Frequently misused words: irony, ironic, ironically


irony: a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often wryly amusing as a result
—Oxford English Dictionary

Irony comes from the Latin word ironia, which comes from Greek eirōnia, which comes from eirōn.[1] (Whew.) People began using it to mean a “condition opposite to what might be expected” in the 1640s.[2]

Usage controversy
Three words: Alanis Morissette and “Ironic.” I was in the seventh grade when this song came out. For women of my age group, I don’t need to explain that this was my favorite song— as in, it was my listened-to-it-fifty-times-a-day favorite song.

But mention this song to any writer, editor, linguist, or other vocabulary fan, and you are likely to hear cries of derision. That’s because most of the situations Alanis stated in her awesome nineties pop song were not actually ironic. Let’s tick them off:

“It’s like rain on your wedding day.” — Ironic? No.
“It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take.” — Ironic? No.
“It’s meeting the man of my dreams/And then meeting his beautiful wife.” — Ironic? No.

What’s going on here is the tendency to use irony, ironic, and ironically in situations that are merely improbable or sadly coincidental, not ironic. If you’re planning an outdoor wedding in April, then you have to expect that rain is possible. If it rains, that’s not ironic. That’s just an unfortunate coincidence. If you meet a really great guy, and he turns out to be married, that’s not even improbable. If he’s so great, it’s pretty darn likely that someone would want to mate with him. He probably has good genes. It’s definitely not ironic.

Where Grammar Party stands
So what is ironic, then? Remember, ironic means something that is the opposite of what is expected.

A good example of irony is a quote from President Merkin Muffley in the movie Dr. Strangelove. He says, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.” This is ironic because one would expect fighting in a place called the “War Room.”

Also, if your friend and you were looking at a really ugly painting—so ugly that it was voted “the ugliest painting in the history of the world”—and your friend turned to you and said, “That is the most beautiful painting I have ever seen,” then that would be ironic. It’s ironic because your friend’s statement would be the opposite of what you would expect. You would expect him to say, “Yep, that’s an ugly painting.” But he didn’t. There you go. Irony.

If you’re unsure whether a situation is ironic, but yet you have a nagging urge to comment about it, stay on the safe side by saying, “Man, isn’t that improbable?” or “Man, that is such a sad coincidence!” Improbable and coincidence are your friends when ironic isn’t. And, trust me, it wouldn’t be ironic if you used ironic incorrectly. That happens so frequently that it would just be normal.

Need more ironic help?
Is It Ironic? is a website devoted entirely to helping you figure out whether something is indeed ironic. It’s a must-read resource for the ironically challenged.

Word Usage Week
It’s Word Usage Week at Grammar Party. Check back tomorrow for more vocabulary goodness and word nerd controversy.