Is it ironic?
October 3, 2012 4:18 PM   Subscribe

Irony is difficult to understand, and it's driving me nuts. Please tell me which of the following situations is ironic (and why):

1. A serial killer is himself the victim of another serial killer.
2. Someone whose family was killed by a serial killer himself becomes a serial killer.
3. A kidnapper is kidnapped.
4. A kidnappee joins his kidnapper in kidnapping others.
5. An outlaw, through whatever circumstances, ends up helping uphold the law.
6. A lawman, though initially sincere in his efforts to uphold the law, eventually ends up a criminal.
7. A man who uses people and throws them away when he no longer needs them finds himself on the opposite end of this sort of relationship.
8. A man who is used and thrown away by another party eventually becomes the sort of person who would use and throw away others.

posted by KChasm to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You are being ironic when you say the opposite of what you mean ("Wow that sure was a good presidential debate! I was on the edge of my seat the whole time!" ... when you actually mean it was boring.) However, people use "irony" in all sorts of ways and all your examples are good candidates.
posted by fritley at 4:25 PM on October 3, 2012

I think 5 is the only one that's ironic. The definition I've heard is "the opposite of what is expected to happen". Looking at your tags, I would say that "coincidence" is a related idea, but that "fate" is very different.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 4:25 PM on October 3, 2012

5 (if in commission of the crime) and 6 (if it happens while he's trying to uphold the law) are ironic.

George Carlin has you covered.
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 4:31 PM on October 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

There are different kinds of irony. What you are speaking of is situational irony. It is when chance conspires to produce a result that is unexpected to the point of being almost the opposite of what you'd expect. I do not believe this kind of irony can be on purpose. (So, the people who make changes in their lives through their own will aren't being ironic, they are just making changes. Those changes might seem ironic from the point of view of an observer.)


1. Yes.
2. No.
3. Yes.
4. No.
5. Maybe.
6. No.
7. Yes.
8. No.
posted by gjc at 4:34 PM on October 3, 2012 [10 favorites]

I would think only 5 is ironic. If you haven't seen it, there is a decent Wikipedia article on irony which describes the different types of irony and gives examples.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 4:34 PM on October 3, 2012

A definition:

"Happening in the opposite way to what is expected, thus typically causing wry amusement."

By that definition, all of these situations could be considered ironic.
posted by Dansaman at 4:36 PM on October 3, 2012

You should consider that there are two fundamentally different usages of the word irony: 1) any communication where you actually say one thing but intend that your audience understand you to be saying something else, e.g. through sarcasm, understatement, allegory, or even implication or teasing; and 2) any situation where the universe seems to conspire to yield perverse, unexpected, or highly coincidental outcomes relative to what we understand things to essentially be.

In the first sense, none of your examples are ironic. In the latter, they all are.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 4:37 PM on October 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Why do you want to know? What's the context? Where do these scenarios come from?

To me, situational irony, at its core, is what happens when an action or person with a certain quality leads to some outcome with the opposite quality. By "outcome," I mean either a change in circumstances or a change in something about a person. (This is close to i_am_a_fiesta's definition.)

Irony is often incorrectly described as if it just meant any unexpected event. That definition is incomplete because it's missing the element of opposite-ness.

I refer to "situational irony" because that's clearly what you're asking about. For instance, your question doesn't bring up verbal irony, which is what the first comment is talking about. They're two different things. The word "irony" is appropriate to describe either one.

I would want to know more details about all your scenarios before definitively saying whether they're ironic. They all have the potential to be ironic. But it's unclear how much of a connection there is between one thing and another. For instance, if you kidnap someone, and then years later you happen to be kidnapped, that doesn't strike me as a very good example of irony. On the other hand, if you're kidnapping someone, but in the process of doing so, you go down a path where someone kidnaps you and your victim goes free, that would be much more ironic.
posted by John Cohen at 4:37 PM on October 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

gjc gives a good answer, though I disagree on #7 since I think a person who is cruel to others can reasonably expect to have someone be cruel to him at some point. That's just kind of how life goes. and being emotionally cruel doesn't give you any particular "immunity" to cruelty, while I'd think a kidnapper would be unlikely to be kidnapped b/c he probably carries weapons, knows tricks of the trade, is physically strong, etc. Also he probably lacks assets to be ransomed for.

It's all subjective, though. In general people err on the side of thinking things aren't ironic when they actually are; this went way up after an "English professor" published a "clever" analysis of an Alanis Morissette song. (many of the things in that song are obviously ironic, despite what that meme says)
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:38 PM on October 3, 2012

To spin further on these two concepts, situational irony, 'irony of fate,' needs to be pointed out by others, interpreted, as it were, after the fact (which typically isn't 'ironical' in and of itself).
Acting ironically, however, is based on individual intent before anything happens.

Situational irony is often actually rather lame. If we take your fourth example, "a kidnappee joins his kidnapper in kidnapping others," without having a clue about the circumstances, it should perhaps simply be called "absurd behavior" or something similar.

That is, unless it's all a deliberate act of irony by the kidnapee (as opposed to, say, a move to save his skin, or to get rich, or something). It could be the kidnapee's choice to ironically point out something about the situation, to the world, or to the kidnapper. But to see what's going on, we do need context.

True situational irony requires that someone who knows about context analyzes the event and creates something of a punchline; the irony of the event needs to be pointed out somehow. Take this example:

A farmer is known for beating his kids on a regular basis. One day he topples over with his tractor and looses his right arm. The neighbors say: 'such irony, he lost the arm with which he used to beat his kids.'

