This is the first installment of Words That Sold Out, what may or may not eventually become a series of grammar Nazi-like outbursts against words whose meaning is often misunderstood.
1: a pretense of ignorance and of willingness to learn from another assumed in order to make the other’s false conceptions conspicuous by adroit questioning —called also Socratic irony
2a: the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning
2b: a usually humorous or sardonic literary style of form characterized by irony
2c: an ironic expression or utterance
3a (1): incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result (2): an event or result marked by such incongruity
3b: incongruity between a situation developed in a drama and the accompanying words or actions that is understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play —called also dramatic irony, tragic irony
Thank you, Webster’s.
Irony comes from the Greek Eiron. The Eiron was a comedic character, not a specific one, but an archetype, like “the straight man” or “the idiot.” The difference was that the Eiron only pretended to be an idiot, taking his cue from the Socratic Method. If you’ve read Plato, you know that the old man used to love to pretend to take the other person’s side of the argument in order to switch it around and prove it was bullshit. (Although Socrates himself rarely used the word “bullshit,” unless he was arrested and forced to drink poison.)
The Eiron, then, was a kind of character that emerged from that type of discourse, the character who was actually brilliant, but pretending to be stupid. He always won the argument against the other guy, the blustery asshole known as the Alazon. Think of the Eiron as the verbal Greek equivalent of the Road Runner or Bugs Bunny; he seemed to be at a big disadvantage, but reality was actually on his side.
Eventually, the term ironic came into standard English usage, referring to a truth that one set of people (the audience, in this case) knew, and that another set of people (the characters) did not. This brought forth the concept of dramatic irony. When Luke Skywalker goes to kill Darth Vader because he thinks Vader killed his father, only to find out that Vader is his father, that, my friends, is dramatic irony.
Unfortunately, over the years, the meaning’s been watered down and altered due to misuse. These days, people use ironic simply to mean that things turned out differently than they wanted. This misses the whole cosmic joke of irony: it’s totally meta. When it happens to you, the universe is the audience that knows the real truth. It’s fate, being creative with you. And despite popular opinion, the end result doesn’t have to be bad for you, just cosmically funny. It has a plot. If your boss catches you walking into a bar when you already called in sick, that’s just coincidence. If you also catch him there with his gay lover and not his wife, and so he gives you the week off, that’s irony. (And a sitcom episode. But I digress.)
Verbal irony has also gotten its meaning soiled in the past few years, as well, since so many people now confuse it with sarcasm. Merely saying the opposite of what you really feel is not irony unless someone doesn’t know you don’t mean it. If someone says “Your wife is hot,” and everyone, including you, knows he’s being a dick, that’s sarcasm. If he says that sarcastically, and then later on you find out he’s been fucking your wife, who he apparently actually found hot, welcome to Ironyland, population: you.
Irony is about a perceived truth that reveals itself to be diametrically opposite from the real truth, or true in a different way.
Unfortunately, Alanis Morissette’s 1995 smash “Ironic” further muddied the waters, because it’s supposed to be about irony, and yet almost none of the scenarios she presents are ironic. Here’s a handy deconstruction of the lyrics:
An old man turned ninety-eight
He won the lottery and died the next day
(Level of irony: low. He was 98. That’s just the law of averages kicking in. Unless the old man had sold his heart meds on the street for lottery tickets. That would be irony.)
It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay
(Level of irony: none. Unless you became rich through providing pest control services.)
It’s a death row pardon two minutes too late
(Level of irony: none. Every death row prisoner waits for a pardon. This is just bad timing. Unless you had killed your victim with a clock. That would be ironic.)
It’s like rain on your wedding day
(Level of irony: none. Unless you’re Axl Rose.)
It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid
It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take
(Possible irony here, but more details are needed.)
Mr. Play It Safe was afraid to fly
He packed his suitcase and kissed his kids goodbye
He waited his whole damn life to catch that flight
And as the plane crashed down he thought
Well, isn’t this nice…
(Level of irony: medium. Would have been better if Mr. Play It Safe was an airline safety spokesman or some such instead of just afraid to fly. This way, it just looks like he had a point.)
A traffic jam when you’re already late
(Level of irony: none. Unless you’re that guy who was supposed to bring the
pardon for the Clock Killer.)
A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break
(No irony whatsoever. The hell are you doing taking a cigarette break in a no-smoking area?)
It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife
(Level of irony: none. Nice surrealism, though. I’m picturing some Dali-esque spoon painting.)
It’s meeting the man of my dreams
And then meeting his beautiful wife
(Level of irony: none. Sometimes you meet people, and they’re already married. It happens. Unless the beautiful wife was the ugly girl you used to throw erasers at in school, and then we just have a Jennifer Aniston movie. And no one wants that.)