How many words exist in the English language? 300,000? 500,000? I don’t know, but I’m sure most of us use only a fraction of those words on a regular basis. Many of them we probably couldn’t give a good definition to, let alone explain how to use them in a sentence. Of the words I use, there’s one word–irony, or its adjective form, ironic–which has bothered me for years. I use it, as do many of us, but I can’t give a good definition, and I’m not sure I should even be writing this blog. The main problem I’ve run up against is that the dictionaries and encyclopedias don’t give a good working definition either, and I’ve been forced to try it on my own.
I’ve consulted several dictionaries and encyclopedias. Not an exhaustive search by any means, but enough to realize that they all say approximately the same thing, that irony is “the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning,” (Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary ) or “a state of affairs or events that is the reverse of what was to be expected: a result opposite to and as if in mockery of the appropriate result (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged ).
(Let me be clear, I’m not talking about dramatic irony or Socratic irony, which are limited forms. I confine myself here to the irony that arises occasionally out of the incidents of everyday existence.)
These definitions of irony are close, but in my experience, there’s more to irony than simply the reverse of what was expected, or what might have been expected, or what is to be expected. As far as I’m concerned, that doesn’t cut the mustard. Irony is a subtle–very subtle–play on a situation, a play that almost defies definition. For example, The World Book Encyclopedia (2007) uses the example of a soldier returning from combat to a party given by his friends. But the soldier is killed in an accident on his way home to the United States. Granted, a contrast does exist between what was expected and what actually occurred, but this isn’t irony. Tragedy, yes; irony, no. The situation would be ironic if the soldier, after dodging IED’s in Iraq or Afghanistan for two years or more, is killed by an IED on the highway from the airport to his friend’s house. Again, there is the pulse of the unexpected, yet there is a subtlety that pervades the situation. The irony is not simply that the soldier is killed, and it is not simply that the soldier is killed by an IED, it is that the IED is in the United States where IED’s are vastly uncommon.
The New Encyclopedia Britannica (2002) did a reasonably good job of getting to the heart of the definition. Verbal irony, it said, “expresses a controlled pathos without sentimentality.” Webster’s New Universal Unabridged did a somewhat better job, stating that irony “stress[es] the paradoxical nature of reality, or the contrast between an ideal and an actual condition or set of circumstances … frequently in such a way as to stress the absurdity present in the contradictions between substance and form.” I like that “absurdity.” Irony is absurd, yet it is, at the same time, subtle.
Irony is frequently categorized with words such as sarcasm, satire, or wit, with which it shares very little. When someone says, “Beautiful weather, isn’t it?” during a thunderstorm or a hurricane or a blizzard, they aren’t being ironic, they’re being sarcastic.
I’m afraid I haven’t really captured the essence of the definition of irony very well here. As a pun is a play on words, irony is a play on a situation. Even that’s not a very good metaphor, but the play on the situation requires a juxtaposition of events which combine to produce an outcome in which two events are paired, not because they’re unexpected or unrelated, but to the contrary, because, like the soldier and the IED, they are so closely related.
Confused? I am.