What Is Irony? And Why Is It So Hard To Explain?

By | March 3, 2017

In my humble opinion, the word ‘irony’ is one of the most misunderstood words in the English language, not just by ESL students but also by native speakers of English. The words irony, ironical, ironic, ironicalness completely confuse native speakers and students alike. Even I’ve had a few problems writing this blog post! This is my 8th revision before I was ready to finally publish!

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The Cambridge Online Dictionary provides the definition “a situation in which something which was intended to have a particular result has the opposite or a very different result”. However, the Oxford Online Dictionary goes a little further: “the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect”, it also adds two more definitions: “a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often wryly amusing as a result” and “(also dramatic or tragic irony) a literary technique, originally used in Greek tragedy, by which the full significance of a character’s words or actions is clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character”.

Our American English speaking counterparts also define irony slightly differently too! The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines irony as the following:

(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“.

(2)(a) – “the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning”.

(2)(b) – “a usually humorous or sardonic literary style or form characterized by irony”.

(3)(a)(1) – “incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result”.

(3)(a)(2) – “an event or result marked by such incongruity”

(3)(b) – “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”.
With three different definitions, it really is easy to see why there is such a misunderstanding on the word irony. I feel that the Merriam-Webster dictionary tries a bit too hard to define this word and goes into too much detail, whereas the Cambridge Dictionary is too simplistic. I think that the Oxford Dictionary keeps it simple enough to understand and broad enough to incorporate it’s different uses.
Therefore, it’s a difficult word to understand and explain because of the varying definitions that we’re provided with. One of the most famous examples of misunderstanding the word irony must come from a woman who decided to write a song about it! Alanis Morissette, seems to have a terrible idea of what irony means. In her very popular song Ironic (which apart from the poor understanding of irony, is a pretty good song), she makes numerous examples of irony. Let’s go through a few of them now and she how she did!

It’s like rain on your wedding day

No it’s not. Not unless you arranged your wedding day in the driest area on earth for the specific purpose of avoiding rain. If you didn’t do that, it’s just bad luck. Sorry.

A traffic jam when you’re already late

Again, bad luck I’m afraid. In British English we have a great term for this and it’s called Sod’s Law which means what can go wrong, will go wrong!

A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break

Sorry, you’re smoking in the wrong place. Go and smoke some place else.

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

I’m going to say that you probably should have bought a few more knives. Maybe if you were in a knife factory and now going to give a presentation to a prospective buyer of knives and need a knife for your presentation and you could only find spoons, that may well be ironic.

Granted, I haven’t gone through the entire song, but the other lyrics don’t fare much better.

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So what are some examples of irony?

The titanic being labelled as the unsinkable ship and it skins on it’s maiden voyage.

A police officer responsible for issuing speeding tickets gets his driving license revoked for speeding.

A person who claims to be a vegetarian and not eat meat but actually eats a pepperoni pizza.