I have my fair share of irrational fears (second-hand smoke, getting snatched while in Las Vegas #toomuchCSI, taffeta), but nothing quite undoes me like my fear of the irony police. You know who I mean: the people that emerge out of the woodwork the minute you say (or even think) “ironically,” or “the irony is” and pompously inform you that no, in fact, whatever it is you are talking about is not irony.
I fear them with a sort of unmitigated paranoia; glancing over my shoulder whenever I accidentally utter the words “ironically.” I add any number of disclaimers whenever I can—”ironically, maybe” or “the irony is (i think)” or #ironymaybe—for fear these zealous semanticists will tar and feather me, publicly decrying my opinion, distracting attention from my main point. And otherwise just humiliating me in front of the masses of people who obviously know something I do not.
I suspect most of these irony policemen were born right around the time when Alanis Morissette’s song Ironic aired—no, let me correct that. They were born shortly after her song aired, when a handful of music critics came forward, decrying the irony in her song. It was not ironic at all, these critics claimed; it was just a lot of bad luck. And for some reason, half of the English-speaking world jumped on that bandwagon. Overeager to prove a literary prowess they did not really possess, they leapt at every chance to show that they understood what irony is not.
The irony is, or it might be, that I ought to understand irony a lot better than I do. I have 2 degrees in English, both of them heavily emphasizing Shakespeare (who, I understand, did understand irony). I expect that it’s because of said degrees that I find myself often (no, really: often) being asked about irony. “Is it really irony,” someone will say smugly, “I hate it when people misclassify irony.” And then I wait for it. Because it inevitably comes: “Like that old Alanis Morissette song, you know? That’s not even irony!” I nod and smile and announce that I don’t understand irony. If I’m feeling particularly petty, I ask if they can explain it to me. So far, no one’s been able to. Maybe that’s the real irony. Or it might be. I would know if I understood irony, but as stated, I really don’t. In fact, I have some suspicions that bits of Morissette’s song are in fact ironic. Rain on your wedding day, in and of itself is just bad weather, sure; but coupled with the expectation of sunshine and perfection—surely we can call that a kind of situational irony?
For the record, and in case you, too, are afraid of the irony police and want some kind of ammunition against their madness: Merriam-Webster acknowledges various kinds of irony; here’s three of the most pertinent definitions. First seems to be the purest definition of irony: “the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning.” Then there is situational irony, an “incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result”. And finally: “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.“
In addition to my Baker’s Dozen project, I’ve made a list of things I’d like to learn to understand. Irony is now on that list. So is economics. (I was tempted to also add the rule of off-sides, but I felt like maybe I should keep things in a Remotely Realistic Realm.)