in two different ways: 1) If he meant what I’ve suggested, then there is unintended irony, i.e., it’s nice to him, but we know it isn’t and we know he doesn’t know, and 2) He has mentally made a statement by which he means “this is nice”, but literally it is a question, “Well, isn’t this nice?” – a rhetorical question. A rhetorical question is technically a variety of rhetorical irony, because its intended and literal meanings differ.
And careful exegesis of "a free ride when you've already paid" reveals a certain cleverness.
This one also agrees with definition 9 in Dictionaries.
Glen Johnson, who teaches English at Catholic University, says the "Ironic" song generally lacks the "doubleness" required for good irony. "There should be two levels -- some meaning other than the surface meaning, and both meanings must obtain," he says.
Yes, there should be two meanings. This is the central characteristic of irony, but there is no elaboration and no mention of it elsewhere.
(For lyrical irony, he prefers the Carly Simon song that goes "You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you." Go figure.)
Morissette herself isn't giving interviews, and doesn't need to. She's won four Grammys with her album "Jagged Little Pill," which has sold nearly 10 million copies worldwide. She's Canadian, a high school graduate, 21 years old -- perhaps a little too young to pick on.
As Mike Doonesbury of cartoon fame recently noted, "I didn't go ironic until I was 30!" Doonesbury was responding to his young date's claim that she had learned her "hip, knowing" attitude by age 15. "Letterman gave my age group the tools to assimilate," she said.
Arguably, Letterman is to blame for the cheapening of irony. But (and we are not the least bit tempted to say "ironically") even he doesn't seem nearly as ironic as he once was.
He's still smug and sarcastic, but who isn't? He rarely conducts interviews with the sole intent of making fun of people who think that he's flattering them. (A classic dramatic irony, in which the audience knows the truth but the person onstage doesn't.) Thankfully, he still ridicules his employer, CBS, in the same manner that he used to refer to "those fine, fine people at General Electric" when he was at NBC. By "fine," of course, he meant "insufferable."
Carvey has assumed the ironist's mantle for admitting to being a sellout, naming his show after Taco Bell and later Mug Root Beer. "An ironic resurrection of the 1950s-style brand-name TV shows," according to Time magazine.
"It's satiric," corrects Paul Fussell, professor emeritus of English at the University of Pennsylvania and author of "Bad: Or, the Dumbing of America."
Or perhaps it's postmodern, but let's not even try to define that. Although the definition might have something to do with Taco Bell's April Fools' joke about buying the Liberty Bell.
Like most older academics, Fussell has never heard Morissette's song. Surprisingly (but not ironically), he praised her lyrics after they were read to him. "Those are some pretty nice words," he says. "It's good for what it is. It's sardonic, and very little pop culture is."
I agree. It’s original and amusing. Countless artists churn out countless variations of the boy-meets-girl and boy-loses-girl themes, but there’s not a peep from anyone that they are somewhat lacking in imagination.
Some of the lyrics pass Fussell's test for situational irony, but he flunks them for rhetorical irony.
Well, as was the case with the irony of Fate above, I guess nobody wants to know more about the lyrics that passed the test, so that unwelcome part is over with and we can quickly move on to what “flunked”.
It’s hardly surprising that it “flunks” for rhetorical irony. The song is about situations in life. It obviously wasn’t intended to have anything to do with rhetorical irony. It would be no less relevant to say that it flunks for sesquipedalian onomatopoeia.
Says Fussell: "Rhetorical irony requires immense intellectual self-respect. You have to be more or less brilliant to get rhetorical irony."
So most of today's irony is fast, frothy, easily digestable (sic). "Ironic, yes, but curiously refreshing," as Zippy the Pinhead recently put it.
On an episode of Fox's "The Show," a character bemoaned the terrible irony of his girlfriend leaving a message to break up with him, just when he was going to call her to break up. "It's damn ironic," he wailed. No, moronic. "The old trade of treating the audience with respect has disappeared, because we don't believe they are worthy of respect," says Fussell.
On MTV, Morissette's "Ironic" video has been No. 1 for three weeks. It shows her driving a beat-up car down a wintry road, singing her song. It ends with the car running out of gas. Which of course is completely unexpected and therefore must be ironic.
One thing to note about this article is that it’s not professors of English who are screaming from the rooftops that Ironic has no irony. I wonder which of Ironic and a dozen randomly chosen uses of “ironically” from the media would accord most closely to their idea of irony. I can’t see how they wouldn’t prefer the song.
This article was written with somewhat more balance than any other that I’ve come across. Considerable space was devoted to the discussion of the general poor usage (in contrast, most other critics single out the song for condemnation, and imply by silence that there is no case for anyone else to answer). Also, it doesn’t have the sarcastic or condescending tone that many articles have. However, it does have its bad points. It never gets to the heart of what irony is (e.g., it’s not apparent how to reconcile Webster’s definition of situational irony and Glen Johnson’s statement). And it quickly moves on dismissively whenever there is a sign that Ironic might be ironic after all. I’m afraid that it wouldn’t pass for a good essay on irony in most freshman English courses.
This is a broadsheet newspaper in the United Kingdom that has a reputation for responsible, high quality journalism.
I’ve never said ‘Oh, how ironic’ when I’ve been stuck in a traffic jam…
The headline is misleading. It should have ended, “…when I’m already late.”
by Thomas Sutcliffe
27 April 1996
There is a peculiarly maddening song in the charts at the moment, a work which has its irritant effect not because of some nagging, unshiftable melody - lodging in the brain like a popcorn husk beneath a molar - nor because of some repeated lyrical idiocy. It is an error of rhetoric that causes the difficulty, not an anxiety you would conventionally associate with the Radio 1 playlist. The song is “Ironic” by Alanis Morissette and the frustration arises out of the fact that her carefully worked list of examples contains virtually nothing that could properly sit under that adjective. "It's a black fly in your Chardonnay / It's a Death Row pardon two minutes late" sings Ms Morissette, exploring the full spectrum of life's little irritations.
