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  • 7/31/2019 Irony and Ignorance


    Irony and Ignorance

    Last update: 17 April 2004





    DictionariesCurrent Usage




    There are countless writers, university students, schoolteachers, radio announcers and

    assorted others who decry or deride what they claim is inexcusable abuse of the word

    ironic in this song:

    IRONICby Alanis Morissette

    An old man turned ninety-eightHe won the lottery and died the next day

    It's a black fly in your ChardonnayIt's a death row pardon two minutes too late

    Isn't it ironic... don't you think


    It's like rain on your wedding day

    It's a free ride when you've already paidIt's the good advice that you just didn't take

    Who would've thought... it figures

    Mr. Play It Safe was afraid to flyHe packed his suitcase and kissed his kids good-bye

    He waited his whole damn life to take that flight

    And as the plane crashed down he thought"Well isn't this nice..."

    And isn't it ironic... don't you think
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    Repeat Chorus

    Well life has a funny way of sneaking up on youWhen you think everything's okay and everything's going right

    And life has a funny way of helping you out when

    You think everything's gone wrong and everything blows upIn your face

    A traffic jam when you're already lateA no-smoking sign on your cigarette break

    It's like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife

    It's meeting the man of my dreamsAnd then meeting his beautiful wife

    And isn't it ironic... don't you think

    A little too ironic... and yeah I really do think...

    Repeat Chorus

    Life has a funny way of sneaking up on youLife has a funny, funny way of helping you out

    Helping you out

    I wrote this essay in response to:

    the procession of wrong assumptions, unjustified pronouncements and erroneous

    assertions made by those who criticizeIronic. the virtually unanimous and unchallenged acceptance of the criticisms as essentially

    true by the critics' audiences.

    the absence, to my knowledge, of anyone else interested in pointing out where the

    critics have got it wrong.

    and because:

    most of the critics are guilty of the very ignorance they rail against.

    'Irony' is perhaps the most troublesome word in the English language. In this essay I will

    discuss its meaning and explain how different forms of irony are related through a commoncharacteristic. I will also argue that the songIronic is actually more consistent with the

    general meaning of the word than current popular usage is. Finally, I will review some of

    the articles and internet pages that criticize the song.

    Citing of sources

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    This essay is a response to numerous articles and web pages. I decided that I could not

    respond effectively to them without reproducing some of them and responding to them

    point by point, so that's what I have done. Pages from the personal web sites of theirauthors have been reproduced only in part, except where they are reasonably short, so that

    readers will not regard text reproduced here as a substitute for the original page. Links to

    the source pages are provided for readers to verify that the pages exist and have not beenmisrepresented here. Of course, pages can change or disappear at any time, so I can't

    guarantee accurate reproductions or working links at all times, but I will endeavour to alter

    the content as necessary to keep it current.

    In writing this Ive assumed that those who pick over the words ofIronic dont mind mydoing the same to their words.

    Conventions used

    In this essay I have used the following typeface conventions:

    - My words appear in this typeface- Extracts from authoritative reference sources appear in this typeface- Reproduced articles, internet pages and usage examples appear in this typeface


    Comments may be e-mailed to This is an infrequently checkedmailbox.


    February 2002 - First posting(Updates before 2003 omitted.)

    5 April 2003 - Removed reviews of pages , which no longer exist. Added a

    review of

    8 April - Edited some too-harsh remarks in the added review.18 April - Minor changes.

    21 September - Added review of

    17 April 2004 - Added examples toIrony and Situations sections; made minor changes torhetorical irony section; changed one broken link.

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    Irony came into English in the 16th century from the Latin ironia, which came from the

    Greekeironeia (simulated ignorance), which came from the Greekeiron (dissembler),

    which came from the Greekeirein (say).

    In general, irony is the use of language to express both a surface meaning and a different

    underlying meaning. There are many different forms of irony, some of which are givenbelow. I've placed each form under one of two convenient categories.

    1. This category consists of those forms in which there are two audiences an uninitiatedaudience, which understands only the surface meaning of the expression, and a privileged

    audience, or inner circle, which understands both meanings and is aware that the

    uninitiated audience does not understand. Typically, the speaker addresses the uninitiatedaudience while the privileged audience observes.

    a)Socratic irony is a profession of ignorance. Socrates asked apparently simple, silly

    questions as a means of discovering whether the accepted wisdom of his time was based on

    sound principles. The wise men he questioned were under the impression that he was an

    ignorant simpleton, but their attempts to enlighten him served only to expose their own,even greater ignorance. Observers familiar with the technique knew what Socrates was up

    to, and that those he engaged with his silly questions did not.

    b)Dramatic irony is the awareness by a plays audience of the fate in store for a character

    that is not known to the character himself. In Greek tragedies, for example, certain words

    seem innocuous and unimportant to the character they concern, but the audience is awareof a meaning of far greater significance and that the character's unawareness will have

    tragic consequences.

    c)The irony of Fate is figurative irony in which an event or a set of circumstances takes

    the place of the expression of language. A situation that appears to have arisen naturally(i.e., in the normal or natural course of events) is sometimes of such a character that it can

    be more satisfactorily explained as an act of malice or mischief by Fate, i.e., an act ofinterference that on the surface was a natural occurrence. The obvious candidates aresituations that are particularly perverse, or that seem to mock the expectations of most of us

    that the course of events will stay within reasonable bounds, or that are humorous at our

    expense. The description of a situation as the irony of Fate is thus a subjective attempt toexplain the inexplicable or unexpected. The term is rarely heard nowadays, having been

    shortened over time to simply irony or a derivative of it. This is regrettable because the

    complete term conveys meaning that irony alone does not. The uninitiated audiencecomprises those who believe that such situations are really nothing more than nature or bad

    luck at work. And the initiated audience comprises those who are not surprised by such

    situations because they firmly believe that Fate, on occasion, does manipulate events to

    amuse herself at our expense.

    d) April Fool's Day jokes are an effective use of irony. Every year on 1 April many

    respected news organizations take advantage of the gullible by presenting an outrageous,

    invented story as a serious news story that superficially seems plausible. See for some good examples.

    2.Rhetorical irony is the use of language to express a surface meaning and a different,

    usually intended, underlying meaning. This is the common classification for irony that is
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    used simply to express oneself, usually to a single audience, though the term could be

    correctly applied more broadly (e.g., to Socratic irony, which is a rhetorical means to an


    Dictionaries often state that the apparent and intended meanings are opposite to each other.

    Opposite meanings are the most common, and they are often the most effective, but theyarent a requirement*. What matters is the audiences recognition and appreciation of the

    usually sharp contrast between what was said and what was meant, regardless of exactlyhow the two meanings relate to each other.

    Rhetorical irony can be quite sophisticated (e.g., a novel or film might contain a subtle,

    underlying meaning that only some in the audience detect), but it is most common in itssimplest forms in ordinary conversations. Here are some examples of ironic expressions

    and their underlying meanings.

    Underlying meaning Ironic expression

    Apparent meaning rel

    underlying meaningThat was a stupid thing to do. Oh, brilliantly done.

    Arent you the clever one, then?

    The stupidest act in human history.

    Opposite (sarcasm)

    Opposite, rhetorical que

    (sarcasm)Hyperbole (i.e., oversta

    It is extremely hot today. Chilly enough for you?Its warming up a little.

    Its like a furnace today.

    Opposite, rhetorical queUnderstatement


    There are twenty spoons but not a

    single knife.

    Ten thousand spoons but not a single


    Hyperbole (e.g., in frust

    Japan faces annihilation by the

    enemys overwhelming forces.

    the war situation has developed not

    necessarily to Japans advantage Emperor Hirohito, radio broadcast, 15

    August 1945 (translation). Theannouncement of Japans surrender in

    World War II began in this understated

    manner - probably to soften the blow ofthe brutal truth of Japans dire

    circumstances to follow. The speech

    shocked and dismayed the Japanesepeople, who had until then been told they

    were winning the war, and for whom

    surrender was unendurable dishonourand humiliation.


    You are out of touch with


    Hurray! Lindy has landed at Le Bourget!

