From time to time I’m going to tackle words/topics/terms that have either tripped me up or that I’ve seen give others trouble. Let’s take the maiden voyage with the word “irony.” Like plenty of other people, I have made the mistake of using irony in place of “coincidence” or “unfairness” when it, in fact, means neither.
The good news is that, for most of us, our conversational misuse of this particular word can’t outshine Alanis Morissette’s misuse of it (I will add, here, that I have nothing against Morissette and enjoy several of her songs very much). The lyrics for her song Ironic describe several scenarios which are simply unfortunate and, sadly, the song has likely only served to deepen the mass confusion about where, when, and how to use “irony.”
The technical definition of irony (check out number 5 in that list) might suggest that Morissette and the rest of us were right on track in using the word to describe anything we just don’t happen to like. It can refer to a situation we don’t like. But it also has to be a situation in which the outcome was contrary to expectations. So, rain on one’s wedding day would not be ironic. Filing for divorce on one’s wedding day would be ironic.
Irony, as best I can tell, is the gentler, more high-brow version of sarcasm. It would be ironic to say “lovely weather, isn’t it?” in the middle of a terrible storm. (Understanding here that sarcasm tends more toward ridicule.) Both “irony” and “satire” are better suited to describe things in the literary world. Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is an excellent example. Proposing to combat hunger by eating children, while practical, is not modest by any stretch of the imagination. Hence, calling a monstrous idea “modest” is a fine example of irony.
Characters, too, can be ironic. While the literary world is replete with examples, I’ll offer up Seinfeld’s George Costanza as my favorite ironic character. With the notable exception of the episode in which he did the opposite of everything he normally would, George’s efforts always ended up somewhere other than where he meant to go. While he’s a good example of comedic irony, this can further the confusion; George’s unlucky nature might overshadow the point here – remember that irony means something more than unpleasant.
Irony, then, is the disjunction between presentation and meaning. For my own purposes, I plan to cache it alongside “satire” and use it chiefly when describing things from the literary realm. (This means I will use it sparingly, if at all.)