Remember the song “Ironic” that Alanis Morissette recorded in the ’90s. Of course you do, it describes a slew of “ironic” situations that aren’t really ironic.
For instance, “It’s like a no smoking sign on your cigarette break.” You know what that is? It’s a tough break for the smoker—but it’s not ironic. Just plain bad luck.
So, what is irony?
It’s a figure of speech that highlights the difference between what is expected and what actually occurs. The late comedian George Carlin gives a grim description in his book, Brain Droppings.
“If a diabetic, on his way to buy insulin, is killed by a runaway truck, he is the victim of an accident. If the truck was delivering sugar, he is the victim of an oddly poetic coincidence. But if the truck is delivering insulin, ah!, then he is the victim of irony.”
What is expected? The diabetic man will buy insulin and continue living. What occurs? Insulin, the very thing that should save his life, kills him. Pretty simple. However, as Carlin showed, irony is often mistaken for coincidence, contradiction, misfortune, or something that’s merely amusing.
Just ask my former high school English teacher.
“I hear people assuming a definition [of irony] or a sense of its application and not being accurate in examples that demonstrate it,” explained my now retired high school English teacher Mike Deines.
“To me irony is a tremendous tool if it can be used well. The intent of being ironic is to point out something that is absurd, taken to extreme and that is contrary to fact.”
So, is Alanis Morissette the culprit for irony abuse?
Although he chuckled at this suggestion, Deines doesn’t buy it. Instead he credits the abuse to the word’s elusiveness; for many people, it’s a difficult concept to grasp.
“[Irony] is one of the hardest skills to use well,” he said, because writing humor is not easy, and irony is a key to good humor. “You have to be able to look at a situation and see something that is humorous about it and be able to express that.”
Lack of humor plagues high school students, Deines observed. They overwrite and become overly serious. “The point is they take themselves too seriously in their expressions, and their writing voice becomes too stilted,” he said.
Sound familiar? Like letters from the CEO perhaps?
Despite an English teacher’s praise, irony had a rough time in the aughts. It was said irony died on Sept. 11. That the jarring tragedy was a rebuke to America’s smirking sense of humor. Indeed, some of America’s greatest ironists—David Letterman, Jon Stewart—(briefly) abandoned the sentiment for something resembling sincerity.
Remember, just because someone is ironic, doesn’t mean they don’t care. It’s quite the opposite. The writer Robert Bourne once said: “The ironist is ironical not because he does not care, but because he cares too much.”
Take his message to heart. Embrace irony. Face the day knowing it’s all around us. Laugh at irony. Learn from it. Use it to teach others of their follies. But beware of sarcasm—irony’s nasty cousin.
“Sarcasm is malicious,” Deines said. “Someone who has a good use of irony is going to point out our own shortcomings and foibles and inconsistencies, but leaves the action to us.”
If you’re still unsure of the definition, let’s revisit Morissette’s song. A coule of years ago, the website CollegeHumor.com recorded an updated version of “Ironic” that applies the proverbial red pen to the ditty, explaining—in song—how each situation described by Morissette would be ironic.
For instance, the new version says: “It’s like a no smoking sign on your cigarette break—at the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company.”