On "Ironic"

I’ve been getting lots of suggestions for posts from NPR listeners, but one of them inspired me much more than others: the usage of the word ironic. I think this is one of the most commonly misused words these days.

If you’ve ever seen an episode of American Idol, you know that Paula Abdul has an interesting way with words. She usually sloshes and sways all over the place while evaluating the contestants, making little sense. (Rumors abound that she is an alcoholic or addicted to painkillers; she has denied both these claims.)

During a show that I believe took place last year, she commented on a performance by one of her favorite contestants. Perhaps it was Elliott Yamin. (LOVE him!) She said something along the lines of, “I find it….so….ironic….that you would choose this song, because it suits you so well.”

This was the nail in the coffin for me. Granted, trying to make sense out of the ramblings of Paula Abdul is not unlike trying to decipher conversations written in leprechaun, but to me, this seemed like a culmination: there are so many people who use the word “ironic” without knowing what it actually means! And now Paula had to go and say that in front of millions of viewers, many of whom were children….

I also remember a conversation that I had with one of my college roommates. We were both English majors, we had the same advisor, and we hoped were both involved in creative writing and publishing. One day, our conversation turned to the word ironic and its meaning.

She swore up and down that it meant “unexpected.”

I strongly disagreed. I told her that I considered it to mean “unusual and contradictory,” then provided her with an example — if someone shows up to a meeting early, is that ironic?

Now, if this guy had a reputation for for always being late and if his colleagues had made plans to start the meeting ten minutes later than scheduled because of that, and, in turn, the guy actually showed up on time and the colleagues were the ones late for the meeting, then that would be ironic.

She and I are both quite headstrong, so we never resolved this argument. To be fair, she is very smart — I consider her to be one of the most intelligent people I met at Fairfield.

For the record, here is the definition of ironic from the American Heritage Dictionary:

1. Characterized by or constituting irony.
2. Given to the use of irony. See Synonyms at sarcastic.
3. Poignantly contrary to what was expected or intended: madness, an ironic fate for such a clear thinker.

Here is the definition of irony:

1. the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal
meaning: the irony of her reply, “How nice!” when I said I had to work all
2. Literature.
a. a technique of indicating, as through character or plot development, an intention or attitude opposite to that which is actually or ostensibly stated.
b.(esp. in contemporary writing) a manner
of organizing a work so as to give full expression to contradictory or complementary impulses, attitudes, etc., esp. as a means of indicating detachment from a subject, theme, or emotion.
3. Socratic irony.
4. dramatic irony.
5. an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected.
6. the incongruity of this.
7. an objectively sardonic style of speech or writing.
8. an objectively or humorously sardonic utterance, disposition, quality, etc.

What are your thoughts on the word?

Thanks for the tip, Daniel!


7 responses to “On "Ironic"

  1. Something you might find interesting: “Lines from Alanis Morrisette’s ‘Ironic’ Modified to Actually Make them Ironic.”

    Now, not all of these modifications succeed, but it’s a start.

  2. Ryk in San Jose

    I enjoyed your interview on NPR earlier today, but I wondered about the grammar in your story about the running shoe ad campaign.

    Shouldn’t it be “Run easily, Boston”?

    Can “easy” be an adverb? Isn’t an adverb required here?

    BTW, I applaud your gammar jihad, the English language in the U.S. is deteriorating far too rapidly.

    — Ryk

  3. I have a friend who is going to be very upset when she finds out that you agree with her on this subject. It’s mostly because she hates your blog.

    Also, you’ll be happy to learn that I found my missing Skittle.

  4. Hey, I don’t *hate* this blog. I just think it’s pretty irritating when people throw fits about minor grammatical infractions when they could be throwing fits about important things. I believe I made that clear on my BC post the other day.

  5. Proper grammar is worth fighting for.

    George Carlin has a bit about the incorrect usage of “ironic” and how it is interchanged with “coincidence”. Here is that excerpt from his book, Brain Droppings. “Carlin on Mangling the Language”: http://www.sense.net/~blaine/funstuff/carlin.html

    Irony deals with opposites; it has nothing to do with coincidence. If two baseball palyers from the same hometown, on different teams, receive the same uniform number, it is not ironic. It is a coincidence. If Barry Bonds attains lifetime statistics identical to his father’s it will not be ironic. It will be a coincidence. Irony is “a state of affairs that is the reverse of what was to be expected; a result opposite to and in mockery of the appropriate result.”
    For instance:
    *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 was delivering insulin, ah! Then he is the victim of an irony.
    *If a Kurd, after surviving bloody battle with Saddam Hussein’s army and a long, difficult escape through the mountains, is crushed and killed by a parachute drop of humanitarian aid, that, my friend, is irony writ large.
    *Darryl Stingley, the pro football player, was paralyzed after a brutal hit by Jack Tatum. Now Darryl Stingley’s son plays football, and if the son should become paralyzed while playing, it will not be ironic. It will be coincidental. If Darryl Stingley’s son paralyzes someone else, that will be closer to ironic. If he paralyzes Jack Tatum’s son that will be precisely ironic.

  6. The most abused word to pique me of late is refute.

    Refute should mean :
    1. overthrow by argument, evidence, or proof
    2. prove to be false or incorrect

    Typically it used to mean bringing forth proof, usually written proof, to counter a suggestion or an an allegation.

    The Online Etymology Dictionary nicely summarises why I’m so irked :
    1513, “refuse, reject,” from L. refutare “drive back, repress, repel, rebut,” from re- “back” + -futare “to beat,” probably from PIE base *bhat- “to strike down” (cf. beat). Meaning “prove wrong” dates from 1545. Since c.1964 linguists have frowned on the subtle shift in meaning towards “to deny,” as it is used in connection with allegation.

    When folk within courts rooms or when politicians say they “refute” something, they invariably do not refute it.
    They invariably disagree with or deny it. Saying they refute does sound (and should sound) stronger since it implies evidencing a refusal for why it ain’t so.

  7. I found this site through a Livejournal community and wished to share my opinion on the common misuse of the “ironic”.

    To best illustrate my opinion, I’ve found a video from Futurama with Bender discussing the differences between “Ironic” and “Coincidental”.


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