Is it ironic?
June 14, 2007 6:53 AM   Subscribe

My daughter says she is having trouble grasping the concept of irony, so I promised to come up with some examples.

First I told her that irony is a bitter twist of fate-- things turn out differently than what you would expect. Rain on your wedding day is just an aggrevation not irony because weather is always variable, however wearing a wedding dress made out of tissue paper because you are going to be married in Arizona in the middle of a draught and then it rains for the first time in a year-- that would be ironic.

I also explained that irony can be saying the opposite of what you mean; sarcasm is usually ironic. "Oh what nice manners," when someone flips you the bird is not really praising their manners.

I've steered her to the short stories of O. Henry and Guy de Maupassant, however I also want several short anecdotes to illustrate irony. What example would you give to a 14 year old girl?
posted by Secret Life of Gravy to Writing & Language (57 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
Beethoven was deaf.
posted by four panels at 7:00 AM on June 14, 2007




My brother, who was just accepted to Antioch College, happened to be driving through the town in which Antioch resides when the story broke on NPR. This was on a cross-country drive from Philly to Missouri.

(Damn, I've got more... but, I've also gotta be at work.)
posted by Netzapper at 7:01 AM on June 14, 2007


A city planner who specializes in traffic flow is stuck in traffic on the way to a party celebrating how successful his new plan was?
posted by starman at 7:01 AM on June 14, 2007


The final irony
posted by Rhomboid at 7:01 AM on June 14, 2007 [3 favorites]


Ha, I didn't even see this one from gregvr's link:

A traffic jam when you're already late... to receive an award from the Municipal Planning Board for reducing the city's automobile congestion 80 percent.

posted by starman at 7:03 AM on June 14, 2007


Nice gregvr! My comment was going to be: just don't play Alanis Morissette's song "Ironic," for her. She will never understand.

I also like the Troy-Dyer-in-Reality-Bites definition:

"Its when the actual meaning is the complete opposite from the literal meaning."

Not an example, I know, but maybe helpful nonetheless.
posted by sneakin at 7:06 AM on June 14, 2007


In his book, Brain Droppings, George Carlin wrote a humorous explanation of irony that might be useful:

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:

If 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.

If a Kurd, after surviving bloody battle with Saddam Hussein’s army and a long, difficult escape through the mountains, is crushed and killed by a parachute drop of humanitarian aid, that, my friend, is irony writ large.

Darryl Stingley, the pro football player, was paralyzed after a brutal hit by Jack Tatum. Now Darryl Stingley’s son plays football, and if the son should become paralyzed while playing, it will not be ironic. It will be coincidental. If Darryl Stingley’s son paralyzes someone else, that will be closer to ironic. If he paralyzes Jack Tatum’s son that will be precisely ironic.
posted by rentalkarma at 7:06 AM on June 14, 2007 [18 favorites]


Kudos to gregvr for the corrected Alanis Morissette lyrics. The song got all that airplay and perpetuated a lot of stuff as irony that in actuality was just suckitude. I wonder if that song contributed to people having trouble with the concept.
posted by rolypolyman at 7:06 AM on June 14, 2007


The drummer for ZZ Top, who is the only member to not have a beard, is named Frank Beard.
posted by fallenposters at 7:07 AM on June 14, 2007 [5 favorites]


My brother, who was just accepted to Antioch College, happened to be driving through the town in which Antioch resides when the story broke on NPR

The story? Am I missing some big story about Antioch College?
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:10 AM on June 14, 2007


The story? Am I missing some big story about Antioch College?

Yes. It's closing.
posted by thejanna at 7:17 AM on June 14, 2007


Apparently they're closing.
posted by jourman2 at 7:18 AM on June 14, 2007


There is also dramatic irony, where the audience is aware of something the characters are not. (You see it a lot in Shakespeare and Greek tragedies and stuff.)
posted by chunking express at 7:26 AM on June 14, 2007


There are different types of irony - most of these answers have dealt with situational irony. The Wikipedia article has some great examples. It also has a great explanation about the difference between sarcasm and verbal irony.
posted by muddgirl at 7:31 AM on June 14, 2007


I was told a good example of irony was 'Firehouse burns down'.