So, “a death-row pardon two minutes too late” is one of life’s “little irritations”?
Then she pounds into the chorus: "It's like rain on your wedding day / It's a free ride when you've already paid / It's the good advice that you just didn't take."
It dawns on you pretty quickly that a more accurate title for this song would be "It's A Total Bummer" or "Oh Hell, That's All I Need Right Now", but there is nothing to be done. The song has been recorded, and will continue to transmit error to the nation's youth, five or six times a day.
Note the condescending, admonishing tone, as though the “error” is a fact and an intolerable blunder of unprecedented magnitude that no competent English-speaker could fail to see. First, the presence or absence of irony in most of the events described in the song depends on one’s interpretation of how they really came about, so it is plain wrong to characterize the description ‘ironic’ as an error. Second, what should be transmitted to the nation’s youth? The usual situational “irony” emitted by newspaper writers and TV news reporters?
If you aren't careful it can provoke you to those sotto voce private arguments which flutter across the face, and make passers-by hurry on, fearful that the Care in the Community policy is about to claim another innocent victim. When she sings "It's a traffic jam when you're already late" you find yourself muttering "I've never said 'Oh, how ironic' when I've been stuck in traffic.
No, but, as we’ll see later, that tells us nothing whatsoever. It is not the archetypal ironic situation, but it is a matter of opinion whether it is ironic or not.
Where does this woman come from?" Canada, as it happens, which is close enough to the United States to suggest that she may share the fabled American incomprehension of irony.
Hypocrisy by the truckload, as will be evident soon.
Certainly she is capable of some astonishing near-misses, coming within a whisker of describing a genuinely ironic situation and then peeling off at the last minute. "Mr Play-It-Safe was afraid to fly," she sings. "He packed his suitcase and kissed his kids goodbye / He waited his whole damn life to take that flight / And as the plane crashed down he thought / Well isn't this nice / And isn't it ironic?" No, it BLOODY WELL ISN'T!
I beg to differ. If you believe that it wasn’t really the accident that it appeared to be, then in your opinion it is ironic. I don’t think it’s outrageous to entertain the thought that because it was the first time Mr Play-It-Safe had been able to overcome his fear, the plane was destined to crash. There’s nothing wrong with expressing a different opinion, or saying you don’t like it, or it’s not your idea of irony, but it is simply wrong to state objectively that it isn’t ironic. It amounts to saying that no one has the right to believe that it wasn’t just an ordinary accident.
If he made his kids get on the plane and was run over by a bus as he left for the train station, then that would be ironic. At this point a man looks up nervously from across the crowded tube train and glances towards the emergency stop button.
Morissette has some excuses for her confusion because some odd things have happened to irony in its passage from rhetorical trope to condition of life.
And what’s yours?
Indeed, it's slightly difficult to see how its common meaning could derive from its classical origin, except perhaps by means of another rhetorical trope, personification. In rhetoric, irony is simply that figure of speech in which the speaker's intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used. Macaulay notes that "a drayman, in a passion, calls out 'You are a pretty fellow', without suspecting that he is uttering irony". (Very nicely spoken drayman, I must say. The current equivalent would be a lorry driver, I suppose, and while it's just about possible that one might lean from his cab and shout "Oh nice one, squire," it's more likely that the passion would generate rougher expletives. But perhaps Victorian London was more tutored, the streets packed with artisans wielding litotes and synecdoche with unconscious fluency.)
In short, irony is a posh form of sarcasm, for some reason excluded from the general contempt in which the latter form is held.
The reason is quite simple: sarcasm is malicious, while other forms of rhetorical irony usually are not.
Sarcasm has its own pop song, as it happens: Pink Floyd's ineffably witless "Another Brick In The Wall", in which it represents adult suppression of teenage creativity.)
Well, the lyrics do contain the word 'sarcasm' once ("No dark sarcasm in the classroom").
But we're still not much closer to working out how life can be ironic.
Instead of working out how life can be ironic, why not find out by looking it up? I suggest that a 30-minute visit to a library would have been very enlightening. Isn’t the charge against Morissette, effectively, that she should have looked it up before writing the song?
After all, life can't be sarcastic, a quality which has been exclusively reserved for human agency. I think the explanation might run something like this: a sort of dialogue is imagined between our expectations and the stubborn realities of life,
This is utter nonsense – an error transmitted to the nation’s readers. After the earlier pompous, belittling tone, it’s now emerged that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Irony is not dialogue and never has been. It’s simply breathtaking that he doesn’t seem to think it matters what the explanation is, as though whatever it is, it could not or should not make any difference to our usage. I can’t comprehend how he could presume to lecture anyone.
a dialogue which replicates the essentially doubled nature of irony - the opposition between what is said and what is meant.
A continuation of the same nonsense. This is absolute rubbish. The doubled nature remains a double meaning.
So we declare confidently that it would be fatal to travel by plane and life replies, with wry comic timing, that actually the exact opposite is the case that day. What's essential, though, is the sense of bitter, dark comedy. An early English writer, attempting to explain irony, writes of "the figure Ironia, which we call the drye mock". The "drye mock" gets it just right –
I wonder, roughly, how many times out of ten he would say the typical daily use of “ironically” by his own colleagues in the media satisfies his criteria of “bitter, dark comedy” and “drye mock”.
not the dull-witted, literal toe-stubbings
These descriptions can be applied more appropriately, such as to the ‘dialogue’ theory above.
enumerated in Morissette's admittedly catchy song, but a reminder that life will often rebuke our plans with a deadpan mischief.
