What is Irony, Anyway?
My mother instilled in all her children a love for language. Dinner discussions frequently involved word games, anagrams, and vocab flashcards, which probably evolved as a way to encourage talking from three morose and competitive teenagers.
I guess it’s not too surprising then that, later in life, my brother and I found ourselves on opposite sides of a quintessentially 90s linguistic harangue. The classic Alanis anthem: great to scream-sing when alone in the car, but a poor education on all things ironic. “It’s ridiculous,” he laughed, “rain on your wedding day isn’t ironic.” I disagreed instantly. Probably out of solidarity to my angsty teenage self. But, for all my entrained sibling rivalry and grammatical rigidity, I couldn’t explain why a song about irony without any irony could be ironic!
I needed answers.
Like any good grammar nerd, I started with etymology. As the father from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” would be happy to point out, “irony” derives from the Greek “eirōneía,” meaning “dissimulation” or “feigned ignorance.” The word ties to the so-called stock character who would adopt a pretense of mental or physical weakness to get the better of his opponents.
Contemporary irony usually falls into one of three categories: situational, dramatic, or verbal. These share features with concepts like satire, sarcasm, and cynicism, but are formally distinct.
Situational irony occurs when the end-result is different from what was expected (with intentionality the key distinction). The invention of gunpowder is a great example. In the quest for immortality, Chinese alchemists stumbled across one of the world’s most destructive tools.
Dramatic irony is a narrative tool where the audience understands the situation while the characters are ignorant. See the story of Oedipus or — for a modern take on the surprise incest theme — Game of Thrones. The audience knows Daenerys and Jon Snow are related and interpret their romantic dragon-riding date a little differently.
Verbal irony implies a meaning opposite of what was said. Frequently confused with sarcasm, the degree to which they overlap is debatable. But self-proclaimed “sarcastic” people take note. Verbal irony is generally seen as constructive. A classic example of sarcasm? Regina George in “Mean Girls” complementing your outfit. Verbal irony? Hip-hop star T-Pain mocking rap video clichés in SNL’s comedy track “I’m on a Boat.” Mind-bender, this is a case of situational irony as well – T-Pain ultimately earned a Grammy nomination for self-parodying his work. (An honor his music never received.)
Technically, irony has to do with opposites and nothing to do with coincidence. But its colloquial use encompasses everything from the surprising, to the disappointing, to the just plain bizarre. When a word’s formal definition conflicts with its everyday use, linguists tend to arrange themselves into two camps. Prescriptivists insist that proper communication requires consistent, unchanging definitions. In this view, misuse equals ignorance. On the other hand, Descriptivists see language as constantly evolving, where the meanings of words are largely determined by how they are used.
Whatever your personal feelings for semiotics, we must concede that meanings do change over time. Words mean something if enough people understand them that way. Hark the linguistic drift in “I literally died laughing.” Literally, sanction, handicap, garnish, weather – there are many instances of words that are their own opposites. Old words are used in new ways. And the new usages can coexist with, or even displace, the old meanings.
It’s clear we are in the midst of a cultural shift regarding our understanding of irony. People are deeply confused about its meaning and yet militant about its misuse. Some have embraced it as a life choice (uninspired hipsters, I’m talking directly to you). There’s even a website called isitironic.com, devoted to crowd-sourcing votes on whether a situation is ironic or not. A brief foray into lyrics databases and you’ll realize how often the word is used in music. It does rhyme neatly with “chronic.”
As Jonah Goldberg wryly points out, “paradoxically the people most likely to know the definition of irony are the people least likely to appreciate it in its modern form.” So, is Alanis Morissette’s song “Ironic,” well, ironic? Yes and no. The use of irony is so oversaturated that you could make a good argument that any understandable meaning has washed away. There’s no point in taking a firm position on either side. You’re both right.
So are the situations Morissette sings about ironic? Not at all. But on a higher level, a song about irony without any irony? Hmmm, Now that is ironic.