Rentalkarma's answer reminds me of what I call 'Sports Irony'- when a sportscaster says 'you know, it's ironic that...', it's going to be some stupid coincidence.
posted by MtDewd at 7:46 AM on June 14, 2007


Netzapper's story is an example of coincidence, but it's precisely the kind of coincidence people pass off as being "ironic." Bad example, I think.
posted by piratebowling at 7:48 AM on June 14, 2007


Sorry, to be more helpful, let me add an example: being honored by an institution that had previously kicked you out, especially if you are being honored for the "rebellious spirit" or "trailblazing attitude" that got you kicked out in the first place.
posted by piratebowling at 7:50 AM on June 14, 2007


Though Wikipedia claims it's a myth, the story often told about Dr. Charles R Drew, the African American inventor of the blood transfusion, who is usually said to have died of blood loss because the closest hospital admitted whites only.

Also, for a good current event story, the fact that the guy who has TB in Colorado has a father who works on TB at the CDC.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 8:13 AM on June 14, 2007


There is a lengthy rant about irony in the preface to Dave Eggers' book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. However, it may only serve to confuse her because I remember it being ... loquacious.
posted by thehmmhmm at 8:52 AM on June 14, 2007


Irony comes from the reversal of expectations (as rentalkarma notes). The idea of reversal is critical.

The TB guy having a father (or father-in-law) as a TB specialist is not ironic - it is a coincidence. Rentalkarma's examples are excellent.
posted by taliaferro at 8:54 AM on June 14, 2007




One could argue that a 14 year old girl or our times unclear on the concept of irony is the ultimate irony. Maybe she doesn't see it as an abstraction, but she's steeped in it in every waking moment as a member of her generational culture. Maybe you should watch some of her favorite shows or listen to some of her favorite music with her and point out the moments when sincerity is being parodied, one way of identifying irony.

Or play Bush's speech today to the constrution lobbyists, where he argued that good English skills unlocked the doors to the promised land of the American dream. Then play him speaking off script.
posted by spitbull at 9:17 AM on June 14, 2007


I wonder if your daughter isn't confused less about the on-paper definition, which is adequately explained above, and more about how that then relates to the way "irony" is used in popular culture:

There's a line in Dispatches, something about how the military spokesman - "a known ironist" - had scrawled "WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN" across the binder of official US Army statements he was expected to present to the press.

That attitude, the kind of "Oh, this is terrible and dismaying and possibly wrong... and also, I see an opportunity for hilarity" attitude, is much closer to how I experience the concept of irony in daily life. The kind of mathematically-accurate examples of an abusive pig farmer who is, in a bizarre twist of fate, killed by a crate of bacon-flavored tofu plummeting from 20,000 feet, don't seem to me to have much relation to how irony is employed by young people today: that is, a kind of general willingness to be wearily amused by the ridiculousness of life.

Um, which I'm sure helps your daughter NOT AT ALL. Heh.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 9:30 AM on June 14, 2007


Shannon Wheeler has a keen sense of irony.
posted by plokent at 9:33 AM on June 14, 2007


I always think of the ultimate example as that Simpsons treehouse of horror episode where Homer's toaster creates alternate realities.

Finally in one reality, the family is wealthy and everything is perfect. He requests a donut and Marge replies, "What's a donut?" Homer runs screaming to hit the toaster button and propel him to a different reality.

Seconds later, Marge remarks that it's raining, and we see donuts falling out of the sky.
posted by peep at 9:40 AM on June 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


Drew Curtis' FARK.com features an IRONIC headline story tag.
posted by plokent at 9:42 AM on June 14, 2007


I find it ironic that the smallest cup at starbucks is called a tall.
posted by krautland at 9:53 AM on June 14, 2007


Sheesh, don't you people know that irony died on September 11th?
posted by lovejones at 9:59 AM on June 14, 2007


She may be familiar with that stupid "Ironic" song by Alanis Morissette. One of the lines is It's a traffic jam when you're already late. That, I don't think is ironic.
Being stuck in rush hour when you're on your way to speak at a symposium about traffic congestion.....now that is ironic.
posted by fiTs at 9:59 AM on June 14, 2007


it is ironic the number of prople who use the word irony incorrectly
posted by jannw at 10:11 AM on June 14, 2007


