That isn’t what irony means

The words “irony” and “ironic” get thrown around a lot in places that they shouldn’t.

This is not a pedantic rant asserting that words can only be used in the way prescribed in my favorite dictionary, or that the meanings of words never change. Words change over time as people use them in new and different ways. And what’s most important is whether or not the listeners understood what was meant, rather than whether a particular utterance followed someone’s notions about proper grammar and usage.

We will talk some other time about usage and the misuse of language (and about people who think they are correcting other people’s misuse when, in fact, they are the ones who don’t understand usage). No, today I want to talk about the abuse of the word irony.

My biggest dictionary with the magnifier

Checking with the Compact Oxford English Dictionary.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a post by me if it weren’t at least a bit pedantic: the very oldest instance of the use of irony in the English language, according to the Oxford Dictionary, was in the year 1502. In that instance, it was describing a debate tactic by which a person pretended to believe one thing in order to engage a person in conversation and argue him around to the opposite belief. This is sometimes called Socratic Irony because it resembles a method Socrates used to teach and persuade.

Through the five hundred and eleven years since, irony’s meaning has expanded to include any situation in which someone says or acts the exact opposite of what is actually meant or expected. Similar to sarcasm, though sarcasm more often has a malicious intent. In a play or other work of fiction when the audience is made to see an incongruity between the situation and the words or actions of the characters and the characters are unaware of the incongruity we call that dramatic irony. Irony is usually poignant, rather than mocking.

In the last few decades the types of incongruences that have been described as ironic have become broader, to the point where virtually any incongruity at all gets called ironic.

But there have to be lines. Otherwise why do we need the word irony at all? I believe, in order for an action to be ironic that the incongruity has to have something to do with either the intention of the person performing the act or the expectation of the people who will see it. Preferably both.

So while it might be ironic to name an enormous dog Tiny, it is not ironic for someone who considers themself a sophisticated intellectual to name their dog Cat. One can argue the second one a couple of ways, but the main reason it isn’t ironic is that anyone who literally thinks of oneself as a sophisticated intellectual is exactly the sort of pretentious prat to do something like name a dog Cat and think he’s being clever.

A beard can’t be ironic. No matter how much that pretentious young man you met at the coffee shop insists that it is. His facial hair can be sexy, ugly, well-trimmed, embarrassing, or a number of other adjectives, but it can’t be ironic. People don’t have sufficiently specific expectations about the facial hair of strangers for any beard incongruity to qualify as ironic.

If you’re talking about something, and then that thing happens, that is not ironic. It’s a coincidence, which is a form of congruity. Irony is about incongruities, not congruities.

If you say something stupidly offensive and then:

  • people react with more hostility and scorn than you expected, you insist that you were right,
  • but then when that doesn’t work you insist you were misquoted,
  • but evidence to the contrary arrives, so you insist you were joking,
  • then when no one finds it funny but rather even more scorn you for it,

…you can’t claim that you were being ironic. Sorry, if you had originally meant the opposite of your actual words, that would have been your first excuse, not your fourth.

Finally, if you are an entertainer who does that, and then your career takes a nosedive? That’s not irony. That’s called just desserts. And we’re not talking about pie and ice cream


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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. For more than 18 years I edited and published an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live near Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

4 responses to “That isn’t what irony means”

  1. Margaret Dean says :

    “Use every man after his desserts, and who would ‘scape whipped cream?”

  2. furtech says :

    What is it called when, say, someone rallies loud and long about wanting more police on the streets, then gets a speeding ticket? I -thought- that would have been ironic or an example of irony, but now I’m confused (because none of your examples seem to address this kind of situation, except maybe to call it just desserts).

    • fontfolly says :

      A nuance I didn’t mention was that irony isn’t a binary state; in other words, while you can’t be a bit pregnant, something can be only slightly ironic.

      In your example, there is an incongruity between the ranter’s intentions and the outcome, so it is at least a little bit ironic. To me, it would be clearly ironic if his ranting had been a contributing factor to the hiring of more traffic cops, resulting in the ticket.

      It could slide up or down the ironic-not ironic scale depending in the content of his ranting.

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