For your consideration - Thom Barker

For your consideration - Thom Barker

Isn’t it ironic? No, it’s not

Thom laments that a powerful word is being watered down by common usage

I wouldn’t be an editor if I didn’t have language pet peeves.

Or is it, I have language pet peeves because I’m an editor?

Probably a little bit of both.

In any event, one of my big ones is that very few people actually know how to use the word irony, either in the literary or situational sense.

First, the definition (of situational irony): A state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result.

For example, the Alanis Morrisette song “Ironic” does not contain a single example of either literary or situational irony.

Now, that is ironic, and very amusing, especially in the hands of Irish comedian Ed Byrne who, in 1999, slagged Alanis and the song in a roughly five-minute stand-up routine that was hilarious if a little bit cruel.

But I am not here to slag Alanis, that has been thoroughly done time and again. In fact, if we’re being generous, perhaps we can give her the benefit of the doubt that she knew exactly what she was doing.

After all, the lyric, “Isn’t it ironic?” is followed up by a kind of cheeky, “Don’t you think?” as if she is suggesting that maybe the listener doesn’t get that it isn’t.

And most people don’t. The vast majority of the time when people say something is ironic, it is simply coincidental or unfortunate.

Ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife? Not ironic, unless, as the blogger Brian Clark pointed out, you’re in the employee break room of a Henkels knife factory.

Here’s the problem, though. So far, lexicographers, those erstwhile keepers of the language who compile our dictionaries, have resisted adding the definitions of coincidental and unfortunate for irony.

They will eventually, though. As dictionary.com explains: “The work of lexicography is descriptive, which means that lexicographers look at how language is actually being used and we document that usage.”

I think that will be a shame. The power of this word is just how specific it is.

There is no synonym for the word ironic. There is no other way in English to describe a situation contrary to what one expects.

If it becomes accepted that ironic means coincidental and/or unfortunate, it loses its power.

Wouldn’t that be ironic?

No, it wouldn’t.