Most important fact about irony is most people use the word incorrectly. You shouldn't bother to correct them unless it's on an internet forum in which case you should immediately don your flaming hat and get to work.
posted by chairface at 10:31 AM on June 14, 2007


Call me dense, but I don't get how irony died on September 11. Was it at work in the E ring of the Pentagon at the time?
posted by rlk at 10:50 AM on June 14, 2007


can someone explain to me the "mountain dew bottle on a driving school car" photo? is there some tv commercial that involves a similar situation?
posted by chr1sb0y at 11:03 AM on June 14, 2007


Okay, maybe this is just me (I have never understood irony, I admit!), but I'm not sure how some of these examples fit the definitions being given. For example:

If 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.

How is that a reversal of expectations? I don't think anyone would say that they expect someone getting run over to be run over by any particular type of vehicle on any particular type of mission. Seems to me this is just extended coincidence mixed with shitty luck. The same with the paralyzed fotball platyer example. No?

Now, the example about getting stuck in traffic on your way to get an award for reducing traffic, or "firehouse burns down," those make a little more sense. But am I missing something with the other two examples?
posted by marginaliana at 11:10 AM on June 14, 2007


The insulin was supposed to help him, but he got killed by it. That's reversal.
posted by demiurge at 11:16 AM on June 14, 2007


Now, the example about getting stuck in traffic on your way to get an award for reducing traffic, or "firehouse burns down," those make a little more sense. But am I missing something with the other two examples?


Arrgh. Those are still coincidences. Funny coincidences, yes, but coincidences, nonetheless. Adding more detail to "a traffic jam/when you're already late" doesn't make it any more ironic, just (possibly) more humorous.

The Glosarry of Literary Terms has a good definition, with examples.
posted by girlbowler at 11:23 AM on June 14, 2007


I remember when I started university we were made to sign an anti-plagiarism declaration. In duplicate.
posted by greytape at 11:42 AM on June 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


Irony is the instructor burning down the building during a fire safety seminar. Irony is shooting yourself in the foot during a gun safety lecture. Irony is an event occurring that's exactly contrary to the intent.
posted by headspace at 12:04 PM on June 14, 2007


Oh, hey demiurge, that actually makes sense, thank you! I am so very irony challenged.

girlbowler, isn't the point of the traffic jam example not that you're already late, but that you would expect there to be not much traffic, given that you've just won an award for reducing it? And the example of cosmic irony in your link is the exact sort of thing that has me scratching my head - Iago has plans for what the handkerchief is going to get him. Those plans come back to bite him in the ass. Is that irony, or just plot? I suppose it's a reversal of expectation, but if so, aren't most of the things we plan on a daily basis ironic? I mean, lots of unexpected things come back to bite me in the ass. I think what I don't get is the point at which something passes over from bad coincidence into irony.
posted by marginaliana at 12:07 PM on June 14, 2007


I remember the example my mother used when I asked about it:

'Poison someone's wine and then raise your (unpoisoned) glass and say, "To your health." That's ironic. That's also illegal, so don't do it.'
posted by cobaltnine at 12:22 PM on June 14, 2007


Or the family that fled NYC after Sept. 11, 2001 for a "safe" life in suburban Colorado, only to be crushed (all four of them) by a falling steel girder when they drove under a bridge construction site in their nice safe minivan.
posted by spitbull at 1:16 PM on June 14, 2007


Irony is when the founder of the NRA gets shot. Or the fire station burns down.

On the 'traffic' line, it's when the Traffic Safety Awareness campaign causes horrible accidents.
posted by Lady Li at 2:07 PM on June 14, 2007


Read this definition a year or two ago, on this site I think...

Irony is when I poke myself in the eye while putting on safety glasses.

Yes, like most queries these days, it's been discussed already.
posted by kc0dxh at 2:33 PM on June 14, 2007


After part of the first major battle of the Civil War took place on Wilmer McLean's farm, he moved 120 miles south to a small rural town to be closer to his business interests and further from the fighting.

The town was Appomattox Court House, and Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at McLean's parlor.