The figure of irony demands from its audience a certain playful resistance, a testing habit of mind which taps the words for hollow spots.
Anyone care to have a stab at what this means?
This sophistication isn't beyond some pop songs but it seems to have passed "Ironic" by. And that is ironic.
I’d ask here if this satisfies his criteria, but I have no idea what the sophistication is supposed to be.
A truly appalling article. Any readers that didn’t know better probably gave it the respect appropriate for a newspaper that, on other evidence, appears usually to have high standards of journalism. It is garbage masquerading as journalism.
By now you've guessed the topic of this issue's Writing & Style column. Irony. Not so much a full-blown technical dissertation, but rather an introduction, or primer if you will, on the use (and misuse) of the term. Before getting to an actual definition, let's start with Dumb-asses Who Misuse The Term All The Time. And by that of course I mean television newscasters and writers. Perhaps not "irony" or "ironic," but I hear the word "ironically" used on the news almost every single day, and to date I've never heard it used correctly. Really. Not even once.
I have. Once. A few years ago there was a report about a car that had crashed into a fire hydrant and stopped right on top of it. The report ended with a shot of the car being flooded inside and out by torrents of water, and the reporter noting that, "ironically", the windscreen wipers were operating. Of course, the wipers were probably turned on deliberately or as a result of the crash, but it was irresistible to instead see it as a humorous intervention in mockery of the driver's misfortune.
Reporting on an apparent suicide story of a man who jumped to his death from a bridge (and this is just an example, not an actual story), a newscaster might say something like, "Ironically, the suicide victim was a construction engineer who helped build the very bridge he jumped off." Or, better yet, maybe the guy's name was "Bridges" ... oooh, now wouldn't that be really ironic? Nope, not ironic!
No, not ironic.
Odd, perhaps even inexplicable. Coincidental, yep (in the case of his name). Strange, interesting and sad, sure. But not ironic. In news rooms all over America I imagine a list of synonyms taped above writers' desks that includes Oddly, Coincidentally, Strangely, Interestingly and (incorrectly, ahem) Ironically. They need to take it off the list.
In a popular song by Alanis Morissette titled "Ironic" (ironic in an ironic sort of way) Alanis describes the term as being "like rain on your wedding day," and, my favorite, "like a black fly in your chardonnay." (!?) What the hell does that have to do with irony? Answer: nothing. Well, to Morissette's credit, such situations could be ironic, but we'd need a bunch more details to make such a determination. Rain on one's wedding day is not ironic in and of itself.
Yes, some of the examples in the song would seem ironic in some circumstances, in contrast with newscasters and just about everyone else, whose usage usually couldn't be saved in any circumstances.
A slightly more sophisticated version can be found in phrases such as "Kindness is the sharpest cut." That's ironic. Kindness shouldn't cut - it should heal, right? In situations where an act of kindness makes matters worse, and we've all experienced them, we confront irony.
I disagree. When an intended kindness causes harm, the reason is usually evident and completely understandable. There's no irony in that.
Growing up on a ranch in Montana, my family didn't have cable TV, and whenever we wanted to watch the tube, we usually had to fiddle with the antenna to receive one of the two TV channels available to us. On more than one occasion the family member who attempted to improve the reception would actually screw it up (ironic),
Perhaps, but it's hard to see this as anything more than simply losing the spot the antenna was in and not being able to find a position as good, for no other reason than that you didn't happen to stumble across one.
Morissette's 'Ironic' is a bitter pill for teachers
By Lisa Pollak
The News & Observer
"Irony. Uh ... irony. It's a noun. It's when something is ironic. It's, well, I can't, uh, really define irony, but I know it when I see it."
-- Winona Ryder's character in "Reality Bites," when asked on a job interview to define irony.
Blame our 11th-grade English teacher, the one who was always circling the word "ironic" on our term papers with red pen and adding the ominous scribble "Wrong word" or "Don't you really mean coincidental?" Ironic, we concluded, is not a term to be thrown around lightly, especially not by young women trying to be profound.
Which is why we found it particularly iron- er, distressing, to hear that Alanis Morissette's song "Ironic" is now No. 4 on the Billboard charts and climbing. In case you've missed it, this is the song that purports to define irony:
It doesn’t purport to define anything, and there's no reason to believe that its author was trying to be profound. It is a light-hearted song, not an English assignment.
"It's like rain on your wedding day/It's a free ride when you've already paid/It's the good advice that you just didn't take. ... Isn't it ironic, don't you think?"
Well, no, we didn't, but when it comes to defining literary devices, we're certainly not the experts. That's for our friendly neighborhood high school English teachers, whose job it is to explain irony (not to mention synechdoche, allusion, metaphor, pathetic fallacy and other favorites) to the same teenagers buying Morissette's album in droves. Sure enough, the teachers we consulted were more than happy to provide not just one definition of irony but three.
One would have been be far more illuminating than three, since the three are just different forms of the same thing.
Notebooks ready? First, there's verbal irony, where you say one thing but you really mean the opposite. Then there's dramatic irony, where the audience knows something that the character in the story doesn't know. And finally, there is situational irony, where you expect one thing to happen but the opposite occurs.
Maybe, maybe not. And it might be something altogether different. I could have got these from one of the many dictionaries that keep their readers in the dark.
This last form, most of the teachers agreed, is the kind of irony Morissette -- whose "Jagged Little Pill" album has sold more than 6 million copies -- was striving to capture. And how well does she nail it?
"I'm not so sure I'd like all of my students to take her definition of irony to heart," said Betty Brown, an English teacher at Apex High School. "It seems to me that in most instances she's misusing the term. I think maybe she's equating frustration and annoyance and freak occurrence with irony."
It’s precisely because an occurrence is “freaky” that it might seem to have required something beyond nature or luck to come about – therefore, an ideal candidate for interpreting as ironic.