    (i.e., excited announcement of CharlesLindbergh's completion of the first trans-

    Atlantic flight.) Comedy writer, actor and

    filmmaker Mel Brooks once jumped up onthe table during a meeting with studio

    (two layers)

    Literally unrelatedHyperbole (sarcastic ex

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    executives and shouted this at them - 23

    years after the event.


    R1. Fowler, H.W. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 1stEdition (Oxford University

    Press, 1926)R2. McArthur, Tom. The Oxford Companion To The English Language (Oxford University

    Press, 1992)

    R3. Concise Oxford Dictionary, UK 8th Edition (Oxford University Press, 1990)

    *Rhetorical irony - it is clear enough from the word's history that the two meanings do not have to beopposites to qualify as irony. Some references are more general than others, e.g., R1 specifies only that the

    meanings be different (the word opposite makes no appearance in a two-column article), while R3 says,

    language of a different or opposite tendency.

    **The references were used as guides, but definitions are in my words. Examples not otherwise attributedare mine.


    As explained in the previous section, irony is primarily concerned with language, not

    situations. However, like countless other words, it is perfectly acceptable to apply 'irony'

    figuratively. For example, in the irony of Fate the essential two layers of meaning arepresent, but they are found in an event or circumstance instead of in an expression of

    language. Here are some examples of figuratively ironic situations:

    1. By the use of secretly placed cameras, the fictional television show The Truman Show,

    depicted in the film of the same name, follows the life of a man, Truman, from birth to

    adulthood, living in what he believes is a real, normal town, in which he believes he hasreal friends, a real job and a real wife. In fact, the "town" is a giant studio that was specially

    built to isolate Truman from the world outside, his friends and wife are actors, and the

    company he works for isnt real. As they observe Truman, the television audience knowsboth the truth and that Truman himself is completely in the dark. Truman is the one

    member of the uninitiated audience, while the actors, production crew and TV audience

    make up a very large inner circle.

    2a. Many practical jokes are ironic in an irony-of-Fate way, but the irony really belongs to

    the humans that play the jokes. Examples are a trick bar of soap that dirties peoples hands

    and candles for a birthday cake that re-light themselves when blown out. The victims,

    initially at least, are at a loss to understand what has happened. The irony is that the trickitems are presented as ordinary (the surface meaning), but were actually designed to behave

    in the opposite way (the underlying meaning). Those on whom the jokes are played are the

    outsiders, and the perpetrator and any spectators in on the jokes are the inner circle.

    2b. The television show Candid Camera also played practical jokes. In a typical segment,some perverse event was arranged to take place, apparently naturally (e.g., bowling pins

    that right themselves when knocked over), and a usually dumbfounded persons reaction to

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    it was secretly filmed. The viewers, however, know in advance what had been arranged to

    happen, and that this is a secret shared by all except the hapless subject on whom the joke

    was played.

    3. Dorothy is a pensioner who enters the national lottery every week. She selects the same

    numbers each time, but after thirty years she has still not won even a minor prize. Whilewaiting in the queue to purchase her next ticket, she sees an expensive book on lottery

    strategy and decides to buy it, after which, however, she has no money left and has to forgoher entry for this week. This time all her numbers come up.

    4. Lost in a hot desert and near death from thirst, Norman crawled aimlessly in search of

    water. He could hardly believe his good fortune when he came across an oasis. He crawledforward onto its bank, leaned down and was just about to drink his fill when the bank

    collapsed under him. He fell in the water and drowned.

    5. In oneRoad Runnercartoon Wile E. Coyote installed a solid steel plate in a road that he

    could pop up by remote control when the road runner approached. However, when the roadrunner approached the plate failed to pop up when activated, so Wile E. abandoned it.

    Several minutes later, by which time the cartoon's audience had forgotten about the device,

    he was chasing the road runner with rocket-powered assistance along the same road. The

    plate finally popped up a moment before he reached it.


    Examples 3, 4 and 5 are suggested as examples ofthe irony of Fate. In example 3, the

    outcome could be explained by bad luck alone, but for some its perhaps a little toounlucky and better explained as the deed of a mischievous sense of humour. In example 4,

    the outcome could also be explained as an unfortunate natural occurrence, but it might also

    be interpreted as an expression of Fates black humour. Example 5 is also an accident onthe surface, but the exquisite timing seems deliberate.In each of these examples there is asurface meaning - that nature or luck was responsible - and, subjectively, a different

    underlying meaning - that Fates manipulation of events was responsible.


    Perhaps Norman (briefly) and Dorothy observed from their experiences that sometimesLife has a funny, funny way of helping you out.


    irony - noun, incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normalor expected result.

    Okay, got it?

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    the opening words of one unfavourable assessment ofIronic (formerly located at

    Some ofIronicscritics try to prove that the song contains no irony. They typically dothis by quoting a dictionary and then assessing, with varying degrees of bias, how well

    each situation described in the song corresponds to it. The implication is that the chosendictionary has the correct meaning, and no further discussion is required. This is nonsense.

    The definition above, for example, is simply a description of a context in which the word iscommonly used (i.e., a specific class of situation). It is one usage derived from a more

    general meaning. Most dictionaries failsituational irony, as it is commonly called, by

    defining it, without explanation, as a particular kind of situation, even though there areother kinds of situations that are figuratively ironic, or are given under irony in other

    dictionaries. Roughly equivalent would be to define the word metal merely as iron in

    one dictionary and as copper in another, with no other information given, so that onlyafter reading both dictionaries would you realize that iron andcopper are metals, and that

    perhaps they arent the only ones. Then, with more investigation in better reference books

    would come the revelation that there is ageneraldefinition of metal that can be used totest whether any conceivable material is a metal. Well, the treatment of situational irony by

    most dictionaries is worse than this. You can find precise definitions and loose ones,

    general ones and specific ones, those that allow plenty of subjective interpretation and

    those that don't, those that are variations of some other one and those that have nothingrecognizable in common with each other. The differences between definitions expose the

    folly of assuming that a dictionary will tell you what is notironic. Here are some examples:

    1. A condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was, or might naturally

    be, expected; a contradictory outcome of events as though in mockery of the promise andfitness of things.

    Oxford English Dictionary (1stedition, c. 1900)

    2. A discrepancy between the expected and actual state of affairs.

    Canadian Oxford Dictionary, 1998

    3. A condition of affairs or events exactly the reverse of what was expected: the irony offate.

    New International Websters Dictionary and Thesaurus, 2000

    4. Irony of Fate: Fates mock compliance with ones wishes, e.g., water everywhere, nor

    any drop to drink.

    Pocket Oxford Dictionary (UK revised 4th edition, 1946)

    5. A condition in which one seems to be mocked by fate or the facts.

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    The Chambers Dictionary, 1998

    6. And the double audience forthe irony of Fate? Nature persuades most of us that the

    course of events is within wide limits foreseeable, that things will follow their usual course,that violent outrage on our sense of the probable or reasonable need not be looked for; and

    these most of us are the uncomprehending outsiders; the elect or inner circle with whomFate shares her amusement at our consternation are the few to whom it is not an occasional

    maxim, but a living conviction, that what happens is the unexpected.

    A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, by H. W. Fowler (1stedition, 1926)

    7. Situation, event etc., that is desirable in itself but so unexpected or ill-timed that it

    appears to be deliberately perverse: the irony of fate. He inherited a fortune but died a

    month later; one of lifes little ironies.

    - Oxford Learners Dictionary of Current English, Encyclopedic Edition, 1992

    8. Ill-timed or perverse arrival of event or circumstance in itself desirable, as though in

    mockery of the fitness of things.

    Concise Oxford Dictionary (UK 6th edition, 1976)

    9. An ill-timed or perverse arrival of an event or circumstance that is in itself desirable.

    Concise Oxford Dictionary (UK 8th edition, 1990)

    10. The quality of an occurrence being so unexpected or ill-timed that it appears to be

    deliberately perverse.

    Oxford Paperback Dictionary (4th edition, 1994)

    11. Apparent perversity of fate or circumstances.

    Oxford Guide To The English Language (1984)

    12. cosmic irony/irony of fate -- when a malicious force seems to deliberately frustratehuman efforts.