It's actually just coincidence. Only the analysis, the intentional (or even malicious) sorting together of some selected facts by those who evaluate the event makes it into irony.

All that said, terms like 'sarcasm' or 'irony' are often used sloppily, and that, I agree, can drive you nuts.

[An example of such a sloppy application of the word would be: "terms like 'sarcasm' or 'irony' are often used sloppily, and that, ironically, can drive you nuts." Don't tell me you haven't seen things like this]
posted by Namlit at 5:29 PM on October 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

When I taught irony to my writing students, I'd have them read O. Henry's The Cop and the Anthem.

It's chockablock with situational irony (which is what most of your examples are), verbal irony (understatement, hyperbole, sarcasm), and dramatic irony (the audience knows more than the characters do).

Of your examples, only #5 really fits, because of the surprise, and because the criminal, unlike the other types you note, comes to the reversal by remaining true to type.

So, for the lawman in #6, it depends on how and why he becomes a criminal. Does upholding the law somehow require him to break it? That would be ironic.

Or #3 -- If the kidnapping is presented in such a way that the crime requires the kidnapper to give up his own freedom (guarding the victim, hiding out from the law, etc), as if kidnapped by the kidnapping, that'd be ironic.
posted by notyou at 6:08 PM on October 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Lots of good answers here, but let's go through this, one by one:

1) There's no reason or expectation that a serial killer can't become a victim him/herself. I mean, why not?
2) Even less of a reason
3) Same - why can't a kidnapper be kidnapped? Is there some kind of an international "honour among kidnappers" code?
4) This is un-ironic to the point where there's a scientific name for it: Stockholm syndrome.
5) As others have said, this may be the only truly ironic situation - you expect the outlaw to break the law, not help to uphold it.
6) The "though initially..." qualifier kind of weakens this one - it's like it was inevitable, for one reason or another, hence: not ironic.
7) Same as 1-3 -- why wouldn't this be a possibility? "Taste of one's own medicine" isn't ironic.
8) Again, this is almost expected - kind of like the abused becoming abusers themselves.
posted by war wrath of wraith at 6:43 PM on October 3, 2012

Irony is a very subtle thing hat one needs to discern rather than identify. It's also crucial that irony isn't necessarily opposite, despite some comments to the, um, contrary. Irony simply means that in the phrase our situation, there is some distance, usually through contradiction (which is not quite an opposite) from the literal or intended meaning. Think about scare quotes: so you want to know about "irony", eh? I'm using the word "irony" with a level of irony, but I obviously don't mean the opposite of irony (following?). Scare quotes almost always signal difference from common, literal usage of a word--hen e, ironic.

From your examples, they could all be ironic depending on the context. They could also all not be ironic. The key is contradiction and distance from literal meaning. Not coincidence.
posted by Catchfire at 8:04 PM on October 3, 2012

Think of "dramatic irony". Irony is a literary effect. A situation is ironic if the audience knows more than the characters. The term is used more generally (and sort of incorrectly) to refer to any mismatch between audience knowledge and speaker's knowledge. Hence, sarcastic comments are a form of irony.
posted by deathpanels at 9:40 PM on October 3, 2012

Also see what the oatmeal has to say about irony:
posted by foxjacket at 6:16 AM on October 4, 2012

4) This is un-ironic to the point where there's a scientific name for it: Stockholm syndrome.

No, this is totally missing the point. Stockholm Syndrome itself is highly ironic. This is why I emphasized that the key element is opposite-ness, not surprise or rarity.
posted by John Cohen at 6:59 AM on October 4, 2012

I think it was in an episode of "my so-called life" or some other 90s era dramady that one character defined irony in terms along the lines of "the quality of weirdness in a situation" which I thought was insightful. In order for it to be ironic, it has to be funny in that sort of dry/ understated way, or in other words, it has to be slightly weird.

Your examples are kind of vague, but many of them could come about in a causally understandable or expected way (like the person whose family is killed is damaged or wants revenge, etc). Some of them could also just be sort of random. You'd probably want more details to be sure, but I think the serial killer who is killed by another serial killer could die thinking "well, this is ironic."
posted by mdn at 9:30 PM on October 4, 2012

George Carlin says...

"Irony deals with opposites; it has nothing to do with coincidence. If two baseball players from the same hometown, on different teams, receive the same uniform number, it is not ironic. It is a coincidence. If Barry Bonds attains lifetime statistics identical to his father's, it will not be ironic. It will be a coincidence.

Irony is 'a state of affairs that is the reverse of what was to be expected; a result opposite to and in mockery of the appropriate result.' For instance:

A diabetic, on his way to buy insulin, is killed by a runaway truck. He is the victim of an accident. If the truck was delivering sugar, he is the victim of an oddly poetic coincidence. But if the truck was delivering insulin, ah! Then he is the victim of an irony."
posted by illenion at 9:00 AM on October 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

A rumination of my own: someone who sets out to "do good" but "does evil" (case 6) seems not irony but tragedy.

On the other hand, someone who sets out to "do evil" but "does good" (case 5) seems ironic.

Maybe I'm conditioned by years of Superman winking at the reader while saying, "Ironic, eh?", but perhaps irony is just tragedy deprived of harm (to the reader).
posted by SPrintF at 3:38 PM on October 6, 2012

« Older Can a diaper pail not stink?   |   How much would a person weigh who would be unable... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.