But let's get right to the lyrics, shall we? Take it from the top.
An old man turned ninety-eight
He won the lottery and died the next day
"That's coincidence," said Brown. "Chance. Just a fortuitous thing."
How does she know? What if it isn’t? You say it’s ironic if you don’t think it’s a coincidence, despite appearances. For dictionary fans, this agrees with definition 9 in Dictionaries, and, subjectively, some of the others.
It's a black fly in your Chardonnay
"Without more context, it's just bad luck," said Judy Darling, an English teacher at Garner High School.
A traffic jam when you're already late
"I don't see anything ironic here," said Brown. "It's what you'd expect."
I agree that it's a poor example, but whether you expect it or not depends on the circumstances. Not everyone lives in a large, traffic-clogged city.
A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break
"The least ironic of all," said Darling. "What, she hasn't been to that area to smoke before? Someone put a sign there while she wasn't there?"
Either the term "cigarette break" or the no-smoking sign is ironic, whether intended or not.
It's like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife
"I could be wrong," said Hope Chandler, who also teaches at Garner. "But I think she needed something to rhyme with 'wife' in the next line."
See the review Review: http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/alabaster/A700958, for a discussion of this.
Exactly, we thought. Alanis Morissette might be a millionaire, but we know our literary terms. And then ...
It's meeting the man of my dreams and then meeting his beautiful wife.
"That's ironic," said Chandler.
"That's ironic," said Darling. "If you meet the man of your dreams, you've got an expectation. If he steps aside and has a beautiful wife, that's the surprise."
This doesn’t strike me as a particularly good example.
"That's ironic," said Tom Humble, who teaches at Wake Forest-Rolesville High School. "I think everything in the song is situational irony, really. To me, irony is any situation where someone has expectations, where an element of distance or difference is injected into the situation."
Some rare support, though it’s a rather loose definition in which a double meaning isn’t necessarily present.
Ay, as a master of irony once said, there's the rub. Depending on whom you ask, and how they interpret the words, even English teachers will agree that in some of her examples of irony, Morissette is right on target.
Isn't that ironic?
Sort of. "It's situational irony, but it's cliched," said Darling. "Therefore, there's no big surprise. What you're getting is what you've come to expect ... It's like bumper sticker religion. If your perceptions of irony can be reduced to a pop song than you haven't really delved into the richness of irony."
Which is why, say the teachers, true students of irony will turn off "Ironic" and pick up works by Shakespeare, poets Edgar Lee Masters and Edward Arlington Robinson, or Jonathan Swift -- particularly "A Modest Proposal," which triggered an outcry 200 years ago among people who didn't get the irony in Swift's proposal that the Irish eat their babies to cut the population and increase the food supply.
"For a good example of irony, I have to go back to my old favorite, Macbeth,' " said Brown. "There's a scene as King Duncan rides toward Macbeth's castle. He has no idea he's riding toward his death, but the audience does, and he says, 'This castle hath a pleasant seat: The air/Sweetly and nimbly recommends itself.' Now that's irony."
Sure is. But what rhymes with Duncan?
What do they think there is in common between verbal irony and when one expects “one thing to happen but the opposite occurs”? They sing the praises of the irony of Shakespeare and Swift, but at the same time they embrace the current popular usage that has nothing to do with it, and which only came about through the misuse of the irony of Fate. Further, how close the song’s situations are to the popular, mutated usage is their measure of how correct the song is.
Irony is a much-misunderstood form of humour. It is somewhat culture-specific, being more prevalent where wordplay is common (notably in the UK, where the pun has been raised to an art form), so many people fail to 'get' irony, while others apply the term incorrectly. It is a technique beloved of satirists, and one which is hard to master (there is always the danger of slipping into overt sarcasm which is, as has been observed, the lowest form of wit).
What Irony Is
Imagine that an England cricket captain covertly bets his shirt on the Aussies winning the next test series. He does his best to lose but the England team pull off a historic and completely unexpected series victory. The England captain is left victorious but destitute. That, dear Researcher, is irony.
Irony is primarily a language device, so surely that is what the example chosen for What Irony Is should have illustrated. Ironic situations, as they are understood today, are unrepresentative mutations.
I can understand how this situation might superficially look ironic, but a "showcase" example of an ironic situation should be able to stand up to the sort of examination to which Ironic is subjected below. I assume that the captain did as much as possible to lose the game, but not enough to lose his job. Did the better team win or not? Did everyone simply misjudge the teams, so making the result "completely unexpected"? If the underdog team won through sustained, freakish "luck", then okay. But if they just played better it's hard to see any irony in it. This example is an utterly inappropriate illustration of "what irony is".
Irony is defined as...
The humorous (or mildly sarcastic) use of words to imply something different from, and often opposite to, their literal meaning.
An expression marked by a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning, usually to draw attention to some incongruity or irrationality.
A literary style employing such contrasts for humorous or rhetorical effect.
Incongruity1 between what might be expected and what actually occurs, or an occurrence or circumstance notable for such incongruity
Given that the apparent purpose of this page is to educate the reader about irony (and not only to sink the boots into Ironic), the fourth definition above demands an explanation. Where did it come from, and does a situation have to agree with it to qualify?
Dramatic irony is a special case where the irony is understood by the audience but not by the characters in the book or play. Socratic irony2 is the process whereby a questioner feigns ignorance in order to lead another to expose their own ignorance.
These types of irony give the clue to the true definition of an ironic statement. An ironic statement must appear as if you are sincere, there must be no hint of sarcasm, and you must not be self-consciously droll. The line must be delivered straight, so that the recipient misses the hidden message but onlookers get it loud and clear. The saying 'Irony is wasted on the stupid' works well as long as the person addressed believes themself to be a sage despite making an absolute ass of themself, and nods wisely in assent.