    It is a mess, but it is possible to make sense of it all. All of these definitions probably

    derive, one way or another, from the the irony of Fate, which is defined in detail in

    definition 6 above and in the Ironysection. This is the common origin that ties thesedefinitions together. You have to consider them in that context to understand them, a fact

    that many dictionaries - the most popular ones in particular - fail to recognize. Dictionaries

    would no doubt argue that they are simply reflecting changing usage, to which the irony of
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    Fate no longer has much direct relevance. But this reasoning has left us with the mess

    above. It has also left us with with entries such as this one in the Concise Oxford

    Dictionary, 8th edition, which keeps its readers completely in the dark:

    1 an expression of meaning, often humorous or sarcastic, by the use of language of a

    different or opposite tendency.2 an ill-timed or perverse arrival of an event or circumstance that is in itself desirable.

    3 the use of language with one meaning for a privileged audience and another for thoseaddressed or concerned. [L ironia f. Gkeironeia simulated ignorance f. eiron dissembler]

    The root and two of the three definitions are concerned with language, in each case with a

    double meaning involved, so is the reader expected to just accept number 2 without anexplanation? All it does is raise questions. Where on earth did it come from? What do

    desirable events have to do with irony? Why are other dictionaries different? Doesn't any

    other kind of situation qualify? Why can't it be defined in a way that enables the reader to

    understandit? Aren't some readers sure to take it literally, at the exclusion of everything

    else, without the faintest idea of what it has to do with irony? Such a bizarre definition isnot enough. To understand it properly it is necessary to know that this is just one form of

    ironic intervention by a supposed mocking or malicious force, as some other dictionaryentries explain.

    The failure of some dictionaries to explain the word properly is, however, no excuse for

    those of the songs detractors who mindlessly present a single, narrow definition as "proof"

    that little or nothing inIronic qualifies. Criticism of the usage of a word, if it is to be fair,requires somewhat more research than reaching for the nearest dictionary.

    Current Usage

    Though I haven't gathered any statistics, my regular intake of contemporary material fromprint and electronic media, books and ordinary conversations indicates that most situations

    described as ironic in current English satisfy the following definition:

    situational irony - an outcome that, in some respect or on some level, is the opposite of

    the expected outcome.

    - a definition that most current usage satisfies


    Ironically, these volcanic soils and inviting terranes have attracted, and continue to attract,

    people to live on the flanks of volcanoes.
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    Ironically, most laptop computer theft occurs inside office environments. 17)

    Ironically, many people involved in posting or downloading illegal files don't think of it as


    Even the best-conditioned athletes get stitches unpredictably. Interestingly (and ironically),

    people who do not exercise regularly and are in poor condition are less likely to get them.


    The irony is this: we are discussing ways in which the rich world can help the poor world,

    when in fact it is the poor world that is financing and sustaining the rich world.

    The irony is that pressure in one direction elicits pressure in the other; whenever one group

    of volunteers works toward change, another group often reacts to preserve tradition oradvocate yet another alternative.

    Usually, "ironic" situations today are of such a character that a natural or other sensible

    explanation for the "unexpected" outcome seems likely. That is, the outcome would havebeen expected if only you had known more. For instance, it is not really surprising that

    fertile volcanic soils attract people to live on the flanks of volcanoes, in spite of the danger.

    And if laptop computers are often left unattended inside office environments because theirowners don't believe that a colleague would steal them, then in large offices it probably

    isn't all that surprising that they sometimes vanish. So, "expected" often means "expected

    without giving it any thought at all". It is as though one's expectation is all that matters,

    even if based on complete ignorance of the likely outcome.

    In contrast, the irony of Fate is concerned with situations that apparently just "happened",

    but for which no naturalexplanation, including chance, is satisfactory. So, in the opinion

    of the beholder, it is a situation that cannot be adequately explained in terms of nature andtherefore must have resulted from interference with the normal course of events, hence theconclusion that some manipulating intelligence, such as Fate, or a human in some cases,

    must have been responsible.

    Now, as the Ironysection explains, different forms of irony have much in common. In fact,certain essential characteristics they share are the reason they qualify as irony. So, does the

    current definition of situational irony qualify for membership of the irony family on similar
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    grounds? No, it certainly doesn't. Current usage is a severely mutated descendant ofthe

    irony of Fate. Unlike its ancestor, current usage does not imply an "utterance" (the

    arranged situation), with surface and concealed meanings, by a "speaker" (the manipulatingintelligence responsible) - characteristics that are central in irony. In other words, current

    usage does not require that any irony be present at all. Also, there seems to be a common

    belief (which is reinforced by uninformative dictionaries) that a situation cannot be ironicunless it is the opposite of what was expected, but there is no irony-related basis for this


    Is this the "irony" that the critics believeIronic should have used?


    Q: How did you come up with the lyrics to the Ironic song? Is there a story behind it?

    Alanis M: Glen (Ballard) and I were having our usual analytical conversation and we ran

    into a brick wall when it came to trying to find an answer to all the inexplicable andrandom things that happen in this crazy world...

    "The whole aspect of things happening for a reason sometimes eludes me."

    -Alanis Morissette, TV concert special & interviews, aired 1996

    It is unclear from the quotes whether Morissette expects things to happen for physicalreasons or supernatural reasons (e.g., Gods purpose). Either way, there are clearly some

    inexplicable and random and funny things that dont conform to whatever rational

    explanation she has for everything else. If some event or circumstance is presented as

    though it just happened in the normal course of events, but you believe that there is nosatisfactory natural reason for it, then it is necessary to look for a supernatural or abnormal

    reason, the obvious one being that what occurred was arrangedto happen by some

    intelligence, such as Fate or God (or a human, if what happened was within humancapability to cause). In other words, in such situations there is a contrast between the

    appearance of what occurred and what you believe is the underlying reality - a contrast of

    meanings that is the essence of irony. So, if "inexplicable" situations are to be the basis fora song, then nothing would be more appropriate than to write it about irony.

    Nevertheless, it is reasonable to say thatsome of the situations described in the song are

    poor examples of irony. By that I mean that it is difficult to see any irony in those

    situations that seem to lack any circumstantial evidence that they were contrived ratherthan natural or accidental. Situations that are perverse, or seem a little too unlucky or ill-

    timed, or combine humour and misfortune, are those most likely to persuade observers that
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    some unseen manipulation of events might have been involved. However, interpretation is

    somewhat subjective. One person's irony might be another person's bad luck. For example,

    considerA traffic jam when youre already late. A routine, expected traffic jam is notironic, but an exceptional, unexpected one might be ironic to some annoyed, already-late

    people who get caught in it, particularly if things tend to go against them more often than

    they believe is reasonable. As written, this is not a good example, but it is wrong topronounce, as though it were a fact, that it isnt ironic. The irony that you see or dont see

    in a given situation depends on your outlook why you think things happen the way they

    do. That Morissette wrote the song at all is perhaps an indication that she is suspicious ofsome situations that others are satisfied to attribute to nature or luck.

    Cosmic irony or irony of fate: Situational irony that is connected to a pessimistic or

    fatalistic view of life.

    "A pessimistic and fatalistic view of life" is an apt description of what the song, in general,seems to be expressing, at least in relation to unexpected, external events that we are

    helpless to prevent. In my opinion,Ironic contains a mixture of good, borderline and poor

    examples, in about equal parts. However, the same cant be said forCurrent Usage. A

    comparison of the usage inIronic with the common usage elsewhere is no contest -Ironic

    is far better.

    "I guess what people forget sometimes is that when I write songs, I write them in about 20

    minutes, and that it was just a snapshot of that moment. It's not something that I foresawturning into a song, first of all, that I'd have to sing every night for a year; or something that

    I thought millions of people would be listening to. Honestly, it was something that I just

    wrote as anyone would write a poem, for a high school project. They write it, then theyhonestly think they'll never have to read it again, really. And that's kind of how I saw mysongs."

    - Alanis Morissette, "Alanis Morissette" (Carlton Books, 1996)

    When I wrote that song it was just a chance for me to step into the humorous side.

