Is it ironic that so many don’t understand irony?

These terms get bandied about, but they have very specific meanings.

Recently I was walking and talking with my co-worker, who is a freelance writer and aspiring journalist. We were talking about the fact that our employers were providing us with a Thanksgiving lunch the day after Thanksgiving, and she said, “It’s so ironic!”—all emphasis and drawing-out of syllables possible used on the last word.

This is a smart girl I’m talking about. She’s a college graduate and has done her fair share of writing and reporting. Even so, she doesn’t know the definition of irony. Merriam-Webster defines irony as:

1: a pretense of ignorance and of willingness to learn from another assumed in order to make the other’s false conceptions conspicuous by adroit questioning—called also Socratic irony.

2: a) the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning
b) a usually humorous or sardonic literary style or form characterized by irony
c) an ironic expression or utterance

3: a) incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result; an event or result marked by such incongruity

b) incongruity between a situation developed in a drama and the accompanying words or actions that is understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play—called also dramatic irony, tragic irony

A simple way of putting it is that irony usually signals a difference between the appearance of things and reality. For instance, here is how Wikipedia defines it: “Ironic statements (verbal irony) often convey a meaning exactly opposite from their literal meaning. In ironic situations (situational irony), actions often have an effect exactly opposite from what is intended.”

Confusion is such that there is even a website,, where you can post your own question about whether or not something is ironic. Readers will cast votes—you can see the percentages—and the website will provide the verdict.

Here are some examples of irony (or the lack of, according to readers):

1. Is it ironic that I posted a video about how boring and useless Facebook is on Facebook?
Readers’ verdict: 93 percent not ironic; 7 percent ironic. Final verdict: Not ironic.

2. Is it ironic that the name of Britain’s biggest dog was Tiny?
Readers’ verdict: 75 percent ironic; 25 percent not ironic. Final verdict: Ironic.

3. Is it ironic that I can’t go to church because I have a theology test to study for?
Readers’ verdict: 95 percent ironic; 5 percent not ironic. Final verdict: Ironic.

4. Is it ironic that someone steps into a puddle and you make fun of them… and the next thing you know, you step in one!?
Readers’ verdict: 94 percent ironic; 6 percent not ironic. Final verdict: Ironic.

Has Alanis Morissette spoiled irony for us forever? Perhaps my generation is just in recovery from her 1995 lyrics. What do you think—do you understand the meaning of irony? Do people around you?

A version of this article originally ran on

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