Thus Fowler's Modern English Usage defines irony as...
... a form of utterance that postulates a double audience, consisting of one party that hearing shall hear and shall not understand, and another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware of that more and of the outsider's incomprehension.
Did the author forget to turn the page and read the bit about the irony of Fate? Fowler's article goes to some trouble to give a general meaning by explaining the link between different forms of irony - a worthwhile inclusion in a page seeking to be educational.
An ironic statement might be, 'I enjoy avant-garde music - chords are so passé.' Note, though, that this could equally be taken as either sarcastic or hopelessly pretentious depending on the tone in which it is delivered, and the audience. So irony lies somewhere on a line with plain old-fashioned humour at one end, and outright sarcasm at the other.
One often-quoted example of an ironic situation is Joseph Heller's Catch-22. In chapter five of the classic novel, Yossarian and Doc Deneeka discuss the possibility of being grounded due to insanity (thus escaping the appallingly dangerous combat duty). The catch was, you could only be grounded if you were mad, you had to ask to be grounded, and anyone who asked to be grounded clearly wasn't mad any more.
There is irony in a rational statement that you are mad. There is possibly also irony in the devising of the grounding rules, which can never result in anyone being grounded (we need to know if this was intended or not). I'm not sure if this is what the author was thinking of, though.
Irony can also be unconscious. It is unlikely that George W Bush was being intentionally ironic when he said that he would not recognise the result of the Zimbabwean presidential election, since the process had been 'flawed'.
What Irony Is Not
Before one can explain what irony is not, it is necessary to know what irony is, without leaving anything out.
Irony can be humorous, but most humour is not ironic. Some informative examples of what irony is not come, ironically, from the Alanis Morissette song 'Ironic'. Here are a few.
Since Morissette and the critics have completely different attitudes towards the song, it does seem pointless to get involved in a line-by-line analysis of it. However, I've decided to respond to many of the microscopic examinations anyway, just to show that you can find plenty of irony in the song without trying too hard, and to show that a grasp of irony is hard to find among the song's critics.
An old man turned 98/He won the lottery and died the next day - Tragedy, not irony.
The key here is not that the old man died, but that he won the lottery the day before. It looks perverse enough, and it is consistent with definitions 4, 5 and 9 in Dictionaries, so the irony of Fate seems a reasonable interpretation. This is even better if you imagine that, before he won the big prize, the deceased had been wretchedly "unlucky" for 80 years straight by failing to win even a single minor prize.
It's a black fly in your chardonnay - Bummer but not ironic (although there is arguably some irony in the fly being black, however this does at least mean you don't ingest it with the drink).
It's a death row pardon two minutes too late - Not irony, just another example of why the death penalty is fatally flawed.
Let's see. Suppose that a callous governor arranges for a pardon to be
granted slightly late because the inmate's family had consumed so much of his
valuable time with their annoying and incessant demands for a pardon.
Apparent meaning: it was just bad luck that there was some communication "problem" or other delay at the critical time.
Underlying meaning: It was all set up to guarantee lasting torment for the inmate's family, unknown to them.
That is irony. It is a plausible interpretation that one is entitled to have, in spite of the not-irony pronouncements of others. This also agrees with definition 9 in Dictionaries.
It's like rain on your wedding day - Not even close, unless you've gone from Manchester to Hawaii for your wedding and get the first rain in August for 30 years, while Manchester experiences glorious sunshine, and how likely is that?
Not very, but if it were likely it wouldn't look ironic. As written, the line in the song isn't enough, but, unlike a usage that can't be saved such as, "Ironically, most laptop computer theft occurs inside office environments," only some imagination is required here. Ideally, it would look as though it only rained because there was a wedding to rain on. The Hawaii example above is a good suggestion (thanks for the contribution). A small rain cloud that "happens" to park itself right over the wedding on an otherwise fine, sunny day would also be sufficient, even in Manchester (I assume Manchester does have the occasional fine day).
A traffic jam when you're already late - certainly fails the 'unexpected' criterion.
See the 'Ironic' section for a discussion of this.
A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break - more of a life-saver than an irony, that.
If smoking is not allowed, then the description "cigarette break" is ironic. Otherwise, the no-smoking sign is ironic.
It's like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife - Not unless you are in the Acme Knife Factory being approached by a mad axeman and reach behind you for a weapon, only to find that you're in the newly-opened spoon department.
Sure, 10,000 is meant literally. It couldn't be a deliberate exaggeration, an instance of hyperbole, could it? To be figuratively up to your neck in spoons - useful items, but not what you need right now – but unable to find even one of a related item that you need badly, is, I suggest, perverse, and not necessarily just bad luck. But this thought wouldn't occur to those who are determined to see every line in the worst light possible. For example, imagine that someone in your house knows that you’ll need a blue pen today, and gathers them all up and plants a red pen in every imaginable place where you’ll look – an ironic situation because the pens are placed so they appear to have got there innocently. Twenty red pens and an hour of frustration later, you might well cry, “Ten thousand red pens when all I need is a blue one.”
Why doesn't a section titled What Irony Is Not have much worse examples? I can suggest some: I was sure he'd lend me his car, but, ironically, he refused; Ironically, consumer spending rose when economic commentators expected it to fall; Ironically, the government defied expectations by getting re-elected; Ironically, he was killed one year to the day after his father died; Ironically, the brand that I like is the only one they don't stock.
1 Incongruity describes something which goes against, or is inharmonious with its surroundings.
2 After the description of Socrates in Plato's Republic.
Musician and recording artist Moby wrote the following entry in his on-line journal at http://www.moby-online.com/.