    -Alanis Morissette, referring to Ironic, TV concert special & interviews, aired 1996

    In writingIronic, there is no sign that Morissette failed to do what she set out to do, as

    many of the critics believe. The song might have been motivated by an attempt to analyseinexplicable events, but it obviously ended up as a light-hearted song written for fun. The

    focus of the song is on funny or crazy situations in life, for which the description

    ironic sometimes is, but sometimes isn't, particularly appropriate. People are entitled tocriticize it for that if they wish, but they appear to be mistaken in assuming that the the

    song was some sort of academic exercise and that Morissette cares about its technical

    correctness. Besides, as the Current Usage section points out, the usage of 'ironic' in
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    general has gone completely off the rails, so if the critics had their way, Ironic would

    probably contain no irony at all.

    ThatIronic's critics have completely ignored the song's intention and inappropriatelyfocused their attention entirely on its usage of 'ironic' is not the central argument of this

    essay, though it is a valid one. The central argument is that, having chosen to dissect thesong and submit its lyrics to an exhaustive technical analysis, the critics' premises,

    reasoning and conclusions are wrong. Nevertheless, I decided not to include a line-by-lineanalysis ofIronic in this section. Of course, I have analysed the song too, but the idea of a

    section devoted to poring over its words and examining them under a microscope in the

    manner of its critics was too distasteful. I preferred instead to leave most of the analysis forthe reviews that follow, in which criticisms of most lines in the song are individually


    "If I had realized how upset people would be I suppose I might have given it a little more


    - Alanis Morissette,

    They are upset because they are ignorant. As well soon see, most dont deserve any

    consideration or explanation.

    The Washington Post

    Now THIS Is Ironic; It's Like a Hit Song That Got the Words


    by Richard Leiby

    April 04, 1996

    It's like rain on your wedding day.

    It's a free ride when you've already paid.

    It's the good advice that you just didn't take.

    -- Alanis Morissette, "Ironic"

    Isn't it ironic? Sorry, Alanis, but no, it isn't. The gazillion-selling singer is back on top of

    the charts with a song and video about a series of events that qualify as annoying or

    unfortunate, but wouldn't pass for ironic in most freshman English courses. "The mostironic thing about that song," says WHFS-99.1 morning deejay Kathryn Lauren, "is that it's

    mostly not about irony at all. It's about bummers."

    I take it that bummers here implies bad luck. If something appears to be bad luck, then

    one is entitled to explain it otherwise, hence it does not necessarily follow that an apparentbummer is not ironic.
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    And it's just one more example of rampant Irony Abuse. Many are called to practice irony:

    David Letterman, Dana Carvey (and his erstwhile sponsor, Taco Bell), "Zippy the Pinhead"

    and "The Simpsons," Winona Ryder and hordes of young filmmakers and performers whoclad their anti-glamour ethic in Goodwill castoffs. Few succeed in the classic sense, but it

    doesn't really matter -- practically anything qualifies as "ironic" today. Just wrap quotes

    around a word, capitalize it or add an exclamation point, and you've got Instant Irony!

    "The word gets thrown around with much more regularity than it ever did before," saysBliss Carnochan, Stanford University emeritus professor of English literature. "We've

    moved toward a looser and looser construction."

    In common usage, it's become a synonym for "interesting"; in show biz, it's anything thatcould once have been described as "arty" or "self-referential"; in real life, it's any trivial

    coincidence. ("It's a black fly in your chardonnay," to quote Alanis Morissette again, or "a

    traffic jam when you're already late.") But true irony, Carnochan says, is "a very, very, very

    difficult concept."

    Before we trudge to the dictionary, let's consult an authoritative pop-culture source, Ben

    Stiller's 1994 movie "Reality Bites." Therein the recently graduated and despondent Ms.

    Ryder is turned away from job after job. Ultimately, she begs a newspaper to hire her.

    "Define irony," an editor commands.

    "Well, I can't really . . . but I know it when I see it," Ryder offers before the elevator doorsslam shut.

    Later she asks her scruffy love interest, Ethan Hawke, to define the word. "It's when the

    actual meaning is the complete opposite of the literal meaning," he replies precisely.

    That's the definition of a rhetorical irony: saying the opposite of what you really mean. Tocite an example from Webster's, it's calling a stupid plan "clever." It's saying "What a

    lovely day" when it's pouring rain. It's describing a great tennis player this way: "He hits

    the ball occasionally."

    The great satirist Jonathan Swift's "modest proposal" is often cited as a classic irony: As asolution to the Irish famine, an economist proposes that the babies of the Irish poor be sold

    as food to the rich landlords -- to raise money and prevent starvation.

    Then there's situational irony, which Morissette is grasping for. When the firehouse burnsdown, that's ironic, according to Webster's. It's "a combination of circumstances or a resultthat is the opposite of what is or might be expected or considered appropriate."

    See Dictionaries about the pitfalls of using a single dictionarys definition.

    So, back to "rain on your wedding day." Ironic?
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    "To me, that's just bad luck," says Prof. Carol Myers-Scotton of the University of South

    Carolina, who teaches discourse analysis and knows her irony.

    Filing for divorce on your wedding day would probably qualify, in the burning-firehousesense. But Myers-Scotton is a tough grader. Of the firehouse, she says, "I don't know that I

    would consider that ironic, even if the dictionary says it is."

    Filing for divorce on your wedding day doesnt qualify in the burning-firehouse sense.

    Its a human decision. Someone who decided to do this obviously had a reason, even if itwas the last thing anyone expected.

    Of the firehouse example (firestation outside the U.S., I believe), if such a building is

    combustible like any other, then it can burn down for the same, ordinary reasons for which

    other buildings burn down. I imagine that this is why the professor is not impressed. Still,unlike the divorce example, it is at least possible to conclude that it is ironic, in the irony of

    Fate sense.

    Morissette also sings about a condemned prisoner who gets a call from the governor "two

    minutes too late." Again, to qualify as ironic, this needs more punch. Say, a prisoner isstrapped into Old Sparky and dies of a heart attack when he's told that Gov. Frye is on the

    phone. (Should be easy to fit all that into a rhyme . . . )

    I completely disagree. Although the timing seems ironic, if he dies of a heart attack then his

    number was up no matter what. But if he is executed and a pardon arrives two minuteslater, it appears as though the outcome could so easily have been different. For example,

    any loved ones left behind would be tormented by the knowledge that only two minutes

    separated death from freedom. The late pardon is more effective than the improved

    version. The simplicity and conciseness of the original line is also more attractive than itsconvoluted replacement (the same applies to my own verbose examples inSituations). The

    original line is better in all respects. Incidentally, it also agrees rather well with definition 9in Dictionaries.

    Most of Morissette's examples fall into the old "irony of Fate" category, which Fowler's

    Dictionary of Modern English Usage classifies as "hackneyed."

    Let me get this straight. Most of Morissette's examples fall into the irony of Fate category,

    but because thats old and hackneyed, they dont count? Whatshouldthey be if not theirony of Fate?

    But to be "fair," at least one line can be read as rhetorically ironic: A man on a doomed

    plane thinks to himself, "Well, isn't this nice."

    If he means that it isnt really nice, then he is in remarkably good humour for someone whoknows hes doomed. His reaction is even more remarkable when you consider that hed

    previously been too afraid of exactly whats about to happen to get on a plane. I have a

    better explanation: Hes never been on a plane before and doesnt know what to expect.
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    Hes just sitting there, naively assuming that whatever the plane is doing, its normal. I

    dont think he has any idea that disaster is imminent. However, it is ironic in two different

    ways: 1) If he meant what Ive suggested, then there is unintended irony, i.e., its nice tohim, but we know it isnt and we know he doesnt know, and 2) He has mentally made a

    statement by which he means this is nice, but literally it is a question, Well, isnt this

    nice? a rhetorical question. A rhetorical question is technically a variety of rhetoricalirony, because its intended and literal meanings differ.

    And careful exegesis of "a free ride when you've already paid" reveals a certain cleverness.

    This one also agrees with definition 9 in Dictionaries.

