Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Are you sure “irony” doesn’t mean “coincidental?”

From this article: Dictionary editors say this is the most misused word in the English language —

A traffic jam when you’re already late.

A free ride when you’ve already paid.

The fact that the King James Bible is the most shoplifted book in the United States.

One of these three things is an example of irony—the reversal of what is expected or intended. The other two (no offense to Alanis Morissette) are not. The difference between them may be one of the most rage-inducing linguistic misunderstandings you’re likely to read about on the Internet or hear about from the determined grammar nerds in your life. ‘Ironic’ does not, technically, mean ‘unfortunate,’ ‘interesting,’ or ‘coincidental,’ despite these terms often being used interchangeably. And that frequent misuse has not escaped linguists; according to the editors at Dictionary.com, ‘We submit that ironic might be the most abused word in the English language.’

Now, I am not going to say that the dictionary crowd is wrong. It’s fine with me to have a word that is reserved for “things that are the opposite of what you might expect.” But I wonder whether it might be time, if the word “irony” is used to mean “coincidental” or “unfortunate” far more often than it is used to mean “thing that is the opposite of what was expected,” to rewrite the dictionaries and let it go.

It’s like insisting that “inflammable” means “can’t catch fire” instead of “totally likely to burst into flames, so watch out.” Maybe the word used to mean the former, briefly, but now it means the latter.  In the same way, perhaps “irony” used to mean “irony” but now it means “coincidental.”

Having said that, what about a different use of the word “ironic” — the one where it’s used as a synonym for “sarcastic.” Steven Brust frequently uses the words “ironic” or “irony” in this way, for example.

Now, Google tells me that sarcasm means “the use of irony to mock or convey contempt.”

That’s all very well, and it does relate the meaning of the two words, but it’s certainly at best an incomplete definition.

How about when you say, “Oh, yeah, that’s great”  to mean the opposite? I bet I could sit here and come up with a hundred sarcastic phrases that have nothing to do with conveying contempt or scorn and still have plenty of time to take the dogs out for a run this afternoon. Let’s see if there’s a more inclusive definition around somewhere that takes in this obviously non-contemptuous use of sarcasm …

The Cambridge English Dictionary says:

the use of remarks that clearly mean the opposite of what they say, made in orderto hurt someone’s feelings or to criticize something in a humorous way.

Well, that’s a little better, especially if you take “criticize something in a humorous way” as entirely separate from “remarks made in order to hurt someone’s feelings.” But then I would have listed these two meanings separately rather than in one sentence.

If “sarcasm” is in fact defined as always meant to wound someone or to convey contempt, then Brust is practically the only writer I can think of who is using “ironic” correctly for things everyone else calls “sarcastic.” But then “ironic” completely loses the expectation component of its definition and merely denotes “opposite meaning of my words.”

Also, when Murderbot says of ART, “Just imagine everything it says in the most sarcastic tone possible,” the reader is not at all supposed to think that ART is contemptuous of Murderbot. Right? It may be pointing out that it thinks Murderbot is behaving in a ridiculous way, but that’s not the same thing.

All right, that’s enough rambling about irony and sarcasm. I will just end by asking:  do you feel it’s time to give up on the former meaning of irony? And also, what would you say is a better definition of sarcasm?

How about: Sarcasm is the use of tone to convey that you mean the opposite of what you are saying, or to convey the absurdity of a situation.  In written language, the reader is supposed to imagine the correct tone. 

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7 Comments Are you sure “irony” doesn’t mean “coincidental?”

  1. Rachel

    Robert — I kind of thought “inflammable” had been misunderstood and thus misapplied and then redefined as “flammable.” But according to your link, both words meant the same thing from the start! Huh.

    Either way, I do think it’s sensible to stick to “nonflammable” to mean “can’t catch fire.” … at least that’s better than “unflammable.”

  2. Megan

    If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend watching the Weird Al Yankovic video “Word Crimes” on YouTube. “Irony is not coincidence” is one of the lines, and the illustrations for the song make it twice as funny.

  3. Allan Shampine

    I have read that flammable and inflammable have different linguistic roots – one from French and one from Anglo-Saxon? That the roots are basically inflamed in an emotional sense for one and a physical sense for the other, but that yes, in English they basically mean the same thing.

    More generally, as a teen I was quite concerned about “proper” English. As a person who has not been a teen for decades, I now find it interesting to watch how usage changes. Indeed, I love how terminology veers far from its sources. We “record” things (my kids get the reference because of the comeback of LPs, which itself is pretty wild). I’m “blown away” (which, historically, meant being strapped across the muzzle of a cannon and executed).

  4. Rachel

    I will never think about “blown away” the same way again.

    I still say “tape” and “video” sometimes before I catch myself. I have to think for a second before I remember the things that movies are recorded on are called DVDs.

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