8/10/2002 - Denver - Ironic Update
but it's cloudless and sunny in denver. which is always nice when it comes to outdoor shows. the irony of this tour, that i might've mentioned before, is that the only rainy show that we've had was jones beach, which was the only date where the seats weren't covered.
ah, sweet alanis-style irony.
the only ironic aspect to her song 'ironic' is that none of the situations that she describes are actually ironic.
I guess he was on the road and didn't have time to explain how he arrived at this conclusion. Perhaps he will explain in a future entry his assertion that nothing in the song could possibly have different apparent and underlying meanings, that where an occurrence appears to have been an accident there can't be any other explanation.
so it is quasi-ironic to have a song entitled 'ironic' wherein none of the situations are actually ironic. rain on your wedding day is only ironic if you live in death valley and you're a meteorologist and you forecasted great weather.
DEAR MAJOR: I've been listening to Alanis Morisette's (sic)
hit song "Ironic," in which the lyrics provide examples of
irony. Some of these don't strike me as truly ironic.
Am I being too critical?
--Puzzled in Penasquitos
A: On the contrary, I think you're being too forgiving. Someone needs to inform Ms. Morisette (sic) that "rain on your wedding day" is not ironic; it's just bad timing. And a "traffic jam when you're already late?" Well, I'd have to say that would be quite typical and indeed expected among urbanites with busy schedules.
The only thing ironic about "Ironic" is that a song explicitly about ironic scenarios contains not a single valid example. I would expect a song about ironies to enlighten us on the topic, rather than to misinform us, wouldn't you?
Not a single valid example? And I would expect a self-proclaimed irony guru to enlighten us on the topic rather than misinform us, wouldn’t you?
So what, then, is genuine irony? For purposes of this
column, the focus is on general irony (not to be confused with Major Irony),
which Webster defines as "an incongruity between the actual result of a
sequence of events and the normal or expected result." You can enjoy many
fine examples of this genre right here, as submitted by readers. Esoteric forms
of irony: dramatic; tragic; and Socratic; are treated in various journals by
highly trained specialists
This is from a half-page “essay”. “Major Irony” invites you to write in with your irony problems. If you do, the major will graciously bestow upon you the wisdom that one can only acquire by looking up 'irony' in a dictionary. But be careful to stick to “general” irony and not stray towards “esoteric” irony, which requires “highly trained specialists”.
There was a review of this page here but I've removed it at the request of the author. The review was my response to about 20 percent of the page's content, but the author objected to my reproducing his text. The change was not made out of courtesy, however. I decided that removing the review would be a more effective statement than the review itself. The author appears to have relished writing his derisive, condescending response to the words of Ironic and other songs, but he doesn't take kindly to scrutiny of his own words.
Let me give some examples of the most common atrocities from our good ol' Australian newreaders. Consider the way they pronounce... :
algae -> al-jee instead of the correct al-gee
debut -> day-boo instead of the correct day-byoo
maroon -> ma-roon instead of the correct ma-rone
negotiations -> ne-go-see-ay-shuns instead of the correct ne-go-shee-ay-shuns
appreciate -> ap-pre-see-ate instead of the correct ap-pre-shee-ate
They're flat-out wrong, and they're persisting with them. I can only assume that their producers and management aren't educated enough to know, or simply don't care. Perhaps they're too scared to correct the "talent" (what a loose term...). It's a bit like Alanis Morrisette's (sic) rather comical use of the word "ironic" - apparently nobody at any stage piped up and said "Uhh, Ms Morrisette (sic), that's not 'ironic'. That's just a shitty thing to happen..."
I also have a beef with people who mispronounce letters because they learned from "Sesame Street" or a teacher who was also wrong - no excuse. Wrong is fucking wrong.
I suppose I’m the first to pipe up that the assessment of the song here is somewhat misrepresentative of it. I’m probably also the first to mention that the spelling of ‘Morissette’ is also wrong. And wrong is fucking wrong.
One for the "it must have been a seriously boring weekend" files...
One weekend for all this?
Irony and Ignorance, an entire paper devoted to defending Alanis Morissette's song Ironic and attempting to prove that people who criticised her usage of the word are ignorant. I can only assume they wrote the essay for the hell of it, as people usually make a note if it was submitted as some kind of academic work.
How did I come across this gem? I made an aside about it in something I wrote in the middle of the night three years ago. The author found it, quoted it, wrote a snide remark and picked on the fact that I mispelled (sic) her name. Then they emailled (sic) me to let me know my page had been "reviewed" :)
Well I stand corrected - it's Morissette, double-s. My life is complete.
As, I'm sure, are the lives of Australian newsreaders.
I mentioned the spelling not because I expect everyone to never misspell a word, but because the mistake made suggests carelessness similar to that of the newsreaders about whom the page is complaining. There is more than one reasonable way that you might spell 'Morissette' to produce the same pronunciation, so you can't be sure you've got it right unless you check it - just as the page's author expects newsreaders to check pronunciations.
However, I still think she was using what the author calls the "surface" meaning of ironic; and using it incorrectly.
An exquisite example of unintended irony. So, what is the surface meaning of 'ironic'?
Notice that it doesn't matter that the song's critics have collectively made many times the number of mistakes that they claim are in the song, the focus on the song's usage alone does not waver.
Honestly, I'm stunned that this person couldn't find a better topic to massage their pseudo-intellectual ego with. But then, I was picking on newsreader's (sic) pronunciations so who am I to talk? :)
People who have little or no understanding of irony could certainly choose a better topic than irony to lecture people about. Pointing this out is at least a more worthwhile one.
Subject: cover me…
From: PETER SANDERSON
Date: Sun, 5 May 1996 20:29:40 +0100 (BST)
Okay, call me an English major, but ever since Alanis Morrisette (sic) released 'Ironic' I've been on a bar of soap telling people about what irony really is.
Be careful. The bar of soap might slip.
