Isn’t it funny, don’t you think, how one song destroyed our understanding of the word irony? Or perhaps we never really understood it. Maybe it’s the way, “Isn’t it ironic,” trips off the tongue while, “Isn’t it coincidental,” garbles in the mouth. Either way, people use irony wrong every day, which is a shame, because irony is one of the more expansive English words.
First of all, when Alanis Morissette called those things in her song ironic, she really meant coincidental. A coincidence is when an event occurs along with other events (like raining on one’s wedding day). When you run into your boss while drunk at the bar, that’s not ironic, that’s a coincidence.
Irony comes from an ancient Greek word, Îµá¼°ÏÏ‰Î½ÎµÎ¯Î± eirÅneÃa, meaning dissimulation or feigned ignorance. At its most basic, irony means saying the opposite of what you mean. For example, when you tell your coworker that you think they look, “So cute!” when you don’t quite like their outfit, that’s called being ironic. Of course, irony in this situation shouldn’t be confused with sarcasm. If you’re telling your coworker they look cute to save face when you mean the opposite, that’s irony. When you tell your coworker they look cute and say it with a mean inflection to hurt their feelings, that’s sarcasm.
Not just for getting yourself out of awkward social situations, irony can also be used to add emphasis. Go on a terrible date last night? You might say that it was, “as pleasant as a root canal.” Everyone knows that a root canal is not pleasant and that you did not mean to say that a root canal is fun. No, you put it that way because a root canal is so unpleasant that to say it is that way lets people know just how truly awful your date went. Irony at work!
You probably first understood irony as a literary device from when you took AP English. Called dramatic irony on the quiz I’ll hand you later, this device is when someone has more information than another character, leading to crazy antics. A classic example of this is in the play Othello. Iago knows that Desdemona has been faithul, as does the audience. Iago and the audience also know that our villain is setting Othello up for the fall. Lacking these details, Othello acts contrary to how we know a person who knows the truth would act. In the play, the lack of truth causes Othello to make terrible decisions based on jealousy, when in truth, he has no reason to be jealous.
One of my favorite forms of irony is Socratic irony. In his dialogues, Socrates pretends to know less than he does so he can get at the truth of the matter. Later philosophers find irony useful for opening up discourse and changing how we think of things. Famously, Richard Rorty used political irony to describe a political position where an indivdual always accepts that what they do politically might not always be true, and in doing so, they develop a more expansive form of politics.
For all its usefulness, irony can be problematic. One of the better explanations of irony as a device comes from Feminist Frequency and goes through the “I know that you know that I know that we know,” levels of irony.
What is amazing about irony is just how damn useful it is and how it has been limited by its incorrect usage. It’s a word that cuts a wide swath accross literature, politics, and everyday life. Anything ironic happened lately?