    Glen Johnson, who teaches English at Catholic University, says the "Ironic" song generally

    lacks the "doubleness" required for good irony. "There should be two levels -- somemeaning other than the surface meaning, and both meanings must obtain," he says.

    Yes, there should be two meanings. This is the central characteristic of irony, but there isno elaboration and no mention of it elsewhere.

    (For lyrical irony, he prefers the Carly Simon song that goes "You're so vain, you probablythink this song is about you." Go figure.)

    Morissette herself isn't giving interviews, and doesn't need to. She's won four Grammys

    with her album "Jagged Little Pill," which has sold nearly 10 million copies worldwide.

    She's Canadian, a high school graduate, 21 years old -- perhaps a little too young to pickon.

    As Mike Doonesbury of cartoon fame recently noted, "I didn't go ironic until I was 30!"Doonesbury was responding to his young date's claim that she had learned her "hip,

    knowing" attitude by age 15. "Letterman gave my age group the tools to assimilate," shesaid.

    Arguably, Letterman is to blame for the cheapening of irony. But (and we are not the least

    bit tempted to say "ironically") even he doesn't seem nearly as ironic as he once was.

    He's still smug and sarcastic, but who isn't? He rarely conducts interviews with the sole

    intent of making fun of people who think that he's flattering them. (A classic dramaticirony, in which the audience knows the truth but the person onstage doesn't.) Thankfully,

    he still ridicules his employer, CBS, in the same manner that he used to refer to "those fine,fine people at General Electric" when he was at NBC. By "fine," of course, he meant"insufferable."

    Carvey has assumed the ironist's mantle for admitting to being a sellout, naming his show

    after Taco Bell and later Mug Root Beer. "An ironic resurrection of the 1950s-style brand-

    name TV shows," according to Time magazine.
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    Ironic? How?

    "It's satiric," corrects Paul Fussell, professor emeritus of English at the University of

    Pennsylvania and author of "Bad: Or, the Dumbing of America."

    Or perhaps it's postmodern, but let's not even try to define that. Although the definitionmight have something to do with Taco Bell's April Fools' joke about buying the Liberty


    Like most older academics, Fussell has never heard Morissette's song. Surprisingly (but not

    ironically), he praised her lyrics after they were read to him. "Those are some pretty nicewords," he says. "It's good for what it is. It's sardonic, and very little pop culture is."

    I agree. Its original and amusing. Countless artists churn out countless variations of the

    boy-meets-girl and boy-loses-girl themes, but theres not a peep from anyone that they are

    somewhat lacking in imagination.

    Some of the lyrics pass Fussell's test for situational irony, but he flunks them for rhetorical


    Well, as was the case with the irony of Fate above, I guess nobody wants to know more

    about the lyrics thatpassedthe test, so that unwelcome part is over with and we canquickly move on to what flunked.

    Its hardly surprising that it flunks for rhetorical irony. The song is about situations in

    life. It obviously wasnt intended to have anything to do with rhetorical irony. It would be

    no less relevant to say that it flunks for sesquipedalian onomatopoeia.

    Says Fussell: "Rhetorical irony requires immense intellectual self-respect. You have to be

    more or less brilliant to get rhetorical irony."

    So most of today's irony is fast, frothy, easily digestable (sic). "Ironic, yes, but curiously

    refreshing," as Zippy the Pinhead recently put it.

    On an episode of Fox's "The Show," a character bemoaned the terrible irony of hisgirlfriend leaving a message to break up with him, just when he was going to call her to

    break up. "It's damn ironic," he wailed. No, moronic. "The old trade of treating the

    audience with respect has disappeared, because we don't believe they are worthy of

    respect," says Fussell.

    On MTV, Morissette's "Ironic" video has been No. 1 for three weeks. It shows her driving

    a beat-up car down a wintry road, singing her song. It ends with the car running out of gas.

    Which of course is completely unexpected and therefore must be ironic.

    One thing to note about this article is that its not professors of English who are screaming

    from the rooftops thatIronic has no irony. I wonder which ofIronic and a dozen randomly

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    chosen uses of ironically from the media would accord most closely to their idea of

    irony. I cant see how they wouldnt prefer the song.

    This article was written with somewhat more balance than any other that Ive come across.Considerable space was devoted to the discussion of thegeneralpoor usage (in contrast,

    most other critics single out the song for condemnation, and imply by silence that there isno case for anyone else to answer). Also, it doesnt have the sarcastic or condescending

    tone that many articles have. However, it does have its bad points. It never gets to the heartof what irony is (e.g., its not apparent how to reconcile Websters definition of situational

    irony and Glen Johnsons statement). And it quickly moves on dismissively whenever there

    is a sign thatIronic might be ironic after all. Im afraid that it wouldnt pass for a goodessay on irony in most freshman English courses.

    The Independent

    This is a broadsheet newspaper in the United Kingdom that has a reputation for

    responsible, high quality journalism.

    Ive never said Oh, how ironic when Ive been stuck in a traffic


    The headline is misleading. It should have ended, when Im already late.

    by Thomas Sutcliffe

    27 April 1996

    There is a peculiarly maddening song in the charts at the moment, a work which has itsirritant effect not because of some nagging, unshiftable melody - lodging in the brain like a

    popcorn husk beneath a molar - nor because of some repeated lyrical idiocy. It is an error

    of rhetoric that causes the difficulty, not an anxiety you would conventionally associatewith the Radio 1 playlist. The song is Ironic by Alanis Morissette and the frustration

    arises out of the fact that her carefully worked list of examples contains virtually nothing

    that could properly sit under that adjective. "It's a black fly in your Chardonnay / It's a

    Death Row pardon two minutes late" sings Ms Morissette, exploring the full spectrum oflife's little irritations.

    So, a death-row pardon two minutes too late is one of lifes little irritations?

    Then she pounds into the chorus: "It's like rain on your wedding day / It's a free ride when

    you've already paid / It's the good advice that you just didn't take."

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    It dawns on you pretty quickly that a more accurate title for this song would be "It's A

    Total Bummer" or "Oh Hell, That's All I Need Right Now", but there is nothing to be done.

    The song has been recorded, and will continue to transmit error to the nation's youth, fiveor six times a day.

    Note the condescending, admonishing tone, as though the error is a fact and anintolerable blunder of unprecedented magnitude that no competent English-speaker could

    fail to see. First, the presence or absence of irony in most of the events described in thesong depends on ones interpretation of how they really came about, so it is plain wrong to

    characterize the description ironic as an error. Second, whatshouldbe transmitted to the

    nations youth? The usual situational irony emitted by newspaper writers and TV newsreporters?

    If you aren't careful it can provoke you to thosesotto voce private arguments which flutter

    across the face, and make passers-by hurry on, fearful that the Care in the Community

    policy is about to claim another innocent victim. When she sings "It's a traffic jam when

    you're already late" you find yourself muttering "I've neversaid 'Oh, how ironic' when I'vebeen stuck in traffic.

    No, but, as well see later, that tells us nothing whatsoever. It is not the archetypal ironic

    situation, but it is a matter of opinion whether it is ironic or not.

    Where does this woman come from?" Canada, as it happens, which is close enough to the

    United States to suggest that she may share the fabled American incomprehension of irony.

    Hypocrisy by the truckload, as will be evident soon.

    Certainly she is capable of some astonishing near-misses, coming within a whisker ofdescribing a genuinely ironic situation and then peeling off at the last minute. "Mr Play-It-Safe was afraid to fly," she sings. "He packed his suitcase and kissed his kids goodbye / He

    waited his whole damn life to take that flight / And as the plane crashed down he thought /

    Well isn't this nice / And isn't it ironic?" No, it BLOODY WELL ISN'T!

    I beg to differ. If you believe that it wasnt really the accident that it appeared to be, then in

    your opinion it is ironic. I dont think its outrageous to entertain the thought that because it

    was the first time Mr Play-It-Safe had been able to overcome his fear, the plane was

    destined to crash. Theres nothing wrong with expressing a different opinion, or saying youdont like it, or its not your idea of irony, but it is simply wrongto state objectively that it

    isnt ironic. It amounts to saying that no one has the right to believe that it wasnt just anordinary accident.