As one guy in the Times said: I've never been sitting in a traffic jam and said 'Oh, isn't this ironic.' For those who know the song (God save you), in the case of the guy afraid to fly who died in a plane crash, that was not ironic, that was fitting. If it were in a movie, you'd wak (sic) out saying 'well I saw that coming.' If he bugged out at the last minute and decided to take a bus instead, and the _bus_ crahsed (sic) where his plane was fine, _that_ would be ironic.
It’s that garbage from The Independent again, not The Times. Surely someone who’s “telling people about what irony really is” could explain it himself, and give his own example.
It Is Ironic . . . Isn't It?
So in the interest of fairness, and erring generously in her favor, I took the time to examine the lyrics of Alanis's song, and discover for myself what was truly ironic and what wasn't.
I see. What was truly ironic.
[first few omitted]
3. "It's a death row pardon two minutes too late."
This one's kind of a coin toss, and really depends on the context. Imagine the following situation: Jimmy is in custody, suspected of murdering fifteen people in Texas, with malice aforethought. Oh yeah, and he's black, too. No doubt he's going to fry, right? All the while, his pretty young Public Defender facing obstacles both legal and societal, struggles to overturn Jimmy's conviction. The actual killer, as it happens, was the son of a cattle rancher whom Jimmy'd stripped of a football to make the winning play at the cattle rancher's son's homecoming game. The pretty young Public Defender, after years of searching, finally discovers the blood-stained sand wedge the cattle rancher's son used in the murders, covered up and down with his incriminating fingerprints. The PYPD races to the aid of Jimmy, with whom she's fallen in love and doesn't care who knows, and receives a stay of execution for her wrongly-accused beloved. But irony of ironies: the pretty young Public Defender forgot to set her clock forward for daylight savings time, and Jimmy's already been dead for two minutes while she's breathing a sigh of relief in the Governor's office as the Governor, bewildered, makes the phone call only to discover to everyone's dismay that Jimmy's already toast and now he has to break the news to the pretty young Public Defender, who isn't going to take this little zigzag of kismet well, one suspects. Now, that's ironic.
That was so easy, there's no way I'm giving Miss Thing credit for it.
5. "It's a free ride when you've already paid."
Sorry, no. Alanis seems to think that "irony" means "bad timing".
Bad timing is an understandable reason why one might believe that an event is ironic. Some Dictionaries agree.
6. "It's the good advice that you just didn't take."
This is very close! Ignoring good advice is ironic, but only if the listener suffers some kind of befitting karmic punishment as a result. Alanis gets half a point for the setup, but because she only sketchily implies the irony, we cannot grant her full credit.
No, even the most generously-minded person would be hard pressed to find irony in merely a free choice not to take advice. However, it is possible that some intervention after the advice was ignored was responsible for its turning out to be good advice.
7. "Mr. Play It Safe was afraid to fly/ He packed his suitcase and kissed his kids good-bye/ He waited his whole damn life to take that flight/And as the plane crashed down he thought, Well, isn't this nice?"
This quatrain is truly a feather in Alanis's cap, because it contains not one, but two legitimate instances of actual, honest to God irony. A) It is, indeed, ironic that someone who is afraid of flying would die in a plane crash during his first flight; it's an unexpected disruption in the normal course of events that gives us insight into human folly. And B) said someone is being, you guessed it, ironic when he says, "Well, isn't this nice?" since we must presume that he is being sarcastic.
He doesn’t say it. He thinks it. And sarcasm is malicious, but this line isn’t. See the Washington Post review for more on this example.
8. "It's a traffic jam when you're already late."
See No. 5. When Alanis finds a concept she likes, she runs with it.
Attempts at describing irony: 11
Successful attempts: 2.5
Confusion of irony with "poor sense of timing":6
Completely blowing it:3
Now that you have the stats, you can wow your friends with your overwhelming command of both pop culture and the English language. The painful truth of the matter is that Alanis apparently did not quite center herself over the concept of irony before she and songwriting chum Glen Ballard sat down to compose the catchy ditty.
And you did before you sat down to compose this analysis?
I believe, though, that we should not be so quick to judge. Winona Ryder's character in Reality Bites couldn't define "ironic" and had to have dopey Ethan Hawke explain it to her. And it took me longer than I'm comfortably prepared to admit to determine which of Ms. Morrisettes vignettes were legit. So, Schoolhouse Rock it ain't, but I'd like to see you do better with a song about assonance or hyperbole.
How ever long it took, it clearly wasn't enough.
It was a disgrace to modern intellectualism when Alanis Morrisette (sic) was born. Her music goes back to that eighties get-rich-quick mentality that had singers singing someone else's songs with fake emotion and dishonest lyrics. Moreover, her puppet-like media appearance is a step in the wrong direction for female musicians. I want to choke on my own loathing everytime I hear someone on TV say that Alanis is one "angry girl."; Her songs are not angry, they're pure stupidity. The first time I heard "Ironic," I laughed so hard I nearly fell off my bed. "This will surely be the downfall of stupid Alanis,"; I thought to myself. "Nothing in that song is ironic. She will be the laughing stock of the entire world!"
[large part omitted]
Most people I talk to outside of school do not understand a word I am saying, because I like to play with sarcasm and satire. I do not like to have to explain myself at every interval. It just flat out annoys the hell out of me that no one seems to understand irony anymore.
Yes, it's disappointing isn't it. I'm finding the same problem with all these articles criticizing Ironic. Their authors just haven't grasped the figurative, somewhat subjective nature of irony in events and circumstances.
So for those of you who are reading this and agree with me, here's the definition of irony from
Webster's so that you can give it to the unlearned. If you are one of the many who do not understand irony, then
by all means, read the definition and enlighten yourself. It won't happen overnight, but it will happen.
