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Are You Using The Word 'Ironic' Correctly?

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Poor, beleaguered Alanis Morissette has long borne the brunt of our society’s pedantry about the word ironic. Sure, her song “Ironic” notoriously misuses the word (around 10 times) and repeatedly insists that rain on your wedding day is ironic rather than simply a bit of bad luck. But while many of us have poked fun at Morissette’s poor diction, her use of ironic to describe coincidences or annoying events is reflective of how many of us casually misuse the term. She may not be a particularly egregious offender at all, just more prominent. Isn’t it ironic? Actually, no, not really. But it’s easy to misuse the term in a world where so few of us know what the correct meaning is. So what does ironic really mean, and how are we allowed to use it?

One reason we misuse ironic so frequently is the slipperiness of the definition. What does it really mean to say, as many definitions do, that irony refers to a situation in which actuality differs from perception or expectations? Is any expectation fair game, or should the expectation be based on some reasonable evidence? If we expect a rain-free day for our wedding, is it really ironic for the day to turn out wet and gloomy, when we had no real reason for expecting sun? What if it’s only a cloudy, damp day -- is that enough of a contrast with the expected sunny skies to merit the term ironic? The flexibility of the terms involved seems to allow irony to stretch to cover almost any event, but this careless usage ultimately strips the word ironic of meaning.

Another confounding factor is the sheer number of possibilities for correct usage. There are a multitude of definitions of irony, including verbal irony (frequently referred to as sarcasm), dramatic irony (a theater audience being privy to information unknown by the characters), and cosmic irony (the horrible twists of fate that suggest the gods are working against us). The plethora of ways ironic can be used meaningfully suggests that it’s something of a catchall for a situation that seems odd, upsetting or amusing, but in fact, each kind of irony has a specific definition that carries a precise meaning. Here are 6 perfectly appropriate ways to use the term ironic -- so go forth, and no longer proclaim that a delayed flight making you miss your connection is “ironic.” It’s just bad luck.

1. Verbal irony - Verbal irony refers to a speaker or writer intentionally using words that literally convey the opposite of their true beliefs, generally for comic emphasis, which is a technique we often refer to as sarcasm. There’s considerable debate about whether the two are interchangeable, but there’s certainly a strong overlap. Sarcastic comments do not always contain irony, and “ironic” comments don’t necessarily contain the caustic, insulting tone of sarcasm -- though they certainly can. However, the kind of comment we most frequently refer to as “sarcastic” -- pointedly saying the opposite of one’s real meaning -- can safely be called “ironic” as well.

Example: “My boss’s ironic comments about my work are so frustrating! I wish he’d just tell me he isn’t happy with what I’ve done without all the attitude.”

2. Situational irony - This type of irony is perhaps the most commonly invoked. Situational irony refers to a sharp divergence between expectations or perceptions and reality. Expectations, of course, often differ from results, but to rise to the state of irony, the gulf between them should be vast and the contrast sharp. Such an ironic contrast may occur when actions taken based on firm expectations actually subvert the hoped-for result, as when King Laius leaves his infant son, Oedipus, to die in hopes of foiling a prophecy that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus, who survives and grows up not knowing his parents, later does kill his father and marry his mother -- his abandonment as a baby meant he didn’t know he was related to the man he killed or to the woman he went on to marry. Laius’s actions, in stark contrast to his expectations, led directly to the fate he hoped to avoid.

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

3. Dramatic irony - This form of irony has a specialized use -- it only occurs in works of drama or fiction. It describes the device in which the reader or audience is tipped off to a crucial fact still unknown to one or more of the characters. A famous instance occurs in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: While the audience knows that Juliet has taken a potion to make her appear dead for a few days, Romeo knows only of the reports of her death, and the seemingly dead body in her tomb. As he kills himself in despair, the audience is painfully aware of his tragic ignorance -- a dramatically ironic situation.

Example: “We knew the room was booby-trapped, but ironically the hero had no idea that, though he’d just successfully escaped a car bomb, there was a trap waiting for him at home too! Everyone in the theater was on tenterhooks.”

4. Cosmic irony - Okay, so you probably won’t have the chance to use cosmic irony that often, unless you’re the philosophical type. Cosmic irony denotes the idea that the fates are against us, if not indifferent to us, and that our struggles are the result of higher forces or powers amusing themselves at our expense. (No, we never use this term.) But if you want to bemoan a series of situationally ironic catastrophes, get a little melodramatic -- bring the gods into it and blame “cosmic irony.”

Example: “The cosmic irony is killing me! The one day I didn’t join in on the office lottery pool, they won 300 million dollars. Plus, even though my boyfriend was the one who convinced me to stop buying the tickets since it was a waste of money, he’s breaking up with me for one of my newly rich coworkers. I might as well give up, since the fates are clearly against me.”

5. Historical irony - Some things only become ironic with time. If the passage of years has created an amusing juxtaposition between a historical event or claim and what has happened since to contradict it, historical irony comes into play. Remember when Margaret Thatcher stated in 1973 that she didn’t believe there would be a woman prime minister in her lifetime? That became pretty ironic when she was made the first female prime minister of the UK, notably well within her lifetime, in 1979.

Example: “Isn’t it ironic that the inventor of the machine gun thought his new weapon would end war? Clearly that didn’t happen!”

6. Socratic irony - Socrates’s distinctive teaching style has spawned several pedagogical concepts widely used today, mostly notably the Socratic method, which encourages critical thinking through dialogue and repeated questioning. Socratic irony, a related concept, describes a pretense of ignorance used to draw an opponent into slipping up or revealing flaws in their argument. The irony lies in the uninformed, gullible face the speaker presents, which is juxtaposed to the actual depth of their understanding -- ironically, they were more knowledgeable than the seemingly educated target all along.

Example: “When a classmate is making a particularly fallacious claim, I like to use Socratic irony to poke holes in his argument. The more innocently I question him about it, the more quickly his argument seems to fall apart.”

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