    If he made his kids get on the plane and was run over by a bus as he left for the trainstation, then thatwould be ironic. At this point a man looks up nervously from across the

    crowded tube train and glances towards the emergency stop button.

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    Morissette has some excuses for her confusion because some odd things have happened to

    irony in its passage from rhetorical trope to condition of life.

    And whats yours?

    Indeed, it's slightly difficult to see how its common meaning could derive from its classicalorigin, except perhaps by means of another rhetorical trope, personification. In rhetoric,

    irony is simply that figure of speech in which the speaker's intended meaning is the

    opposite of that expressed by the words used. Macaulay notes that "a drayman, in apassion, calls out 'You are a pretty fellow', without suspecting that he is uttering irony".

    (Very nicely spoken drayman, I must say. The current equivalent would be a lorry driver, I

    suppose, and while it's just about possible that one might lean from his cab and shout "Ohnice one, squire," it's more likely that the passion would generate rougher expletives. But

    perhaps Victorian London was more tutored, the streets packed with artisans wielding

    litotes and synecdoche with unconscious fluency.)

    In short, irony is a posh form of sarcasm, for some reason excluded from the generalcontempt in which the latter form is held.

    The reason is quite simple: sarcasm is malicious, while other forms of rhetorical irony

    usually are not.

    Sarcasm has its own pop song, as it happens: Pink Floyd's ineffably witless "Another Brick

    In The Wall", in which it represents adult suppression of teenage creativity.)

    Well, the lyrics do contain the word 'sarcasm' once ("No dark sarcasm in the classroom").

    But we're still not much closer to working out how life can be ironic.

    Instead ofworkingout how life can be ironic, why notfindout by looking it up? I suggest

    that a 30-minute visit to a library would have been very enlightening. Isnt the charge

    against Morissette, effectively, that she should have looked it up before writing the song?

    After all, life can't be sarcastic, a quality which has been exclusively reserved for human

    agency. I think the explanation might run something like this: a sort of dialogue is

    imagined between our expectations and the stubborn realities of life,

    This is utter nonsense an error transmitted to the nations readers. After the earlier

    pompous, belittling tone, its now emerged that he doesnt know what hes talking about.Irony is not dialogue and never has been. Its simply breathtaking that he doesnt seem to

    think it matters whatthe explanation is, as though whatever it is, it could not or should notmake any difference to our usage. I cant comprehend how he could presume to lecture


    a dialogue which replicates the essentially doubled nature of irony - the opposition between

    what is said and what is meant.

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    A continuation of the same nonsense. This is absolute rubbish. The doubled nature remains

    a double meaning.

    So we declare confidently that it would be fatal to travel by plane and life replies, with wrycomic timing, that actually the exact opposite is the case that day. What's essential, though,

    is the sense of bitter, dark comedy. An early English writer, attempting to explain irony,writes of "the figureIronia, which we call the drye mock". The "drye mock" gets it just


    I wonder, roughly, how many times out of ten he would say the typical daily use of

    ironically by his own colleagues in the media satisfies his criteria of bitter, dark

    comedy and drye mock.

    not the dull-witted, literal toe-stubbings

    These descriptions can be applied more appropriately, such as to the dialogue theory


    enumerated in Morissette's admittedly catchy song, but a reminder that life will often

    rebuke our plans with a deadpan mischief.

    The figure of irony demands from its audience a certain playful resistance, a testing habitof mind which taps the words for hollow spots.

    Anyone care to have a stab at what this means?

    This sophistication isn't beyond some pop songs but it seems to have passed "Ironic" by.

    And that is ironic.

    Id ask here ifthis satisfies his criteria, but I have no idea what the sophistication issupposed to be.

    A truly appalling article. Any readers that didnt know better probably gave it the respect

    appropriate for a newspaper that, on other evidence, appears usually to have high standards

    of journalism. It is garbage masquerading as journalism.

    [opening omitted]

    By now you've guessed the topic of this issue's Writing & Style column. Irony. Not so

    much a full-blown technical dissertation, but rather an introduction, or primer if you will,
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    on the use (and misuse) of the term. Before getting to an actual definition, let's start with

    Dumb-asses Who Misuse The Term All The Time. And by that of course I mean television

    newscasters and writers. Perhaps not "irony" or "ironic," but I hear the word "ironically"used on the news almost every single day, and to date I've never heard it used correctly.

    Really. Not even once.

    I have. Once. A few years ago there was a report about a car that had crashed into a fire

    hydrant and stopped right on top of it. The report ended with a shot of the car being floodedinside and out by torrents of water, and the reporter noting that, "ironically", the

    windscreen wipers were operating. Of course, the wipers were probably turned on

    deliberately or as a result of the crash, but it was irresistible to instead see it as a humorousintervention in mockery of the driver's misfortune.

    Reporting on an apparent suicide story of a man who jumped to his death from a bridge

    (and this is just an example, not an actual story), a newscaster might say something like,

    "Ironically, the suicide victim was a construction engineer who helped build the very

    bridge he jumped off." Or, better yet, maybe the guy's name was "Bridges" ... oooh, nowwouldn't that be really ironic? Nope, not ironic!

    No, not ironic.

    Odd, perhaps even inexplicable. Coincidental, yep (in the case of his name). Strange,interesting and sad, sure. But not ironic. In news rooms all over America I imagine a list of

    synonyms taped above writers' desks that includes Oddly, Coincidentally, Strangely,

    Interestingly and (incorrectly, ahem) Ironically. They need to take it off the list.

    In a popular song by Alanis Morissette titled "Ironic" (ironic in an ironic sort of way)

    Alanis describes the term as being "like rain on your wedding day," and, my favorite, "likea black fly in your chardonnay." (!?) What the hell does that have to do with irony?

    Answer: nothing. Well, to Morissette's credit, such situations could be ironic, but we'd needa bunch more details to make such a determination. Rain on one's wedding day is not ironic

    in and of itself.

    Yes, some of the examples in the song would seem ironic in some circumstances, in

    contrast with newscasters and just about everyone else, whose usage usually couldn't besaved in any circumstances.

    [part omitted]

    A slightly more sophisticated version can be found in phrases such as "Kindness is the

    sharpest cut." That's ironic. Kindness shouldn't cut - it should heal, right? In situations

    where an act of kindness makes matters worse, and we've all experienced them, weconfront irony.

    I disagree. When an intended kindness causes harm, the reason is usually evident and

    completely understandable. There's no irony in that.

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    Growing up on a ranch in Montana, my family didn't have cable TV, and whenever we

    wanted to watch the tube, we usually had to fiddle with the antenna to receive one of the

    two TV channels available to us. On more than one occasion the family member whoattempted to improve the reception would actually screw it up (ironic),

    Perhaps, but it's hard to see this as anything more than simply losing the spot the antennawas in and not being able to find a position as good, for no other reason than that you didn't

    happen to stumble across one.

    [remainder omitted]

    Morissette's 'Ironic' is a bitter pill for teachers

    By Lisa Pollak

    The News & Observer

    "Irony. Uh ... irony. It's a noun. It's when something is ironic. It's, well, I can't, uh, reallydefine irony, but I know it when I see it."

    -- Winona Ryder's character in "Reality Bites," when asked on a job interview to define


    Blame our 11th-grade English teacher, the one who was always circling the word "ironic"

    on our term papers with red pen and adding the ominous scribble "Wrong word" or "Don't

    you really mean coincidental?" Ironic, we concluded, is not a term to be thrown around

    lightly, especially not by young women trying to be profound.

    Which is why we found it particularly iron- er, distressing, to hear that Alanis Morissette'ssong "Ironic" is now No. 4 on the Billboard charts and climbing. In case you've missed it,

    this is the song that purports to define irony:

    It doesnt purport to define anything, and there's no reason to believe that its author wastrying to be profound. It is a light-hearted song, not an English assignment.

    "It's like rain on your wedding day/It's a free ride when you've already paid/It's the good

    advice that you just didn't take. ... Isn't it ironic, don't you think?"