IRONY: a method of humorous or subtly sarcastic expression in which the intended meaning of the words is the direct opposite of their usual sense.
There are many types of irony, such as literary irony and dramatic irony, which have slightly more specific definitions. But it all boils down to the above.
This piece suggests that those striving to
contribute to modern intellectualism need to observe the following:
- don't provide any support for your asssertions
- ensure that your research is patheticcally insufficient
- decorate your work with gratuitous innsults
- lecture the "unlearned" on subjects that you don't adequately comprehend
- do not spell names correctly
Misconceptions of the English Language
David J. Downs
Seven years later and they are still being churned out.
Irony : What It Is Not
Some writers claim that the Morissette song does describe ironic situations. Supposed experts—college English professors, for example—throw around terms like "verbal irony," "situational irony," "dramatic irony," and even "Socratic irony" to defend the lyrics of the song.
No names, quotes or references given.
Such authors undoubtedly rely on interpretations of the word proffered by lexicographers, textbooks, or their own professors.
So, where can you find out?
Perhaps these authors do not know what irony actually is because they have simply never experienced it or are unable to grasp the concept. It is true that a certain level of abstract cognitive function and intellect is required to "get it." I'm sure you've met plenty of college professor types with 120 IQs who posture themselves as intellectuals without the benefit of knowing what true intelligence feels like; Lord knows I have. Or maybe the stereotype is mostly true: Americans have no sense for the ironic.
No comment, but this might be worth keeping in mind a little later.
I read one definition claiming irony was best defined as "a type of humor based on using words to suggest the opposite of their literal meaning." One example of such humor can be found in the Morissette song; as a plane plummets toward the earth, one passenger thinks to himself, "Well, isn't this nice?" Of course, it was not nice. It was horrible and terrifying and tragic. I'd suggest, however, that this sort of statement is more precisely and correctly identified as "sarcasm," rather than "irony."
Absurd is what I'd call it - absurd to think that someone who's been afraid to fly all his life would be anything but terrified if he realized he was about to crash on his first flight. I suggest using some of that abundance of intelligence to consider that he doesn't know he's about to crash, in which case his thought has one meaning to him (simply that all is going very well), but an entirely different, underlying meaning to us (that he is unaware that disaster is imminent). Thus it is ironic.
One web site I recently visited purports to offer lesson plans relating music to other content areas.
What web site?
Another lesson on the same site is just flat-out incorrect in its definition of irony. Said lesson plan describes irony as "the contrasts between reality and people's perceptions" and "between the way people view themselves and how they are seen by others." Life is subjective; it's true. It's also true that our own self-concept is rarely based on how we are seen by others. Neither of these, however, have anything to do with irony.
Yes they do. Reality (underlying meaning) and perception (surface meaning) are often the two sides of irony. This goes right back to the Greek origin of the word. The double meaning of irony can also be found in the contrast between the way people view themselves and how they are seen by others. For example, a person might believe that he is more intelligent and knowledgeable than the college professors, lexicographers and textbook writers of the world, and might write an article that, in his mind, exposes their incompetence and communicates his superior wisdom and knowledge to the public (surface meaning). But some readers, noticing that the article is nothing but a mixture of unsupported assertions and figurative hot air, might realize that he actually doesn't know what he is talking about, and that he is just posturing himself as an intellectual (underlying meaning). They might also delight in this unintended irony.
Irony : What It Is
The best definitions of irony that I've found are similar, yet still miss the mark. Essentially, most good definitions note the key aspect to irony: incongruity between what might normally be expected and what actually occurred or what actually is.
Wrong. The key aspect is a double meaning. How do you define, say, Socratic irony or rhetorical irony in terms of an incongruity between what was expected and what occurred? Where did this perception of the key aspect come from? A textbook? A dictionary? A college professor? Not one reference is given in the entire article.
Even though ironic situations are often tragic, those with a highly-developed wit recognize that they are also funny, because the incongruity of an ironic situation must be in some sense absurd or even laughable.
Ingcongruity and humour can lead one to believe that there is more to the situation than there appears. That is the link with irony.
[examples and analysis omitted]
The examples are fine but the reasoning as to why one example is ironic and the other isn't fails to mention the central characteristic of irony. The important aspect is: why do we find the circumstances of some tragic events humourous? If you find the manner of Moonbeam's demise humorous in itself, without a thought for why it happened, then there is no irony as far as you are concerned. The irony results from the belief or feeling that what happened was not the complete accident that it appeared to be.
Summary : Why "Ironic" Isn't
The most straightforward account I've discovered as to why this song is not ironic is online. Scott provides a brief, yet accurate description as to why the song lyrics do not describe ironic situations.
No, he doesn't. He does the same thing that most 'Ironic' critics do: he takes a single dictionary definition far too literally and without any understanding of what it has to do with irony. He also displays his bias by choosing interpretations that suit the desired outcome. For example, he rejects It's a death row pardon two minutes too late because a pardon issued to a dead person would be expected to fail, but he doesn't mention that one would not expect a pardon to be issued to a dead person in the first place. The irony here has nothing to do with expectation anyway. It is ironic to those who believe that the pardon's slightly late arrival was intentional, but without its appearing to be.
The amazingly humorous thing about the song, of course, is that it is itself a form of irony.
Sounds like a web page I've just read.
Writing a song about irony—one which attempts to demonstrate irony—that, instead, provides not one true example of irony is most ironic. And damned funny, if you ask me.
What is damned funny is that an entire generation of pseudo-intellectual critics, with the world's educational resources at their disposal, criticize a person's usage of a word while unable to grasp it themselves. Even funnier is that, despite having been written with little concern for correctness, Morissette's song, as a whole, is more in keeping with the meaning of the irony of Fate than you will find almost anywhere in popular contemporary writing.