1. The use of words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning.
2. An expression or utterance marked by a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning.
3. A literary style employing such contrasts for humorous or rhetorical effect.
4. Incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs: “Hyde noted the irony of Ireland’s copying the nation she most hated” (Richard Kain).
5. An occurrence, result, or circumstance notable for such incongruity.
I’m not a language fascist, however if there is one word which has been cataclysmically abused to the point where the government should step in with tasers, it is the misuse of the word “irony”.
In case your eyes glazed over the definition posted above, allow me to further define the word by demonstrating what irony is not. First, let’s start with the most common misperception. Irony is not coincidence – no, not even a sad coincidence, as boldly defined by Alanis Morissette in her song, “Ironic”:
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
And isn’t it ironic… don’t you think
Actually, I don’t think that’s ironic. Because it isn’t. What she’s describing is a series of unfortunate circumstances. Mind you, renaming the song “Unfortunate Circumstances” wouldn’t work – doesn’t have much of a ring to it.
The thing is, I can excuse Alanis for this. I can do this because she’s a musician and not someone whom I should, by her profession, necessarily hold in high regard as regards the use of English language (lest I use the same linguistic measuring stick against Led Zeppelin and Muddy Waters).
Not, say, like a nationally broadcast television journalist. Say, like the anchor of CBS Evening News, Katie Couric:
[September 13th, 2007]
COURIC: And now this sad footnote from Iraq. Two Army paratroopers who recently wrote an article that was critical of the war effort were killed this week. Staff Sergeant Yance Gray and Sergeant Omar Mora were part of a group of seven who authored a piece entitled “The War as We Saw It,” published in The New York Times last month. The group wrote that for Iraqis, quote, “engaging in the banalities of life has become a death-defying act.” Now, ironically, Gray and Mora were killed along with five other soldiers not in combat, but when their cargo truck overturned during a routine trip in western Baghdad.
It goes without saying that this is tragic, but it’s not irony, unless Ms. Couric believes being stationed for combat in Iraq was not foreseen as being dangerous in the first place. I’ll let the folks at Media Matters question this last point.
Speaking of Iraq and bad communication, after 9/11/01, we were told – and I don’t know who was the first to coin this, not that it matters, because like so much that has happened since then, everyone just bent over and agreed to it like submissive pets – that it was “the end of irony”. And while I hope this daft phrase will be preserved as an example of world-class naivety, it seems we’ve never gotten a handle on this word, which is sad. It’s sad because I feel that this proclamation, made just over seven years ago is yet another example of the phrase, “the first casualty of war is truth”. To pronounce that any word or behaviour is no longer valid abdicates a necessary freedom of communication.
Conspiratorially, I wonder sometimes if irony, a formidable weapon when used knowledgeably, hasn’t had it’s meaning and usage watered down intentionally. Why? Well, we seem to be very prolific at being ironic and affecting irony in our popular discourse without ever troubling ourselves to actually identify it (or for that matter question our dependence upon it when it comes to things we care about). Indeed, sometimes it seems we are incapable of showing reverence for anything without irony poisoning the well. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big fan of irreverence when it is used to desaturate those things in life we take too seriously – but if everything portrayed on television, in films, in our books, becomes increasingly ironic (without the audience bothering to know what irony is, or worse still, without an opinion – reverent or not – to begin with) then does that not somehow conjure the image of a society that is becoming more wilfully deluded?
I hate ending things with a question, so I’ll just say that I try to hope for the best, knowing that – in the long run – when it comes to understanding the great frustrations of humanity, you are often left on your own to figure out the truth. And even then, sometimes there’s nothing that can be done for anyone other than yourself.