    Well, no, we didn't, but when it comes to defining literary devices, we're certainly not the

    experts. That's for our friendly neighborhood high school English teachers, whose job it isto explain irony (not to mention synechdoche, allusion, metaphor, pathetic fallacy and

    other favorites) to the same teenagers buying Morissette's album in droves. Sure enough,
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    the teachers we consulted were more than happy to provide not just one definition of irony

    but three.

    One would have been be far more illuminating than three, since the three are just differentforms of the same thing.

    Notebooks ready? First, there's verbal irony, where you say one thing but you really mean

    the opposite. Then there's dramatic irony, where the audience knows something that the

    character in the story doesn't know. And finally, there is situational irony, where youexpect one thing to happen but the opposite occurs.

    Maybe, maybe not. And it might be something altogether different. I could have got these

    from one of the many dictionaries that keep their readers in the dark.

    This last form, most of the teachers agreed, is the kind of irony Morissette -- whose

    "Jagged Little Pill" album has sold more than 6 million copies -- was striving to capture.

    And how well does she nail it?

    "I'm not so sure I'd like all of my students to take her definition of irony to heart," said

    Betty Brown, an English teacher at Apex High School. "It seems to me that in mostinstances she's misusing the term. I think maybe she's equating frustration and annoyance

    and freak occurrence with irony."

    Its precisely because an occurrence is freaky that it might seem to have required

    something beyond nature or luck to come about therefore, an ideal candidate forinterpreting as ironic.

    But let's get right to the lyrics, shall we? Take it from the top.

    An old man turned ninety-eight

    He won the lottery and died the next day

    "That's coincidence," said Brown. "Chance. Just a fortuitous thing."

    How does she know? What if it isnt? You say its ironic if you dontthink its acoincidence, despite appearances. For dictionary fans, this agrees with definition 9 in

    Dictionaries, and, subjectively, some of the others.

    It's a black fly in your Chardonnay

    "Without more context, it's just bad luck," said Judy Darling, an English teacher at GarnerHigh School.

    A traffic jam when you're already late

    "I don't see anything ironic here," said Brown. "It's what you'd expect."
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    I agree that it's a poor example, but whether you expect it or not depends on the

    circumstances. Not everyone lives in a large, traffic-clogged city.

    A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break

    "The least ironic of all," said Darling. "What, she hasn't been to that area to smoke before?Someone put a sign there while she wasn't there?"

    Either the term "cigarette break" or the no-smoking sign is ironic, whether intended or not.

    It's like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife

    "I could be wrong," said Hope Chandler, who also teaches at Garner. "But I think she

    needed something to rhyme with 'wife' in the next line."

    See the review Review:, for a

    discussion of this.

    Exactly, we thought. Alanis Morissette might be a millionaire, but we know our literary

    terms. And then ...

    It's meeting the man of my dreams and then meeting his beautiful wife.

    "That's ironic," said Chandler.

    "That's ironic," said Darling. "If you meet the man of your dreams, you've got an

    expectation. If he steps aside and has a beautiful wife, that's the surprise."

    This doesnt strike me as a particularly good example.

    "That's ironic," said Tom Humble, who teaches at Wake Forest-Rolesville High School. "Ithink everything in the song is situational irony, really. To me, irony is any situation where

    someone has expectations, where an element of distance or difference is injected into the


    Some rare support, though its a rather loose definition in which a double meaning isntnecessarily present.

    Ay, as a master of irony once said, there's the rub. Depending on whom you ask, and howthey interpret the words, even English teachers will agree that in some of her examples of

    irony, Morissette is right on target.

    Isn't that ironic?

    Sort of. "It's situational irony, but it's cliched," said Darling. "Therefore, there's no big

    surprise. What you're getting is what you've come to expect ... It's like bumper sticker
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    religion. If your perceptions of irony can be reduced to a pop song than you haven't really

    delved into the richness of irony."

    Which is why, say the teachers, true students of irony will turn off "Ironic" and pick upworks by Shakespeare, poets Edgar Lee Masters and Edward Arlington Robinson, or

    Jonathan Swift -- particularly "A Modest Proposal," which triggered an outcry 200 yearsago among people who didn't get the irony in Swift's proposal that the Irish eat their babies

    to cut the population and increase the food supply.

    "For a good example of irony, I have to go back to my old favorite, Macbeth,' " said

    Brown. "There's a scene as King Duncan rides toward Macbeth's castle. He has no idea he's

    riding toward his death, but the audience does, and he says, 'This castle hath a pleasantseat: The air/Sweetly and nimbly recommends itself.' Now that's irony."

    Sure is. But what rhymes with Duncan?

    What do they think there is in common between verbal irony and when one expects onething to happen but the opposite occurs? They sing the praises of the irony of Shakespeare

    and Swift, but at the same time they embrace the current popular usage that has nothing todo with it, and which only came about through the misuse ofthe irony of Fate. Further,

    how close the songs situations are to the popular, mutated usage is their measure of how

    correctthe song is.


    Irony is a much-misunderstood form of humour. It is somewhat culture-specific, being

    more prevalent where wordplay is common (notably in the UK, where the pun has been

    raised to an art form), so many people fail to 'get' irony, while others apply the termincorrectly. It is a technique beloved of satirists, and one which is hard to master (there is

    always the danger of slipping into overt sarcasm which is, as has been observed, the lowest

    form of wit).

    What Irony Is

    Imagine that an England cricket captain covertly bets his shirt on the Aussies winning the

    next test series. He does his best to lose but the England team pull off a historic andcompletely unexpected series victory. The England captain is left victorious but destitute.

    That, dear Researcher, is irony.

    Irony is primarily a language device, so surely that is what the example chosen forWhat

    Irony Is should have illustrated. Ironic situations, as they are understood today, areunrepresentative mutations.
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    I can understand how this situation might superficially look ironic, but a "showcase"

    example of an ironic situation should be able to stand up to the sort of examination to

    whichIronic is subjected below. I assume that the captain did as much as possible to losethe game, but not enough to lose his job. Did the better team win or not? Did everyone

    simply misjudge the teams, so making the result "completely unexpected"? If the underdog

    team won through sustained, freakish "luck", then okay. But if they just played better it'shard to see any irony in it. This example is an utterly inappropriate illustration of "what

    irony is".

    Irony is defined as...

    By whom?

    The humorous (or mildly sarcastic) use of words to imply something different from,and often opposite to, their literal meaning.

    An expression marked by a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended

    meaning, usually to draw attention to some incongruity or irrationality. A literary style employing such contrasts for humorous or rhetorical effect.

    Incongruity1 between what might be expected and what actually occurs, or an

    occurrence or circumstance notable for such incongruity

    Given that the apparent purpose of this page is to educate the reader about irony (and notonly to sink the boots intoIronic), the fourth definition above demands an explanation.

    Where did it come from, and does a situation have to agree with it to qualify?

    Dramatic irony is a special case where the irony is understood by the audience but not by

    the characters in the book or play. Socratic irony2 is the process whereby a questioner

    feigns ignorance in order to lead another to expose their own ignorance.

    These types of irony give the clue to the true definition of an ironic statement. An ironic

    statement must appear as if you are sincere, there must be no hint of sarcasm, and you must

    not be self-consciously droll. The line must be delivered straight, so that the recipientmisses the hidden message but onlookers get it loud and clear. The saying 'Irony is wasted

    on the stupid' works well as long as the person addressed believes themself to be a sage

    despite making an absolute ass of themself, and nods wisely in assent.

    Thus Fowler's Modern English Usage defines irony as...

    ... a form of utterance that postulates a double audience, consisting of one party thathearing shall hear and shall not understand, and another party that, when more is meant

    than meets the ear, is aware of that more and of the outsider's incomprehension.

    Did the author forget to turn the page and read the bit about the irony of Fate? Fowler'sarticle goes to some trouble to give ageneralmeaning by explaining the link between

    different forms of irony - a worthwhile inclusion in a page seeking to be educational.