(McLean supposedly said, "the war began in my dining room and ended in my parlor," but it began several months before Bull Run and ended several months after Lee's surrender.)
posted by kirkaracha at 2:47 PM on June 14, 2007


This isn't ironic; it's just weird. I have thought for 30+ years that Lee surrendered in the court house in the town of Appomattox. And only now I come to find out it was town that was called the whole of Appomattox Court House; and this memory is a little hazy but I swear when I was in sixth grade or whatever it was thinking the textbook and the teacher were being a little anal to be mentioning the bloody court house.
posted by bukvich at 3:16 PM on June 14, 2007


Blackadder: Baldrick, have you no idea what irony is?

Baldrick: Yes, it's like goldy and bronzy only it's made out of iron.
posted by pupdog at 3:21 PM on June 14, 2007


I always thought that the Alanis Morissette song was a good example of dramatic irony, because the audience is aware of something the singer isn't, namely that the singer has no idea what "ironic" means.
posted by yarrow at 4:08 PM on June 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


Interesting discussion here. Coming back to the question of what irony means in popular culture, is it reasonable to say it means something like ridiculous? or unfair? ie.

It's ironic that my brother, who runs a telephone company, wasn't able to make a phone call because his mobile phone got cut off..

Isn't really irony, but more ridiculousness, or strange, stupid coincidence?
posted by ranglin at 4:37 PM on June 14, 2007


To build on yarrow's point, the Brits always think that the Americans don't understand irony. They think this was proved by the Alanis Morissette song.

The fact that she was actually born Canadian is ironic. Unless she lost it when she became a naturalised American
posted by TrashyRambo at 7:28 PM on June 14, 2007


I defend the TB story as ironic only because some reports now say that TB guy's dad encouraged him to fly internationally, thus becoming complacent in the (possible) spread of the disease.

My GF chimes in with an example from the film "Fantasia 2000". In it, Donald Duck enacts the story of the ark as Noah and, amongst other animals, herds two ducks on board.

Also, as a follow up on all mentions of Alanis Morisette: perhaps the most interesting point to be made about "Ironic" is that, since none of the verses are about irony, the song as a whole is ironic. (One would expect a song called "Ironic" to be about ironic things)
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 8:36 PM on June 14, 2007


Everyone is missing the modern classic definition from the movie Reality Bites.

Winona Ryder is the hard-charging valedictorian. On a job interview, she is asked to define irony. She sputters that she can't define it, but she's knows it when she sees it.

Later, she complains to Ethan Hawke that her interview was unfair, because they asked her to define irony. Hawke, the ultimate lazy slacker that is going nowhere in life -- Ryder's opposite in other words -- instantly and unsarcastically provides her with the textbook definition of irony, as if it were common knowledge.

There are several ironic nuggets in the entire exchange:

* It is ironic that it is difficult to define irony.
* It is ironic that you will often know it when you see it; that irony often requires an example of itself in order to be defined.
* It is ironic that the smart girl can't define irony and therefore can't get a job she wants.
* It is ironic that the slacker can define irony, but is not seeking a job at all.
* It is ironic that the person that appears most likely to need the definition could've gotten the information from the person that appears least likely to be able to provide it.
* It is ironic that the person that doesn't have the definition needs it.
* It is ironic that the person that has the definition has no use for it.
* It is ironic that the person that doesn't have the definition can't understand how any could be expected to know it.
* It is ironic that the person that has the definition can't understand how anyone could fail to know it.
posted by frogan at 9:52 PM on June 14, 2007




**WARNING ON LAST LINK** There is a disturbing image as the banner on top. It's of a man lying on the ground, apparently shot, clearly wounded. It's not blantantly graphic, but definitely warrants a warning. I don't know how I missed it the first time, and I apologize if anyone was caught offguard by it.
posted by Iamtherealme at 11:29 AM on June 17, 2007


By the way, the ironic suicide referenced above is a myth.
posted by frogan at 1:05 PM on June 17, 2007


I hope nobody thought it was a true story, given the link said it was "a short story" and the first sentence in the link says it was made up by Don Harper Mills.
posted by Iamtherealme at 1:56 PM on June 18, 2007


The juxtaposition of the real and the ideal.
posted by jewzilla at 8:51 AM on June 24, 2007


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