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    Some examplesAn ironic statement might be, 'I enjoy avant-garde music - chords are so pass.' Note,

    though, that this could equally be taken as either sarcastic or hopelessly pretentious

    depending on the tone in which it is delivered, and the audience. So irony lies somewhereon a line with plain old-fashioned humour at one end, and outright sarcasm at the other.

    One often-quoted example of an ironic situation is Joseph Heller's Catch-22. In chapter five

    of the classic novel, Yossarian and Doc Deneeka discuss the possibility of being groundeddue to insanity (thus escaping the appallingly dangerous combat duty). The catch was, you

    could only be grounded if you were mad, you had to ask to be grounded, and anyone who

    asked to be grounded clearly wasn't mad any more.

    There is irony in a rational statement that you are mad. There is possibly also irony in thedevising of the grounding rules, which can never result in anyone being grounded (we need

    to know if this was intended or not). I'm not sure if this is what the author was thinking of,


    Irony can also be unconscious. It is unlikely that George W Bush was being intentionallyironic when he said that he would not recognise the result of the Zimbabwean presidential

    election, since the process had been 'flawed'.

    What Irony Is Not

    Before one can explain what irony is not, it is necessary to know what irony is, without

    leaving anything out.

    Irony can be humorous, but most humour is not ironic. Some informative examples of what

    irony is not come, ironically, from the Alanis Morissette song 'Ironic'. Here are a few.

    Since Morissette and the critics have completely different attitudes towards the song, it

    does seem pointless to get involved in a line-by-line analysis of it. However, I've decided to

    respond to many of the microscopic examinations anyway, just to show that you can find

    plenty of irony in the song without trying too hard, and to show that a grasp of irony is hardto find among the song's critics.

    An old man turned 98/He won the lottery and died the next day - Tragedy, not irony.

    The key here is not that the old man died, but that he won the lottery the day before. It

    looks perverse enough, and it is consistent with definitions 4, 5 and 9 inDictionaries, sothe irony of Fate seems a reasonable interpretation. This is even better if you imagine that,

    before he won the big prize, the deceased had been wretchedly "unlucky" for 80 years

    straight by failing to win even a single minor prize.

    It's a black fly in your chardonnay - Bummer but not ironic (although there is arguablysome irony in the fly being black, however this does at least mean you don't ingest it with

    the drink).
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    It's a death row pardon two minutes too late - Not irony, just another example of why the

    death penalty is fatally flawed.

    Let's see. Suppose that a callous governor arranges for a pardon to be granted slightly latebecause the inmate's family had consumed so much of his valuable time with their

    annoying and incessant demands for a pardon.Apparent meaning: it was just bad luck that there was some communication "problem" or

    other delay at the critical time.Underlying meaning: It was all set up to guarantee lasting torment for the inmate's family,

    unknown to them.

    That is irony. It is a plausible interpretation that one is entitled to have, in spite of the not-irony pronouncements of others. This also agrees with definition 9 in Dictionaries.

    It's like rain on your wedding day - Not even close, unless you've gone from Manchester to

    Hawaii for your wedding and get the first rain in August for 30 years, while Manchester

    experiences glorious sunshine, and how likely is that?

    Not very, but if it were likely it wouldn't look ironic. As written, the line in the song isn't

    enough, but, unlike a usage that can't be saved such as, "Ironically, most laptop computer

    theft occurs inside office environments," only some imagination is required here. Ideally, it

    would look as though it only rained because there was a wedding to rain on. The Hawaiiexample above is a good suggestion (thanks for the contribution). A small rain cloud that

    "happens" to park itself right over the wedding on an otherwise fine, sunny day would also

    be sufficient, even in Manchester (I assume Manchester does have the occasional fine day).

    A traffic jam when you're already late - certainly fails the 'unexpected' criterion.

    See the 'Ironic' section for a discussion of this.

    A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break - more of a life-saver than an irony, that.

    If smoking is not allowed, then the description "cigarette break" is ironic. Otherwise, the

    no-smoking sign is ironic.

    It's like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife - Not unless you are in the Acme KnifeFactory being approached by a mad axeman and reach behind you for a weapon, only to

    find that you're in the newly-opened spoon department.

    Sure, 10,000 is meant literally. It couldn't be a deliberate exaggeration, an instance ofhyperbole, could it? To be figuratively up to your neck in spoons - useful items, but notwhat you need right now but unable to find even one of a related item that you need

    badly, is, I suggest, perverse, and not necessarily just bad luck. But this thought wouldn't

    occur to those who are determined to see every line in the worst light possible. Forexample, imagine that someone in your house knows that youll need a blue pen today, and

    gathers them all up and plants a red pen in every imaginable place where youll look an

    ironic situation because the pens are placed so they appearto have got there innocently.
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    Twenty red pens and an hour of frustration later, you might well cry, Ten thousand red

    pens when all I need is a blue one.

    Why doesn't a section titled What Irony Is Not have much worse examples? I can suggestsome:I was sure he'd lend me his car, but, ironically, he refused; Ironically, consumer

    spending rose when economic commentators expected it to fall; Ironically, the governmentdefied expectations by getting re-elected; Ironically, he was killed one year to the day afterhis father died; Ironically, the brand that I like is the only one they don't stock.

    1 Incongruity describes something which goes against, or is inharmonious with its


    2 After the description of Socrates in Plato'sRepublic.

    Moby - Journal entry

    Musician and recording artist Moby wrote the following entry in his on-line journal at

    8/10/2002 - Denver - Ironic Update

    [part omitted]

    but it's cloudless and sunny in denver. which is always nice when it comes to outdoor

    shows. the irony of this tour, that i might've mentioned before, is that the only rainy showthat we've had was jones beach, which was the only date where the seats weren't covered.

    ah, sweet alanis-style irony.the only ironic aspect to her song 'ironic' is that none of the situations that she describes areactually ironic.

    I guess he was on the road and didn't have time to explain how he arrived at this

    conclusion. Perhaps he will explain in a future entry his assertion that nothing in the song

    could possibly have different apparent and underlying meanings, that where an occurrenceappears to have been an accident there can't be any other explanation.

    so it is quasi-ironic to have a song entitled 'ironic' wherein none of the situations are

    actually ironic. rain on your wedding day is only ironic if you live in death valley and

    you're a meteorologist and you forecasted great weather.

    [remainder omitted]
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    DEAR MAJOR: I've been listening to Alanis Morisette's (sic) hit song "Ironic," in which

    the lyrics provide examples of irony. Some of these don't strike me as truly ironic.

    Am I being too critical?--Puzzled in Penasquitos

    A: On the contrary, I think you're being too forgiving. Someone needs to inform Ms.Morisette (sic) that "rain on your wedding day" is not ironic; it's just bad timing. And a

    "traffic jam when you're already late?" Well, I'd have to say that would be quite typical andindeed expected among urbanites with busy schedules.

    The only thing ironic about "Ironic" is that a song explicitly about ironic scenarios contains

    not a single valid example. I would expect a song about ironies to enlighten us on the topic,rather than to misinform us, wouldn't you?

    Not a single valid example? And I would expect a self-proclaimed irony guru to enlighten

    us on the topic rather than misinform us, wouldnt you?

    So what, then, is genuine irony? For purposes of this column, the focus is on general irony

    (not to be confused with Major Irony), which Webster defines as "an incongruity betweenthe actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result." You can enjoy

    many fine examples of this genre right here, as submitted by readers. Esoteric forms of

    irony: dramatic; tragic; and Socratic; are treated in various journals by highly trainedspecialists

    This is from a half-page essay. Major Irony invites you to write in with your irony

    problems. If you do, the major will graciously bestow upon you the wisdom that one can

    only acquire by looking up 'irony' in a dictionary. But be careful to stick to general ironyand not stray towards esoteric irony, which requires highly trained specialists.

    There was a review of this page here but I've removed it at the request of the author. The

    review was my response to about 20 percent of the page's content, but the author objectedto my reproducing his text. The change was not made out of courtesy, however. I decided

    that removing the review would be a more effective statement than the review itself. The

    author appears to have relished writing his derisive, condescending response to the wordsofIronic and other songs, but he doesn't take kindly to scrutiny of his own words.
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    Let me give some examples of the most common atrocities from our good ol' Australian